McGill University (Meredith)



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    Happy (belated) Underground America Day

    By Meredith
    May 15, '10 12:31 PM EST

    Several of my projects from the last year have involved underground structures or digging into the earth. I didn't even notice the trend until somebody pointed it out near the end of this semester. I took a geology class in CEGEP that I really loved, perhaps that has something to do with it. Maybe I just have a subconscious desire to burrow into the earth.

    So knowing that subterranean architecture was something I was at least predisposed to, I took home the book "The Earth-Sheltered House" when it caught my eye in the library yesterday. The authour, Malcolm Wells, was an American architect and proponent of underground living, 'gentle architecture' he called it. The book is one of several he wrote and is extremely easy to read, presented as 'an architect's sketchbook'. I read most of it yesterday and finished it off this morning. It wasn't until I reach the last page that I discovered that yesterday, May 14th, was "Underground America Day", a holiday invented by Wells to celebrate underground living.

    Wells' (mostly unbuilt) underground designs range from houses to fire stations to utopic housing developments. There is even a plan for a bird feeder. His design philosophy is, dare I say, a green one. Actually, I prefer the term ecological. He best sums it up with "the earth's surface was made for living plants, not industrial plants." Wells' earth covered roofs are not landscaped or mowed or covered with 'toxic green' grass. Rather, autumn leaves are spread atop the building and, with time, the land returns to its natural state, populated with native species of grasses, wildflowers and small trees.

    Wells' designs are heated with passive solar energy, making use the thermal mass of the surrounding earth and sniffer ducts (the name conjures something very different in my mind). He describes his architecture as "silent, bright, dry, sunny, long-lasting, easy to maintain, easy to heat and cool and fire-safe." I don't know how well it would work up here in Canada with our freeze/thaw cycle, but his idea of architecture is definitely something I can get behind. Sadly, he passed away just last year.

    Cherry Hill Office
    Wells' first underground building was his own office in Cherry Hill, NJ.

    Cherry Hill Office
    And what it looks like today (from the surface).


    • when i was in elementary school i was put into a new experimental school. built entirely underground and with open - plan (ie, no walls between classrooms). this was in brandon, manitoba, which i guess may mean something to you as a canuck...

      it was always warm. we practiced downhill skiing with our cross country skis on the slope of the roof, had massive multi-tiered snowball fights and tobogganing in the winter, and in the summer played king of the hill on the grass slope. was fantastic. on the inside we had almost no sunshine at all apart from a few toplights here and there. that was not so nice. i didn't notice because i was 10 years old, but now as an architect i would call that professionally irresponsible.

      stayed there from grade 3 to grade 9. was a very good school in spite of the lack of light, and since it was in manitoba i guess that means it is not impossible to do such things. hard to get any colder than the canadian prairie...

      i just googled it but only can find the poor old school website which says not so much. possibly they will have info for you if you contact them...

      May 15, 10 7:41 pm

      Wow, thanks for that! Wells' has a design for a school built into a south-facing ridge. The classrooms are all along the south wall and have windows facing out. You can't toboggan down the roof though!

      I will definitely keep your school in mind and check it out next time I'm in Manitoba (whenever that may be...)

      May 16, 10 10:15 pm

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