Small Underground House & Shelter

The destruction left behind by recent powerful storms make me wonder if underground homes should make a come back? So many of our buildings are made from lightweight frames covered with thinly sheathed walls stuffed with feather-weight insulation, wires, and pipes. While great efforts are made to engineer strength into conventional structures, powerful storms continue to prove mightier than these construction methods.

One of my favorite books as a child was Earth-Sheltered House, An Architect’s Sketchbook by Malcolm Wells. It’s loaded with illustrations that show how comfortable, well-appointed and well-lit an underground home could be.

This tiny house design concept goes a few steps farther by taking into consideration some troubling issues we face today. In the last twelve months we’ve seen too many cases of civil unrest, nuclear radiation leaks, and devastating storms. By moving underground and off-grid the impact of these threats could be reduced.

The main structure would have an arched roofs, theoretically reinforced concrete, placed on top of concrete or earthen walls. The 12-foot wide living space would be open to a mostly subterranean greenhouse and a sunken courtyard. This would provide most of the natural light and air every home needs.

On one end of the living space would be a kitchen, bathroom, laundry closet, utility room, and generous storage pantry. On the other end would be a bedroom that opens onto a greenhouse.

Off-Grid Features

Rainwater collection could augment other water sources, like drilled wells or community water systems. A rainwater collection tank would be located next to the greenhouse. These tanks would sit a few feet higher than the bathroom/kitchen faucets providing some natural water pressure.

The roof of the greenhouse could collect the water and a rain gutter could direct it to the tank. As with most rainwater collection systems, values and filters would need to be included in the collection system design to prevent debris from entering the tank.

Solar panels could be placed along the entry stairway, open to the sun during normal times and sealed behind steel panels before trouble hits. The remaining electrical components, like batteries & inverter, would be housed in the utility room.

Storm & Civil Unrest Threats

Exterior steel doors cover the greenhouse windows and exterior french doors. These could be closed and locked from inside to improve occupant safety. The threat of fire would be greatly reduced or eliminated through materials selection. Air vents would need to be added to extend indoor stays.

Nuclear Threat

Radioactive fallout requires some additional consideration. There are three primary things to keep in mind when radioactive fallout is present:

  1. Avoid contact with fallout (inhaling, ingesting, & contact with skin);
  2. Radiation travels through materials in strait lines but can’t turn corners;
  3. More mass blocks more radiation.

Once sealed inside a home the occupants are typically protected from direct contact. So most of our homes provide this important first level of protection. But as fallout lands on the ground and roof outside the penetrating radiation enters the home. Areas inside the home that put more mass between the fallout and occupants will provide the best protection. For example, the safest rooms in this design would be the pantry and then the bedroom.

An underground home would provide far more protection from radiation than a typical home simply because as little as 3-feet of compacted dirt has sufficient mass to block deadly amounts of radiation. Concrete, steel, and lead perform even better than dirt – but dirt is cheap.


To some this will seem like a worst case scenario tiny house design. It’s food for thought, not intended as doom & gloom. It’s intended to show how through pre-planning, some rare but present threats can be reduced by thinking differently about how and where we live.



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