Earth Shelters

I’m reading a book right now called The Worst Hard Time which is about the infamous Dust Bowl that hit the Great Plains during the Depression. Fascinating stuff. The dust storms wreaked so much havoc on the land and people at that time that the Great Plains has never recovered.

Just as fascinating is the glimpse the author gives into the lives of these early settlers. They came to the area with next to nothing and were enticed by free land from the government and a false hope that the dry land could be farmed. But before they could begin to plow the land, they needed to create shelters. Since there were no trees to build log cabins, these farmers made their new homes out of prairie sod. These were known as dugouts and were typically carved out of the side of a hill. The roof, floor and three walls were made out of the earth and only the front facade was built with purchased materials. Obviously a shelter like this saved these poor farmers the major cost of building a more conventional home.

These farmers built these crude homes purely out of necessity. Aside from cost, there wasn’t too much desirable about a dugout back then. They were cramped, dark and dirty. But the principles of a house integrated with the earth have evolved into a method of sustainable architecture known today as “earth sheltering.”

The benefits of homes integrated with the land are great. These homes regulate temperature naturally by staying cool in the summer and maintaining heat in the winter.

Today we have more choices, but it may benefit us to think about how these settlers lived and integrated the earth to create their passive solar and energy efficient homes. Check out these modern interpretations of earth shelters here. As you can see these homes are light-filled, open and optimistic spaces - very different from the early forms of this type of housing.


  1. Sad and amazing at the same time. Very resilient, crafty people. JBP has this book in the "Dust Bowl" section of his personal library (yes, there is a section devoted to this!) so I may be reading this one in the future.

  2. Wonderful book. It made me really proud to be an "Okie" as these people in the Oklahoma panhandle that never moved from their homes were some tough, stubborn, independent people! It's hard to imagine how I'd handle the same harsh conditions.

    My relatives were in the lesser hit eastern part of the state and while there weren't dust storms--they were entrenched in the extreme poverty of the period. Those stories always resonated with me so I can only imagine the combination of poverty + dust storms.