||January 1, 2004
Underground Buildings: Architecture & Environment
Underground Buildings explains the advantages and challenges of earth-sheltered design and construction by describing more than 100 examples in the United States.
Unusual as they seem, underground buildings are surprisingly common. Every day, millions in North America work, shop, dine, study, and play in the more than three hundred public and commercial structures and five thousand private homes nestled in the earth. Underground buildings are safe, attractive, useful, and comfortable places to frequent and live. Unlike a common misconception, most are dry and warm, and they are often sun-filled. More than one hundred underground buildings are included in this fascinating subterranean tour. These buildings range from the famous to the unnoticed. Some were built for pragmatic reasons, others for aesthetic considerations, still others, for a combination of both.
There are impressive success stories and discouraging tales of failure. Some underground buildings are incredibly energy-efficient, for example, while others leaked so badly they were abandoned. A vast spectrum of structures is presented, ranging from stunning examples of hidden opulence to humble subterranean cubbyholes where unassuming people immerse themselves in nature’s simplicity.
What is an underground building? The answer seems trivially obvious. In reality, however, defining the term is as tricky as explaining what a skyscraper is. Clearly, very tall buildings like the Empire State Building qualify as skyscrapers, but no definitive criterion, such as a height measurement or a number of floors, is universally accepted. T.J. Gottesdiener, a partner in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an architectural firm that has designed many skyscrapers including the Sears Tower, once quipped, "I don't think it is how many floors you have. I think it is attitude."
Similarly, the difficulty with defining underground buildings is not a quantitative one, but a qualitative one. What matters is not how much ground the building is under, but whether it is under any ground at all. Basements represent one aspect of the problem, for example. Is it fair to call a building's basement an underground structure? A simple basement, which is certainly in ground, has some characteristics in common with truly underground, earth-covered structures, but it also has a noticeably different character.
A complicating fact is that some basements are more underground than others. An interesting example is the Civil and Mineral Engineering (CME) Building constructed at the University of Minnesota in 1982. Like a tail wagging the dog, this building is a mega-basement with a subordinate surface structure. In fact, five basement levels contain 95 percent of its 150,000 square feet of floor space. Besides containing laboratories, classrooms, and offices, the building itself is an experiment in underground construction and use.
Confusion also arises with regard to earth-sheltered structures, which are typically built with their floors at ground level or only slightly below. They achieve some of the benefits of underground construction by having dirt piled up against their walls in sloping embankments called berms. Sometimes, but not always, a layer of soil and vegetation covers their roofs. The varieties and degrees of earth sheltering include such extremes as buildings with soil on their roofs but no berming on their walls, and conventionally roofed buildings with berming only a few feet deep on a wall or two. Fully earth-covered, above-grade structures should probably be included in the category of underground buildings, but where along the progression to the minimal limits of earth sheltering should the line be drawn?
In seeking to resolve the definition dilemma, it may be instructive to look for examples of wise people who have grappled with similar difficulties. US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, writing a 1964 opinion relating to obscenity, faced the task of what he called "trying to define what may be indefinable." Rather than offering a clear, comprehensive definition, he simply asserted, "I know it when I see it."
Perhaps that is the best that can be said of underground buildings as well. Some of the examples explored in this book are more, or less, underground than others, but they have an underground attitude. All of them enjoy at least some of the benefits of underground construction. There is, after all, no point in constructing underground buildings unless they offer advantages over more conventional aboveground structures. As explained in this chapter, the advantages are numerous and diverse. We begin by looking at the interiors of buildings and the benefits that affect their occupants. Then we look at the surrounding environment and benefits that affect individual passersby and society at large. Finally, we consider how underground placement affects the structure itself.
Taken the the next level
This book is filled with wonderful pictures that augment the authors descriptions of underground buildings. She writes with wit and demonstrates that undergound buildings have many benefits, including financial and asthetic ones. This book is well worth a read as a detailed resource of information on this topic, as well as being an entertaining "coffee table" book. She explores this issue, which is more common than the average person would believe, and takes it to the next level.
Phenomenal, Practical, Superb Photographs, Detailed
At $29 or less, this book is being given away. This is a museum-quality book in terms of the paper, the photographs, the lay-out, and the cover.
I bought this book in part because land is becoming extremely scarce around the great universities and the central business districts, and I was looking for something to help me think through how to persuade a university to let me put a building into a hill or under a playing field.
This book does that. It is a very fast read, the photographs are priceless--worth 10,000 words each as the Chinese would say--and the only thing I did not find in this book were architectural specifics and photos of underlying infrastructure (pump rooms, air cleaning rooms, etc.)
If you are contemplating the need for squeezing a building into an area that is down to the "do not disturb" green space, or if you are contemplating how to exploit existing mines, caverns, or other underground options, this exquisite book is not only useful as a tool for reflection, it will help you "make the sale" to skeptical others you have to get on board.
The author provides a list of 50 places to visit with addresses, telephone numbers, and web sites, a fine resource section for more reading, and an excellent index.
Gorgeous book -- I just wish it were three times as thick!
I have no training whatever in architecture or engineering, but I've always been interested, often fascinated, by unique and unusual buildings. Hall, a technical writer with a slightly groan-producing sense of humor, has put together a survey of below-ground-level structures in the United States, including private homes (whether bunkered and bermed or converted from old missile silos), schools, libraries (such as the Bradley Wing of the Los Angeles Public Library, which I was familiar with), museums, government emergency shelters (Mt. Weather and Cheyenne Mountain are both here), and corporate facilities (Kansas City is full of them). The information provided is just technical enough to make the author's point about the utility and efficiency of building below ground, and there are loads of color photos and architectural drawings. I only wish the book had been several times as thick so it could include non-U.S. structures. Maybe she'll do another volume.
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