Notes from the Underground

Notes from the Underground

By Hillary Geronemus
“I used to care about how buildings looked on the outside,” says Malcolm Wells, a charming, self-deprecating man with a bushy beard that is more salt than pepper. “Phew, that was so self-centered of me. Now I care only about the physical effects of architecture.”

At 80 years old, Wells is a man ahead of his time. In fact, the architect, author, cartoonist, and sand-castle expert has been so for some 40 years, ever since he turned his back on traditional architecture in favor of earth-sheltered housing. His self-sustaining "underground" buildings are covered in upwards of 200 tons of earth, are waterproofed by a thin membrane of rubber, insulated by plastic foam board, employ passive solar energy via south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows, and, most important, create a natural habitat for wild plants and animals. "Underground buildings answer just about any question relating to a building problem: They’re fireproof, hurricaneproof, landslideproof, soundproof, and cost just about nothing to maintain," Wells explains. "It’s so obvious, yet our egos get in the way. We want to pop up above the earth and show that we’re here, that we’re somebody."

Wells’ exterior designs for two houses with the same floor plan were published by Popular Science in 1989.

How did a man whose raison d’être was once office buildings and factories go green? Accidentally. "In the late 1940s, I was just out of the Marine Corps, looking for a job and a way to get dates," he says with a sly smile. "I stumbled into a New Jersey architecture office and was hired as a draftsman on the spot." Years later, Wells was chosen to design electronic giant RCA’s entry into the 1964 World’s Fair. Then it hit him: In two years the structure would be destroyed, and for what?

The Locust Hills project.

From that day forward, he decided to stop being a "destroyer" and instead devote his life to building with nature, not against it. The earth-shelter movement, of which he’s considered the godfather, reached its apex during the energy crisis of the late ’70s/early ’80s, but then, says Wells, bitterly, "Ronald Reagan became president and tore the solar panels off Jimmy Carter’s house." Despite this setback, it is estimated that there are more than 2,000 underground structures in the U.S., and even more in Great Britain, Australia, and the Czech Republic.

The Hess house nestles deeply into the earth. Though the structure is almost fully submerged, natural light is a key component.

Though still active, Wells is slowing down. Wells, who retired in 2004 after a stroke, lives by correspondence, receiving and writing letters (always by hand; he’s too old-fashioned for computers) to fans as near as the local diner and as far as India and Egypt. And while he is no longer designing per se, he hasn’t given up the fight and remains reassuringly optimistic about the future. "Just wait till you’re my age," he says. "You’re going to see a green America."


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