There are two basic types of earth-sheltered house designs—underground and bermed.

Underground Earth-Sheltered Homes

When an entire earth-sheltered house is built below grade or completely underground, it’s called an underground structure. An atrium or courtyard design can accommodate an underground house and still provide an open feeling. Such a house is built completely below ground on a flat site, and the major living spaces surround a central outdoor courtyard. The windows and glass doors  and even the garage doorsthat are on the exposed walls facing the atrium provide light, solar heat, outside views, and access via a stairway from the ground level.

The atrium design is hardly visible from ground level, creates a private outdoor space, and provides good protection from winter winds. This design is ideal for building sites without scenic exterior views, in dense developments, and on sites in noisy areas. Passive solar gain—heat obtained through windows—is likely to be limited because of the position of the home’s windows, and courtyard drainage and snow removal should be carefully thought through during design.

Bermed Earth-Sheltered Homes

A bermed house may be built above grade or partially below grade, with earth covering one or more walls. An “elevational” bermed design exposes one elevation or face of the house and covers the other sides—and sometimes the roof—with earth to protect and insulate the house.

The exposed front of the house, usually facing south, allows the sun to light and heat the interior. The floor plan is arranged so common areas and bedrooms share light and heat from the southern exposure. This can be the least expensive and simplest way to build an earth-sheltered structure. Strategically placed skylights can ensure adequate ventilation and daylight in the northern portions of the house.

In a penetrational bermed design, earth covers the entire house, except where there are windows and doors. The house is usually built at ground level, and earth is built up (or bermed) around and on top of it. This design allows cross-ventilation and access to natural light from more than one side of the house.

Advantages & Disadvantages

Like any home design, earth-sheltered houses have advantages and disadvantages.

On the plus side, an earth-sheltered home is less susceptible to the impact of extreme outdoor air temperatures than a conventional house. Earth-sheltered houses also require less outside maintenance, and the earth surrounding the house provides soundproofing. In addition, plans for most earth-sheltered houses “blend” the building into the landscape more harmoniously than a conventional home. Finally, earth-sheltered houses can cost less to insure because they offer extra protection against high winds, hailstorms, and natural disasters such as tornados and hurricanes.

The principal downsides to earth-sheltered houses are the initial cost of construction, which can be up to 20% more than a conventional house, and the increased level of care required to avoid moisture problems, both during construction and over the life of the house. It can also take more diligence to resell an earth-sheltered home, and buyers may have more hurdles to clear in the mortgage application process.