Finding an Earth Sheltered Architect

  1. Why
  2. How Much

It really takes a team of people to put together a great earth sheltered home.  One person could probably pull together a good one, but I don’t recommend it.  An important component of any Earth Sheltered design team is the architect.

For the story about my own search, check this post

The rest of this is more general…


Why hire an architect instead of spending that money on the home its self (you could buy a lot of cement or insulation for that price), here are some good reasons;

1) Drawings: The architect is much more familiar with the process and what is needed in the drawings than you are.  You may be able to do all the drawings, but do you know what drawings or details will be needed as part of the construction process?  Figuring all that out may take a lot of your time or even add years to the project.  Missing some important aspects may add even more cost in other ways.  I personally found that having someone else to worry about certain drawings gave me some room to think about other important details.

If there is a downside here, it is that your architect probably won’t give you the CAD unless you convince him to do do so before you get started…  There are many times that I have wished I had access to the CAD so I could use them to quickly test ideas or “fit”.

2) Financing: Your lender (or neighborhood association) will want to see drawings and will be much more inclined to approve drawings created by professionals.  Even if you have “mad cad skills”, they will over-scrutinize and under-value your designs if they don’t see an architects name on the plans.   Hiring an architect may be the key to unlocking the financial or other approvals you will need.

3) Engineering: If you are planning on having an earth sheltered roof, your building inspector will almost certainly insist on seeing good engineering drawings, approved by a civil engineer.  The engineer will almost certainly prefer to work with an architect to ensure he is working with good drawings…  In my case, the engineer cost more than the architect, but I am not sure if he would have worked with me at all without one.

4) Insight: With any luck, you have hired an architect that will not only try to give you what you ask for, but may also give you insight to improve your design.  This is a bit tough for some of us to take, especially if we have already put a lot of thought into the design, but keep an open mind and you may get some good ideas from the architect(s).   It is also great to get the plans out of your head and share them with another human being (even if you have to pay them by the hour for every meeting ;( ).  If you do not have a circle of friends who enjoy chatting about earth sheltered homes, you will probably enjoy this chance to bounce ideas of your architect.  I am not the kind of person who would hire a psychiatrist, but I guess it would feel the same way, cathartic ;).

How Much

We met with and got quotes from 5 architects.  The costs ranged from 18% down to 1% of our budget.    We ended up selecting for reasons other than cost and went with an architect that was approximately 3% of the budget (the engineer was more and additional).  I am using percentages, but in all but one case, the architects all based their quotes on numbers of hours estimated to complete the design multiplied by some hour rate.

Of course, every situation is different.  On the one hand, I came in well prepared (they would not be starting from scratch).  On the other hand, I had a very usual design and I had not yet done any roof drawings…  so there was still a lot to do.   If you were going in with a more modest design and had already figured out most of what you want, I think you could expect the architectural fees to be much lower.

If you compare the cost of an architect with that of a real-estate agent and factor in all the work they do, it is clear where the better value is.   I feel better about paying my architect when I consider that I am not paying thousands to a real estate agent (hidden in the 7.5% higher price of every home purchased thru one) to purchase my home.  No offence to any real estate agents out there, but I think you know this is true ;), feel free to comment below.  Of course the counter argument is that you only pay a real estate agent on the day that you get the keys to your new house (only successful agents get paid).  You pay the architect during the design phase with out any guarantee that you won’t just end up with “paper architecture” (architecture that never gets off the paper).   Many would be earth sheltered home owners have very expensive drawings in the back closet of their still-very much above ground homes.

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?”  Luke 14:28

For a moderate sized Earth Sheltered home where you have already done the majority of the design work and the building permits don’t require a licensed architect to sign off, perhaps an architectural designer (at a lower price point) would be the ideal situation?


It is important to remember that each relationship is negotiated by the participants…  You can change terms, even those in the “standard” architectural agreement.  For instance, I didn’t like the lines about “Owner’s use solely wrt this project” or “Upon completion… the Owner’s right… shall cease”, so I had those parts removed and added explicit language saying I could use the designs in publications, websites, video or any other means I wanted.  My architect said that if I use the design in a movie, he wanted to be played by Daniel Craig, but we didn’t put that in the contract.  

When it comes to paying your architect, there are some items spelled out in the agreement, at least in some countries, and many architects use boiler plate contracts, so it tends to be pretty standard.  Most want an “Initial Payment”, something like $500 or $1000 dollars.  They will set a cost for each phase of the project and will bill you after each month based on the percentage of each phase that they have completed.   My architect put a ceiling on the price to keep things from getting out of hand.  That keeps me from getting too upset if things are talking longer than I think they should.   You will see additional charges for prints, visits to the property, etc.  My suggestion is to not get too picky about the hourly breakdown on the bill or the specifics of how many hours are associated to each associate or task.  The architect is just trying to chunk things out and balance his books.   Just pay your bill, as agreed, based on the percentage of the phases that you believe to be complete.  If it feels like a lot of money, refer back to my comment about the work relative to hiring a real-estate agent to help you buy someone elses dream home…

On the other hand, if he has billed you for all of phase 1 and 2, but you don’t believe things have progressed that far, by all means, call him up.  In my case, I made the mistake of paying too far ahead of the actual work.  By the time I caught it, the architect claimed he was 95% done with design development and he clearly was not more than 70%.  This would be like paying your plumber 95% before he even shows up with the fixtures.  If it was hard getting his attention before, it will be much harder now that he already has the vast majority of your money.   Fortunately  architects are much more professional than plumbers.  I will never know if he would have worked faster if we had owed him more money (he was many months late by the end), but he did honor the original agreed upon price (plus a few hundred dollars in prints).

Of course, the fixed price also made it harder to discuss changes as we neared the end.   The architect defined a few of my requests as a change in scope so they would have cost extra money…   I personally didn’t think they were scope change, but I also didn’t want to take any extra time to argue about that.


Finding and Architect Finding an architect you want to work with is hard enough…  Finding an earth sheltered architect is much harder. In addition to being unusual in form, earth sheltered homes may also require the use of materials and construction techniques that residential architects, at least in the stick-built northern half of the United States and Canada, would be unfamiliar with.  Instead of excluding those who had not built and earth sheltered home, I started looking for anyone who seemed interested in trying.

As mentioned in the main sourcing page, Google was my best friend when it came to finding an architect.  Once I had their name and phone number, I would try to find a website.   Many were more commercial than residential.  This didn’t bother me because my construction methods would be more familiar to a commercial architect anyway…  But apparently that feeling was not mutual.  Once they heard it was a residential project, many were not interested.   However, some architects do seek both commercial and residential work…  I recommend you start there.

I also recommend that you follow the 3 bid rule.  In our case, we were calling the architects as we found them.  We met with the first two and had a hard time getting others to call us back.  Then several called us back all at once, so we ended up interviewing with 5 different architects, two of them twice (this doesn’t included prior emails and phone calls to vet the candidates).  That may have been a bit much.

Questions  Whenever you “source”, it is a good idea to try and ask each sub to bid on the same work.  It is no different with an architect.  It is very helpful to make sure you have covered the same basic questions with each so you can compare apples to apples.

1) Have you ever designed an earth sheltered home before?   This was a tough one.

If an architect claims to have designed an earth sheltered home, did deeper to see if it was actually relevant to what you are planning to do.  In my case, I found the prior experiences were all very different to what I wanted to do.  In one case, the experience consisted of a bermed home with a green roof (less than 8 inches of light weight soil over a steel deck).   I called the reference and found that the majority of the simple square design came from the client; the architect had designed some truss system to remove the need for interior columns, but it was so expensive that the home owner (who built the home himself) didn’t actually use it.  This architect also talked about his passive window expertise, but I felt I was ahead of him there also (he thought turning Low E glass backward was the same as passive solar glass).  So does this earth sheltered experience count?

Another architect had done several earth bermed homes, and one with a green roof, but they were all done decades ago.  I also found him to be a bit annoying and his information was certainly out of date or just wrong (he was already arguing with me during the interview)…  He was also the most expensive…

2) Have you ever worked with shotcrete?   Slab on grade construction?  ICFs?

The important thing here is that the architect have some experience with aspects of your planned method of construction.   Several of the architects I met with had at least one shotcrete project under their belts, almost all had worked with slab on grade construction.   Again, when I looked into it, I found that one had used wooden forms under the shotcrete and the structured had ventilation and mold problems (does a lesson learned count as positive experience?).

3) How and how often should I expect to hear from you?  How much will you try to keep me in the loop on progress?

This is one I didn’t ask, but wish that I had.  I like my architect, and still think we made the right choice, but I do wish I had asked about communication at that first meeting.  Some architects are just not great at keeping you in the loop.  Other architects have a “tada” mentality where they feel like they should go away and secretly do the design work and then pop back and say “tada!”  My guess is these people also like to throw surprise parties. 😉

Personally, as a Product Manager in my real life, I prefer transparency.   If you want weekly updates on where things are and what you are working on, you may want to ask about that at the first meeting.

4) What drawing tools do you use? 2D or 3D?

There are a range of software tools of varying cost and capability.  High end architectural CAD (Computer Aided Design) tools like Autodesk Revit are fairly expensive ($5500/year/seat) and will add to your cost.  Other tools, such as Google Sketch-Up, are free (or there is a low cost “Pro” version for architects), but have fewer capabilities.  I recommend Googling what ever tool the prospective architect mentions to get an idea of its capabilities.   I have looked at the range of tools and found that most have tools (and limitations) built in assuming you will be designing a conventional home and most are not up to the task of modeling an unconventional home, and especially not an earth sheltered home.

If they are not using software (if they are just drawing on a board with a pencil), I recommend moving on to another architect.   But it would be cool if they are good with a pencil (sketching) and I love the look of watercolors for the final concept drawings. 😉

As for the question of 3D vs 2D software… I could argue for either side.

3D looks better and will help you visualize the design.  It is also based on a single model (instead of pages of drawings), so if you make a change, you only need to make it in one place (not each view).  It is also great for making sure that everything fits;  real construction is done in 3D, so it would be great to know that the parts fit in 3D while it is still in the computer.   This concept of a single 3D model can also make things much more difficult…  The designer can’t just draw something, they are forced to make sure it fits in the 3D model, which may require advanced skills for some unconventional geometries.  They may also need to take care of “meta data” for assembly or parameter information that a 2D architect doesn’t spend any time on.   Because more care needs to go into the 3D CAD design (and the software costs more), architects who work in 3D tend to charge quite a bit more and may need to bid for more hours to get a complicated model right.

Only 2D drawings are needed for construction.  2D is more flexible (fudgeable),   a talented architect/designer working in 2D could keep up with the freedom of shotcrete and earth.  This flexibility is also its weakness.  Because the architect is not forced to resolve the design in 3D, it is possible for them to make mistakes between different views (pages) or to design something that won’t actually fit when assembled in 3D (real life).   I found many inconsistencies and conflicts between different views in my drawing sets.  Also, because views are drawn separately, changes made to the design must be made in each drawing that is affected.  This could mean a lot of work for a simple change, or increases the potential of your pages getting out of sync if the corresponding changes are not made everywhere.  And of course, visualization…  2D plans are generally done with “elevation” views or cutaway views that present your home in an almost schematic way…  Elevations are great for understanding how the home is put together and the dimensions of things, but it will never actually look that way when it is built in 3D.  For instance, the front Elevation shows just the front, but when looking at a real house you are looking at it from a slight angle and things look a little different.

Generally speaking, I would lean towards 3D for producing a more robust and build-able design.  It is also prettier.   However, I really didn’t think they could get my model done in 3D.     I had cast off conventional design ideas and only let my earth sheltered home be limited by the capabilities of shotcrete (which is very liberating).  This meant my design was very difficult for standard architectural CAD, designed for conventional construction, to model up.   I had already tried some of the basic forms in a variety of high end 3D cad tools and found they had limitations that prevented the construction of the shapes I needed.

My architect was strictly 2D, but his young apprentice was a wiz with Rhino, one of the few tools that can handle the kind of complex surfaces used in my home…  He provided 2D drawings for construction, but behind the scenes, he often worked out fit with his 3D model.

The architect used some 3D models to help work out the fit... This one shows the dining room vault steel arch calculations...

The architect used some 3D models to help work out the fit… This one shows the dining room vault steel arch calculations…


If you have already done a lot of work on your plans, it would be helpful if the architect could at least import your drawings, so you may want to ask about that also.

Finally, you may find that the architect is quite willing to give you the CAD models for your drawings, and this can be very helpful later (assuming you have access to the tool).

5) Try to meet the architects team…  If the architect will be relying on an associate, you should probably meet that person before you sign on.  If they have an engineer they like to work with, meet the engineer.  It is like getting married, you marry the whole family, choose carefully.

I my case, my design was mostly done by the architects assistant.  He was a very helpful, enthusiastic and likable guy who had some great CAD skills, but little architectural experience.  I know that he started his first year of Architecture school after starting our design, but I was never given any real info about his education or experience.  I am hoping that he already had his B.A. and was just starting his masters, but I guess it would have been good to ask.


6) Ask them how busy they are.  I asked how many clients my architect was working with and he said 10.  I assumed he was including late phase customers that he was still in contact with, etc.  I didn’t think any architects in this business would be so busy, but it looks like he is.  I should have asked a more direct question about how many hours a week they would be able to commit to my project.

7) As them what to expect thru the process, they will probably talk about design phases which I will describe in the next section.  Also ask them about who checks the design.  In my case, the architects assistant did most of the drawing work and I did most of the reviewing.
Design Phases Most architects work in design phases.  These are described in the standard agreement …

Schematic Design Phase: 5%

Design Development Phase:  30%

Construction Documents Phase:  40%

Bidding or Negotiation Phase :  5%

Construction Phase:  20%

You can think of these as break points, between which would be a good time to decide if you want to continue with your architect.  I think most architects blend these together somewhat, particularly Design Development and Construction Documents.

You don’t need to hire the architect for all of these phases, or you perahaps you will touch on some only briefly.  For instance, we came to the architect at a pretty advanced stage and only touched on the Schematic Design Phase (as a santity check) and probably started a good percentage of the way into Design Development.    We will rely on the architect to complete our Design Development and all the construction drawings.  I don’t expect to use my architect for much of the bidding or negotiation phase, but I might have him out once or twice for the construction phase (I will be billed something like 180$ a trip ;))


Malcolm Wells

Malcolm wells was an evangelist for earth sheltered living

Malcolm wells drew this self deprecating image of himself. Quite a sense of humor. 😉

Malcolm Wells is the Frank Llyod Wright of earth sheltered architecture.  Except that he was very unsuccessful at actually getting much built…  I guess maybe Buckminster Fuller is a better comparison.  ;), but still, no page about finding an Earth Sheltered Architect would be complete without a mention of this (now deceased) architect.  His books are nicely illustrated and often “hand written”.  They are a not always so helpful as techincal manuals, but his humorous and self deprecating style make them a pleasure to read, particularly for anyone considering building an earth sheltered home.

You can find an interesting page about him here…  I recommend subscribing to the Yahoo Group to get in contact with other earth sheltered architects, builders and home owners.

Malcolm Wells illustration of the Locust Hill House

Malcolm Wells’ books are often “hand written” and full of nice illustrations like this.

Comments are closed