In a cold and harsh climate, it makes sense to get the best insulation you can around your living space. Earth, for example. A thick berm also helps with sound insulation in noisy cities.
A couple of earth-sheltered, bermed dwellings can be seen today in Minneapolis. I have found pointers to several others in the state but not visited them. Climate and urban logic aside, most people just don’t appear to like living primarily underground.
My interest in earth-sheltered architecture was piqued during our trip to Santa Fe last September.
On the way back home, taking the road out of Taos north and west towards Colorado on the western side of the Rockies, we spied a most elaborate hippie-looking structure, with solar panels, partly buried in earth and partly looking organic and half melted, somewhat like a building by the Spanish architect Goudi. For the next score of miles along US Rte. 64 heading west, other apparently handmade but not improvised dwellings regularly appeared, no two even remotely alike.
These structures turn out to be the fruit of the Earthship Biotecture Academy, which promulgates learning about how to build dwellings largely of recycled materials that are organic, sustainable, and self-sufficient in everything from water to power to waste. The founder and driving force behind what is now called Earthship, Michael Reynolds (profile), has spent the last 40 years in Taos learning how to build these houses.
A team from Earthship Biotecture will come and build you a Global Model house, anywhere in the world, for about $300 per square foot. This price includes you paying for the team’s travel and a month’s lodging. If you do most of the work yourself you can save about 40% of that.
The underground homes in Minneapolis were not built by Earthship. There is a small minority of architects, apparently, around the country and the world who do this sort of thing.
This 12-unit development sits just off of I-94 in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was constructed in 1979 to plans developed by the Underground Space Center, University of Minnesota. I don’t know if this organization is still in existence; online I found only traces of a few books they had published from the 1970s onward (not coincidentally, the same timeframe in which Michael Reynolds was at work in Taos, NM).
This reference on The Underground Home Directory says the units provide 1,079 sq. ft. of living area. It is not evident from the photos, but each unit is a two-story dwelling with the lower floor looking up to an excavated courtyard in the back, facing the alley. (I couldn’t get a good capture of these outdoor atria without trespassing.) A rear deck provides a ground-level entrance for each unit. The open courtyards seem to provide the only natural light reaching the interiors.
The upper floors of 10 units are bermed on only the north side, facing S. 9th St. and the freeway. The end units’ upper floors are bermed on two sides. For interior units the lower floors are bermed on two sides, and for end units, three.
They are reported to be quiet, despite proximity to a busy city street and a freeway, and easy to heat through Minnesota winters.
Sticks and Stones House
That’s what this house is called in The Underground Home Directory’s listing. It’s just a block and a half west of Milwaukee Avenue. It was built in the 1980s and comprises 1,350 sq. ft. The photos below show what detail can be seen in winter. When the trees are leafed-out, the house is barely visible from the street — see this Google Street View image from 3 months ago. The skylight faces east, and so wouldn’t get the maximum amount of sun, and would be shaded by foliage in the summer.
Other bermed houses
The Underground Home Directory lists two other (at least somewhat) underground homes in Minnesota: one in Shakopee and the other not disclosed. In addition the site spotlights two other Minnesota case studies: stories of former underground homes that their owners abandoned, building traditional replacements, due to water and mold incursions, among other issues. One owner complained that his bermed home was too quiet.
One of my informants, who has lived in and around the Cities lifelong, said he recalled reading that the Seward Townhomes had had similar mold and water problems early on, but that the issues were remediated.
The Underground Home Directory lists three berm homes in Massachusetts, two in Osterville (by the same architect) and one in Plympton. Here are photographs from a Boston Globe feature on the latter.