More Than Just a Hole in the Wall… It’s a Hole in the Ground!

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A “hole in the wall” is used to describe a less than desirable destination. The hole in the ground that I’m referring to however, is anything but that. I’m talking about pit houses, which are practical homes with one distinct characteristic: a portion of the building that is located underground.

Pit houses go way back in history and were seen in medieval European settlements, in addition to North American Aboriginal communities. In the early days, pit houses consisted of a big hole dug into the ground that was typically covered with a vaulted roof. The framing, supports, and actual roof were constructed out of logs, and dirt, grasses, and other vegetation were used as a form of insulation. This design creates an excellent place to live, store food, and congregate, as it keeps its occupants comfortable all year long.

Why exactly is this the case?

Well, the answer is in the dirt. The soil that surrounds the home moderates the indoor temperature, and also provides protection from harsh outdoor conditions. In the summer, the soil helps keep your living quarters cool, while in the winter, it provides some extra insulation and prevents strong winds from stripping heat away from exposed perimeter walls.

Granted, these primitive pit houses really do sound like holes in both the ground and wall, but they were extremely effective at creating a comfortale place to call home. It is this practical purpose that has allowed them to span multiple centuries and still exist today.

Modern pit houses have been artfully adapted to incorporate views of the outdoors, interesting above and below ground configurations, and yes, the original practical protective purpose into one unique home. The entailed planning and construction of pit houses makes them really only suitable for new development projects.

So, what can existing home owners do?

Well, instead of surrounding your house with soil, I suggest creating a living room or sleeping area in your basement to try and reap some pit house benefits. Just think of one of those sticky summer nights, and how wonderful it would be to have a relaxing place to sleep in your cool, dark basement. Instead of fighting the climate above ground, take it a few feet below where you can be comfortable all year long.

Give it a try, and I’m sure you’ll agree that pit houses are the architectural equivalent of buried gold.

  • Sandra Dedesko

    Sandra Dedesko is a recent graduate of Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. She has a high interest in energy efficient buildings and sustainable urban development. She's currently working towards a Masters degree and industry career in this area.

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