Published : 17 February 2016

Remember how our ancestors used to live in caves and we thought that was just because they didn't have the tools or knowledge to build real houses? Well, maybe they were onto something.

Throughout civilisation certain tribes and races have carved homes out of the earth or rock. Indeed, the extreme heat of mining towns such as Lightning Ridge have seen the building of many underground homes, and even an underground motel!

With Australian summers getting hotter, and the increasing number of bushfires, the idea of living underground just keeps cropping up.

Today we call them earth sheltered houses and, far from being the bunker that many people imagine, there are some amazing, and even luxurious examples being built.


Bushfire-resistant homes

After the horrific Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria,  several architects provided free advice and designs for bushfire-resistant homes, that included partially underground designs.

Indeed, an earth sheltered, bushfire-resistant house at Narwee, created by Baldwin O'Bryan Architects, won the Bushfire Building Council 2015 Innovation Design award.

Baldwin O'Bryan use a very low cost construction system that can only be applied to an earth sheltered building. They describe them as not only more resistant to bushfires, but also more ecologically sustainable, due to minimal heating, cooling and maintenance costs.

Earth sheltered buildings generally make far better use of passive heating and cooling methods, more efficient use of land and cause less disruption above ground.


Natural building

And then there are all the really cool things you can do with them, like roof gardens and courtyards.

Prompted to investigate further I discovered numerous references in Australia to building with natural and traditional materials, including straw bales, mud brick and cob. There are websites, workshops, entire organisations.

Mudmob is one such group, running educational workshops in all forms of natural building, including light earth, superadobe, earthen floors and more.

And while not everyone wants to live in a luxury version of a mud hut, people are choosing them for cabins, studios and garden sheds, which is a start.

Without a doubt 'green building' has come a long way in the last decade and incorporates something for everyone, be it an entire mud brick home, or simply greener ways of cooling and heating your house.

Where will it go in the future? Unlike countries like the UK, Australia isn't exactly short of space, but not all of it is suitable for building houses. Will we need to be more creative in the future? We certainly will in terms of power and water usage, heating and cooling, and sustainable design.

Architecture has always prompted debate, creativity and inspiration and it's good to know that will continue into the future as we explore different ways on living.