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Down to Earth.

Stop paving says this reformed architect, and start digging. Old ways of building leave too many scars.

BACK IN THE '50S, I WAS A VERY IMportant architect. My name was mentioned twice in The Haddonfield Gazette, and my designs often were compared favorably with those of the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright. I cranked out factories, churches, office buildings, houses--you name it. And I made a lot of money

Then one day, when I was 37, I had a thought. I paid attention to it, because it was the first thought I'd had in 10 years of "architecting." I noticed that my buildings and their parking lots, while beautiful to my eyes, had paved over a bit of lovely forest and farm land--50 some acres by my count-- and killed it forever. It wasn't a happy discovery. I couldn't understand why, if I was so wonderful, I was causing so much destruction.

Imagine being almost 40 years old before discovering the first truism of construction: Buildings destroy land. It was a rude awakening.


As I began to look at the world around me and to think about how it works, I noticed that paved areas, left alone, always go for the green. Grass sprouts. Cement breaks apart. These areas never evolve into a new parking lot, shopping center, or housing tract. They want to live, and tell us so at every opportunity

Suddenly, the things I'd heard in school began to make sense. Sunlight makes plants grow. But humans can get energy only by eating or burning plants or plant residues (wood, coal, oil, or gas)--not directly from sunlight. Plants are beautiful--they clean the air and the water, and they heal earth wounds. Plants can get along perfectly well without us. We would die without them. So why in the world are we, the professional destroyers of plants, allowed to do all the bad things we do? There had to be a better way, and I found it: Cover buildings with earth.

The more I thought about it, the better the idea seemed. Earth-covered buildings would be far easier to heat and cool and a cinch to maintain--they'd be silent, fire-safe, and permanent--but would they be dark and damp?


To find out, I built myself an office building in Cherry Hill, N.J, in 1974, and it turned out to be the sunniest, driest building I had ever done. That's when my life's direction locked into place. Now, 26 years later, I'm living on Cape Cod. I have designed hundreds of earth-covered buildings. None has ever leaked. Wrapped in rubbery sheets and insulated (on the outside) to avoid the cool walls that cause condensation in moist weather, they stay bone dry.

The underground office in which I am sitting is so bright that even on a cloudy day I have to close the blinds a bit on the big solar windows. Other buildings on this damp, foggy peninsula have mildew and wet basements--but, of course, all these buildings are above ground. They kill the land on which they stand. This building of mine, after 10 years, has almost disappeared. Trees and vines have moved in to heal its construction wounds. Nature has accepted it as a friend.

Wait a minute, you're thinking. What's the cost? The short answer: about 10 percent more. But here's the long answer:

* If building underground is the right thing to do, what kind of a sellout would you be if you knew it, but still let cost be your guiding criterion?

* These buildings save up to 70 percent on heating and cooling and 80 percent on exterior maintenance.

* They promise to last for hundreds of years. Sunlight, acid rain, and freezing have little effect on what lies under a layer of living earth.

* Landscaping is free. Just let the land do what it wants and it will always be beautiful.

Three years ago, I was given a grant to fly around the United States and photograph (mostly from hired helicopters) the most sprawling buildings and their vast, dead parking lots. I shot the Pentagon, the Superdome, Disneyland--and was appalled at the way the construction industry has paved so much of the land with our work. It's downright criminal--so bad that an old, worn-out architect shouldn't have to preach earth cover to a largely uncaring audience.

This planet is our home. It sustains us. It will always reward us if we treat it right.

Malcolm Wells writes books on earth-covered buildings.
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Title Annotation:earth-covered buildings preserve land
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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