From Hobbiton to Tatooine: Earth Sheltered Homes Make Sense All Over the Universe

Four different hobbit-like houses

Lloyd Alter

After our slideshow, Hobbit Houses We Have Known: A Tour of Underground and Earth-Sheltered Houses, a number of commenters pointed out that we had missed a whole lot of houses. It's true; we were primarily showing projects that, as the title said, we have known. However, it inspired me to go out and find more. Probably the real reason Tolkien put the hobbits in earth-sheltered houses is that he knew them from Ireland and Iceland, two countries where people did it because it was much warmer in the winter. It so happens that it is also much cooler in the summer.

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Iceland Earth Covered Homes

credit: Wikipedia

Building like this in Iceland makes some sense; there are very few indigenous building materials and not much to burn for heat. Earth sheltered houses are extremely warm as the sod is such a good insulator and has great thermal mass. On the other hand, as I learned on a recent trip, Iceland is poorly named, it really should be Waterland. Any earth-sheltered house had better be very carefully sited so that it doesn't fill up with water. They are probably best built into the sides of hills, as they were in Hobbiton.

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Irish Turf Houses

credit: Sly06

Conditions were much the same in Ireland, where turf was both the roof and the fuel. Reading the descriptions of how people lived, these were not comfortable places.

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Matmata, Tunisia (and the Lars House on Tatooine)

credit: Wikipedia

Unlike the Irish and the Icelanders who wanted to keep warm, the Berbers of Tunisia built earth-sheltered houses to keep cool. The thermal mass of the buildings would absorb heat during the day and release it at night, moderating temperature to keep it comfortable all day long. It should look familiar to Star Wars fans; this building was the Lars homestead on Tatooine.

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credit: Basheem

These were not actually built like this, but were carved out of volcanic formations In Kandovan, Iran. About seven hundred years ago, people fleeing the Mongols hid in caves here, and just kept digging out bigger ones, creating multi-storey houses in the volcanic rock. They seem quite cozy. From Zoraoastrian Heritage:

In the area of Kandovan, Sahand's volcanic ash and debris was compressed and shaped by natural forces into cone-shaped pillars containing pockets that became caves. The hardened material of the pillars is strong enough to function as walls and floors of a house while permitting a further shaping of the caves. The material is also an efficient insulator and the troglodyte's [cave dwellers] homes have the reputation of being very energy efficient, remaining cool in summer and warm in winter. The cave homes require minimal supplemental heat during the long cold season, making for comfortable year round habitation.
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Malcolm Wells On Why Hobbit Houses are Green

credit: Malcolm Wells

The late great Malcolm Wells explains why it makes so much sense to build underground; instead of killing nature, you build under and restore it. A lot of modern architects have learned from history, and from Malcolm.

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SuperAdobe by Nder Khalli

credit: Cal-Earth Institute

It may have been one of the inspirations for Iranian-American architect Nader Khalili, whose work was pointed to by a commenter in the last slideshow. He built incredible domed structures out of what he called super-adobe, long fabric tubes filled with sand and reinforced with barbed wire.

Superadobe is an adobe that is stretched from history into the new century. It is like an umbilical cord connecting the traditional with the future adobe world.” –Nader Khalili
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The Earthwood Building School

credit: Rob Roy and Jersey Devil

Other commenters pointed to the work of Rob and Jaki Jay, who run the Earthwood Building School and built the building on the left, and Jersey Devil Design/Build, who built the Hill House in La Honda, California. Nice site.

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Coober Pedy

credit: Wikipedia

In the Australian desert mining town of Coober Pedy, many people escaped the heat by building into hillsides. According to Wikipedia,

The harsh summer desert temperatures mean that many residents prefer to live in caves bored into the hillsides ("dugouts"). A standard three-bedroom cave home with lounge, kitchen, and bathroom can be excavated out of the rock in the hillside for a similar price to building a house on the surface. However, dugouts remain at a constant temperature, while surface buildings need air-conditioning, especially during the summer months, when temperatures often exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

They also have an underground church and jewellery stores. Sort of Hobbiton goes to Oz.

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Veljko Milkovic

credit: Wikipedia

In Serbia, when he is not designing pendulum-powered electric brains, inventor Veljko Milković is building earth sheltered self-heating eco-houses.

Instead of a traditional roof, ecological house has a layer of soil, protecting the house from low winter and high summer temperatures. In addition, walls are protected from erosion. Ecological house does not require deep foundation, large area for heating material, heating installations etc.
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Earth Sheltered Rest Area

credit: Wikipedia

It's not just for houses, either; in Ohio, drivers can stop at an earth sheltered rest area on Interstate 77.

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Gates Residence

credit: Wikipedia

People don't build earth sheltered houses just to save money; Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and James Cutler Architects designed this one for Bill and Melinda Gates. The douglas fir wonder cost $ 63 million to build and looks every bit of it; not much is published but you can admire the guest house at Cutler Anderson's site

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CoFibrex GreenHouse System

credit: Green House Systems

It wouldn't be TreeHugger if we didn't have a prefab, and in fact you can order up a prefabricated earth-sheltered Hobbit House from Colombian company Colfibrex. They well deliver lightweight fiberglass reinforced plastic shells that are bolted together in hours; all you add is dirt and planting. "Advanced engineering, twenty-first century architecture and interior design, with that touch of magic that you wish for." Love the video.

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It's not just for houses

credit: Fernando Castiñeira, Hernan Goldfarb, Alejandro Ispani, Alex Nelken, Javier Maratea, Malena Verni

Most of the projects we have shown here are single family dwellings out in the country; at least Hobbiton was a village. However, TreeHuggers know that if we are going to beat climate change, it takes a city. There are a few designs for underground cities on the boards, including an earthscraper in Mexico city that got a lot of press a couple of years ago. Given that Mexico City is built on a lake, it seemed like it might be a bit damp. I preferred the one shown above,

a new type of building for the contemporary metropolis. Instead of constructing another skyscraper it examines the benefits of an underground complex with a central void that introduces light and ventilation to every space.
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More Modern Versions

credit: clippings

There are lots of modern earth sheltered houses being built all over the world; There are dozens on Pinterest and Clippings that I couldn't find attribution for. Expect another slideshow as I follow down this rabbit hole.