Construction Materials and Considerations for Earth-Sheltered Homes


Before designing an earth-sheltered house, you should consider what's involved in its construction, including your construction material options.

Construction Materials

The construction materials for each type of structure will vary, depending on characteristics of the site and the type of design. However, general guidelines show that houses more deeply buried require stronger, more durable construction materials.

Materials must provide a good surface for waterproofing and insulation to withstand the pressure and moisture of the surrounding ground. When soil is wet or frozen, the pressure on the walls and floors increases. Pressure also increases with depth, so materials such as concrete and reinforced masonry, wood, and steel are all suitable.


Concrete is the most common choice for constructing earth-sheltered buildings. Not only is it strong, it is also durable and fire resistant. Several forms of concrete are used. Lightly reinforced concrete, which is poured and reinforced at the site, is used for noncritical structural elements such as concrete foundations, floor slabs, and exterior walls with less than 6 feet (1.83 meters) of earth cover. Pre-cast reinforced concrete can resist loads at any reasonable depth and can be used for floors, walls, and roofs. Concrete absorbs and stores heat, helping to prevent temperature swings that can damage some building material.

Precast concrete components are cured at a plant or on-site location before they are used, thereby decreasing construction time and cost in comparison to cast-in-place forms. The uses and advantages of precast and cast-in-place concrete are similar, except that precast concrete works best in simple or repeatable shapes. Special care must be taken to make the joints between sections watertight.

Concrete can also provide supplemental strength in other types of earthen construction. For example, a concrete topping can be added to wooden roof planks, and cement "parging" (or coating) can be added to walls with masonry construction before waterproofing.


Masonry (i.e., brick or stone) can be used for walls that will receive vertical or lateral pressure from earth cover. It is reinforced with steel bars that are put in the core of the masonry in places of high stress, such as weight-bearing walls or walls with earth against them. Masonry generally costs less than cast-in-place concrete.


Wood can be used extensively in earth-sheltered construction for both interior and structural work including floors, roofs, and exterior walls. Wood is attractive for its color and warmth, and complements tile and masonry, as well as concrete walls, floors, and ceilings. However, using wood as a structural material requires wooden frame walls, which must withstand lateral pressure and be restricted to a burial depth of one story. Beyond this depth, the rapidly increasing cost of wood construction restricts most builders from using it as a structural material.

Although wood can cost less than other materials, it does not offer the strength that a material such as steel does, so it may not be the best choice for structural material in some houses. Wood must also be treated with preservatives to prevent damage from moisture. If your structure can make practical use of wood as a framing material, employing carpenters who can rapidly construct a timber frame for an earth-sheltered house can decrease labor costs.


Steel is used for beams, bar joists, columns, and concrete reinforcement. It is particularly useful because of its high tensional and compressional strength. The primary disadvantage of steel is that it must be protected against corrosion if it is exposed to the elements or to groundwater. It is also expensive, so it must be used efficiently to be economical as a structural material.

Alternative Construction Materials

A form of earth-sheltered house that has been receiving much attention is referred to as an Earthship. These houses are built to be self-contained and independent; their design allows occupants to grow food inside and to maintain their own water and solar electrical systems. Some builders believe they have proven the design's ability to tap into the constant temperature of the earth and store additional energy from the sun in winter, although a back-up system, usually electric, may be recommended.

These Earthships carry out their environmentally conscious theme by employing unusual building materials in the form of recycled automobile tires filled with compacted earth for thermal mass and structure. Aluminum or tin cans are also used for filling minor walls that are not load-bearing. Foam insulation can be applied to exposed exterior or interior walls and covered with stucco. Interior walls can also be drywalled for a more conventional look.

Other Construction Considerations


Waterproofing can be a challenge in earth-sheltered construction. Keep in mind these three ways to reduce the risk of water damage in your house: choose the site carefully, plan the drainage both at and below the surface of the house, and waterproof your house.

There are several waterproofing systems currently in use, including rubberized asphalt, plastic and vulcanized sheets, liquid polyurethanes, and bentonite. Each has its advantages and the one you choose will depend on your site and house plan.

  • Rubberized asphalt combines a small amount of synthetic rubber with asphalt and is coated with a polyethylene layer to form sheets. It can be applied directly to walls and roofs and has a long life expectancy.

  • Plastic and vulcanized sheets are among the most common types of underground waterproofing. Plastic sheets include high-density polyethylene, chlorinated polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and chlorosulfonated polyethylene. Suitable vulcanized membranes or synthetic rubbers include isobutylene isoprene, ethylene propylene diene monomer, polychloroprene (neoprene), and polyisobutylene. For all these materials, the seams must be sealed properly, or the membranes will leak.

  • Liquid polyurethanes are often used in places where it is awkward to apply a membrane. Polyurethanes are sometimes used as a coating over insulation on underground structures; however, weather conditions must be dry and relatively warm during their application.

  • Bentonite is a natural clay formed into panels or applied as a liquid spray. The panels are simply nailed to walls; the spray is mixed with a binding agent and applied to underground walls. When the bentonite comes in contact with moisture, it expands and seals out the moisture.


Humidity levels may increase in earth-sheltered houses during the summer, which can cause condensation on the interior walls. Installing insulation on the outside of the walls will prevent the walls from cooling down to earth temperature; however, it also reduces the summer cooling effect of the walls, which may be viewed as an advantage in hot temperatures. Mechanical air conditioning or a dehumidifier is often necessary to solve the humidity issue. Proper ventilation of closets and other closed spaces should keep the humidity from becoming a problem in those areas. 


Although insulation in an underground building does not need to be as thick as that in a conventional house, it is necessary to make an earthen house comfortable. Insulation is usually placed on the exterior of the house after applying the waterproofing material, so the heat generated, collected, and absorbed within the earth-sheltered envelope is retained inside the building's interior. If insulating outside the wall, a protective layer of board should be added to keep the insulation from contacting the earth. Depending on the type of structure—wood, masonry, concrete, or steel—insulation may instead be placed inside the walls before the waterproofing material is applied.

Air Exchange/Air Quality

Adequate ventilation must be carefully planned when building an earth-sheltered dwelling. Generally, well-planned, natural ventilation or ventilation by exhaust fans can dissipate ordinary odors. Any combustion appliances that are installed should be "sealed combustion units," which have their own, direct source of outside air for combustion, and the combustion gases are directly vented to the outside. In addition, indoor pollutants emitted by formaldehyde foam insulation, plywood, and some fabrics can accumulate and become an irritant if ventilation is not properly planned.

Source: US Dept. of Energy

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