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Underground Construction

By: Jennifer Gray - Updated: 11 Oct 2018 | comments*Discuss
Underground Living Subterranean Homes

Underground construction has been around for thousands of years, mostly developed through mining and more recently through transport, housing and commercial industries. The Channel Tunnel, London Underground, British Library, and various shopping centres are all examples of underground construction.

Underground housing (sometimes called earth sheltered housing) refers specifically to homes that have been built underground, either partially or completely. These subterranean homes have grown increasingly popular over the last thirty years and are an important sector in the green building movement.

Thousands of people in Europe and America live in underground homes. In Russia there is more development below the ground than above it. Countries like Japan and China, where development space is at a premium, are particularly keen to build underground living places. In the UK, the movement is much slower, with less than a hundred underground homes in existence. This is partly due to a misinformed belief that underground homes are dirty, damp, dark, claustrophobic and unstable places to live. But it is also due to a lack of guidance and information about building regulations and specifications, and a lack of knowledge about their potential as a sustainable building practice.

Underground Dwelling Design

To a certain extent the design of an underground home is determined by the conditions of the site. Soil type, topography, precipitation, ground water levels, load-bearing properties, and slope stability all need to be carefully considered. Construction materials need to be waterproof, durable and strong enough to withstand underground pressure (concrete is frequently used). Water is a particular consideration in underground building, and special drainage techniques may need to be implemented around the site, particularly along the roof areas.

There are several methods of building for subterranean living:

  • Constructed Caves - made by tunnelling into the earth. Although popular around the world, this can be an expensive and dangerous procedure.
  • Cut and Cover - also called culvert homes, these are made by assembling precast concrete pipes and containers into the required design of the living space, and then burying them in the ground.
  • Earth Berm - house is first built on flat land or a small hill, and then buried, leaving a wall or roof open for light.
  • Elevational - house is built into the side of a hill with the front of the home left open.
  • Atrium - also called courtyard homes, the rooms are built below the ground around a sunken garden or courtyard that lets light in.
  • PSP - stands for post, shoring and polyethylene. House is built by excavating the ground, sinking in posts, placing shoring (boards) between the posts and the earth, and placing polyethylene plastic sheets (for waterproofing) behind the shoring.
  • Shaft - an ambitious project in Japan called Alice City plans the construction of a wide and deep cylindrical shaft sunk into the earth with a domed skylight covering, and different levels for business and domestic use built around the shaft.
All underground homes need well-designed ventilation systems to control indoor air quality and humidity. Natural daylight design using light atriums, shafts and wells can also be used to improve the quality of underground living.

Advantages of Building Underground

Underground houses have many advantages over conventional housing. Unlike conventional homes, they can be built on steep surfaces and can maximise space in small areas by going below the ground. In addition the materials excavated in construction can be used in the building process.

Underground houses have less surface area so fewer building materials are used, and maintenance costs are lower. They are also wind, fire and earthquake resistant, providing a secure and safe environment in extreme weather.

One of the greatest benefits of underground living is energy efficiency. The earth's subsurface temperature remains stable, so underground dwellings benefit from geothermal mass and heat exchange, staying cool in the summer and warm in the winter. This saves around 80% in energy costs. By incorporating solar design this energy bill can be reduced to zero, providing hot water and heat to the home all year round. An additional benefit of the surrounding earth is noise insulation. Underground homes are exceptionally quiet places to live.

Finally, underground houses blend with the natural landscape, and have minimum impact on the local ecology. This is not only aesthetically pleasing but ensures that the maximum habitat is left alone for wildlife.

Designing Down for a Sustainable Future

Underground construction is not a new industry, but it is often overlooked as a design strategy for sustainable building. A well-designed underground home can be a stylish, comfortable, secure, bright and inspiring place to live. More than that it is an excellent example of the eco-home ideal, demonstrating energy efficiency, low-impact design and harmony with its natural surroundings. With the increasing demand for more development sites and ever-diminishing green spaces, along with the enforcement of stricter regulations for greener homes, building underground seems the obvious way down.

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Is it possible to build an underground home on agricultural land by digging a space for a metal lorry container placing the container in along with water supply and electric. The entrance would be concrete steps down to the entrance with maybe a small space at and around the bottom on the steps and entrance. The big question I'm wondering is would this type of construction need planing permission. Have any homes been constructed below ground like this in the U.K.
Olly - 11-Oct-18 @ 8:38 PM
i want to have underground house in africa what are the materials i can use without importing and can last for so long never to spoil the house
walkman - 9-Oct-18 @ 6:53 AM
you could have given more information
butt hole - 12-Jun-18 @ 10:28 PM
Could you advise who we would approach in first instance to carry out a feasibility study? North Devon UK
Ck - 3-Feb-18 @ 9:52 AM
Hi, We have some land which we want to put underground rooms in, for holiday lets. Can anyone please tell us, where I can buy prefab underground rooms? Ideally from the UK or Europe. Thanks
AMLH - 14-Oct-17 @ 3:30 PM
Hi, We have some land which we want to put underground rooms in, for holiday lets. Can anyone please tell us, where I can buy prefab underground rooms? Ideally from the UK or Europe. Thanks
SB - 2-Jun-17 @ 10:11 PM
Does anyone have experience of building an underground home in solid chalk ... (Undisturbed for millions of years) Is it advisable?
Wannabe - 12-Apr-16 @ 11:31 AM
how can we produce sufficient amount of ventilation for all rooms in under groundbuildings n how can manage air in the rooms sufficient for human beings.
rammi - 7-Mar-16 @ 3:35 PM
Hi there.Is there any information specifically about damp proofing and ventilation concerning floors and walls in underground houses? I'll be using a cut away into a hill side. . Soan elevated build by your definition. Thanks
Will - 7-Mar-16 @ 2:24 PM
cgowan - Your Question:
Does anyone know what land you can purchase to build an underground home? Can you use pasture? Or greenbelt and what planning do you need?

Our Response:
You usually need land that is designated for residential use regardless of whether the home is underground. Speak to you local planning officer for advice.
SustainableBuild - 16-Feb-16 @ 2:13 PM
Does anyone know what land you can purchase to build an underground home? Can you use pasture? Or greenbelt and what planning do you need?
cgowan - 14-Feb-16 @ 2:16 PM
i like the idea of underground construction from when i was a small kid. the place i grew up have lots of caves and very deep caves. Storm or tropical cyclone occur, cave is the safest place as well as building underground buildings. A good idea in war survival.
AB - 25-Jan-16 @ 9:06 PM
Hi, Im a civil engineering student. I'm currently doing a research about cave houses. Can you help me in the Procedure or Process in constructing the said house? Any websites you could offer will be a great help.
KM - 22-Sep-15 @ 11:04 AM
Mr. Blue - Your Question:
I am needing some advice on underground construction. I am building a 4-5 level building mostly self sustainable, where I am running into my issues are with renewable water and building materials. Any advice would be appreciated, also, this is a LARGE building. I can not give you an exact Sqft. because the design is not yet finished, but think industrial size.Thank you in advanced,Me. Blue

Our Response:
Sorry we can't give individual advice as we do not have the details of your build. Hopefully these two article can help you: Water and Sustainable Design and Using Locally Sustainable Materials
SustainableBuild - 9-Sep-15 @ 2:36 PM
I am needing some advice on underground construction. I am building a 4-5 level building mostly self sustainable, where I am running into my issues are with renewable water and building materials. Any advice would be appreciated, also, this is a LARGE building. I can not give you an exact Sqft. because the design is not yet finished, but think industrial size. Thank you in advanced, Me. Blue
Mr. Blue - 8-Sep-15 @ 2:23 PM
thanks for understanding about underground space
asy - 18-Feb-15 @ 4:16 PM
Links from this page go to$%5Blc:/ConstructionStrawBale.html%5D and take me nowhere.
Russell - 12-Jul-14 @ 4:07 PM
@Pipsqueak. There are lots of rules for building underground in terms of structural supports, waterproofing, ventilation etc. Look at the many projects where people have built underground before - you'll find them in places like Grand Designs etc. The best thing to do first for accurate information is to speak to your local planning and building control officers. They don't charge you for having a conversation with them and will be able to tell you what is and what is not allowed and will also advise on what to include in your planning & building regs applications. Check out the UK planning portal too for some useful links.
SustainableBuild - 6-Jun-14 @ 10:51 AM
Please can you tell me what the regulations are in the UK for building underground- I am struggling to find anything? We want to build a workshop but would need to go down to be in the permitted permission bracket of 2.5m but I can't find any rules about underground- we assume this height is from ground level?
Pipsqueak - 5-Jun-14 @ 9:51 PM
Hello, my doubt is that in underground buildings, how the drainage system works?? If the site topography is sloped, its easy to drain the waste water. But if it is flat and if the municipal sewage line is just 1-2 meters below the ground , what type of drainage system will work?? Thanks in advance Shameer
shami - 7-Mar-14 @ 3:45 AM
You do need to allow in plenty of natural light in order for people to feel comfortable in an underground house. Whilst it wasn’t that way in the past, these days no one would really take to a troglodyte existence willing, especially with a family. Plan for plenty of windows and skylights to avoid the feel of living underground.
lightbox - 3-Oct-12 @ 12:50 PM
would you be able to tell me where i can obtain oor soarse plans for undergroung housing onstruction.for 6 to 0 people.
bigfoot - 30-Jun-12 @ 4:53 AM
Hi, I would like to learn more about below ground or pertially below ground house construction and waterproofing methods Also how difficult is it to obtain council planning?Regards, Mike
Mike - 11-Sep-11 @ 1:30 PM
I like the idea of underground homes because I worked on the Driling Rigs and I've driven across the provinces all over and seen all kinds of homes and places. One really good thing about an underground home is that you wouldn't have your average theif try to break in to home. It's the idea of, is their a home even their huh? It's tornado resistant for one thing because I still remember the Tornado that happened in Edmonton Alberta and my family was living in Legal about 20 minutes away and we had shingles ripped off our roof. I was only 8 years old then but I'll never forget being huddled in our neighbors basement during that Tornado thank goodness!! I don't live their now but about 1.5hrs north. But come hell or high water I'd rather be safe than sorry when trouble comes back to us.
Hillbilly - 21-Jul-11 @ 5:32 PM
Hey, I might be doing a related project next year and I was wondering if you know if underground housing would be a cheaper solution to current eco/sustanable building designs. Any books or websites that could aid me with my research? Cheers Mandy
Mandy - 18-Mar-11 @ 10:09 AM
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