19th September 2011
Underground living: The death of the skyscraper
By Stephen Ebert

It could be time to say sayonara to the skyscraper and hello to underground living. If Mexican architects have their way we’ll all be living in Earthscrapers over 30 stories below ground. Forget loft living, the next trend might be subterranean suburbia.

For a glimpse into the blueprint of future city-dwelling, look no further than Mexico City. Rather than ask “who can go highest?” BNKR Arquitectura’s highly ambitious Earthscraper project is instead asking “how low can you go?”

Burrowing down 35 stories beneath the heart of Mexico City, the Earthscraper defies everything the skyscraper stands for. It’s an ambitious rebuttal to architectural obsession with high-rise, so-called space efficient living.

Shaped like an inverted pyramid, the Earthscraper will burrow downwards 775,000 square metres, preserving the existing city square above.

By building below the city, the landscape above ground is left looking relatively unchanged. Concerts, open-air exhibitions and military parades regularly take place on the historic landmark above the Earthscraper, and it’s important to Mexico’s rich history that they continue.

Just as the Aztecs would build pyramids to worship their deities, with new pyramids built on top of the remaining structures, the Earthscraper is designed with many layers. Current plans are for the first 10 levels to house a museum of ancient Aztec and Mayan artifacts.

Why underground?

It’s yet to achieve the final go-ahead from town planners, but should the green light be lit, the Earthscraper project will give the historic centre of Mexico City the regeneration it’s been crying out for.

Demand for new infrastructure, office, retail and living space is currently not being met, but with Federal and local laws preventing the demolishing of historic buildings, and height regulations limiting new structures to eight stories, the only solution is for architects to build downwards.

But the solution brings its own headaches for planners and citizens a like. Amongst the most pressing concerns is how natural light will permeate each layer of the Earthscraper’s 35 underground storeys.

“Even at two levels underground you can have some natural light, but at 35 storeys below that will be a problem,” Maggie Smith, marketing manager of high-end basement builders, London Basement told Humans Invent. 

To solve this, BNKR Arquitectura plans to cover the roof of the Earthscraper with a glass floor spanning the entire surface area of the structure. It will let natural light seep in, and illuminate the subterranean structure, which, BNKR Arquitectura says, also “allows the life of the Earthscraper to blend with everything happening on top.”

It’s an ingenious solution, but development costs are likely to be high, and the ambitious nature of the project means they could overrun, having to excavate, lay foundations and build a new infrastructure at such depth.

“There are a lot of structural issues when going below ground, and construction is going to be very expensive. There has to be artificial ventilation. Rock gets more solid at certain depth too. It will be hugely costly,” says Smith.

Factor in some of the most common problems associated with underground living, such as dampness and humidity, maintenance costs are likely to spiral. However, living underground has its benefits. Subsurface temperatures are more stable than those on the surface, staying cool in summer and warm in winter, potentially reducing energy bills associated with air conditioning and heating, according to OurProperty.co.uk.

Pressed for a comment, BNKR Arquitectura have yet to reveal more, while a number of independent architects are reluctant to speak about a project that’s still very much in the planning stage.

However, Mark Wiseman, basement designer at The Basement Design Studio told Humans Invent that “anything is possible,” even comparing the project with the Moon landing.

“They put a man on the moon. If you chuck enough money at it, anything is possible. Underground water could make it really difficult in the construction phase, and even in the final scheme. But you know these things are possible”

A future for humans underground

Whilst the Earthscraper project is currently ongoing, experiments to move underground living forward have been gathering pace, though not quite on the same scale.

The Earth House in South Korea, designed and built by architect Byoung Cho, was made to focus on the relationship between nature and humans. The 14m x 17m concrete box is buried into the ground and contains 5 rooms, two earth-filled courtyards, a kitchen, bathroom and a restroom.

The earth used to make the walls is saved from the excavation process, so little is left to waste – only white cement and lime is added. A geothermal cooling system heats the concrete floor, with the Earth House kept cool in the summer, and warm in winter.

Perdu, a two-storey underground house in Manchester, England has already won awards before it has even been built. Construction is underway on the private home that will include a kitchen, lounge, dining room and bedroom on the first level, and a pool area and a gym on the second. A guide price of £2 million suggests high-end underground living will come at a considerable cost, even on a small scale. 

But living beneath ground could be more environmentally friendly than setting up home on the surface. Architects have built an eco-friendly underground dwelling in the north of England for former England and Manchester United defender Gary Neville, that could be the blueprint for future subterranean culture.

It “will be the first zero carbon home in this part of the UK meeting the PPS7 guidelines,” says Stuart Fraser, partner and architect at Make.

The leaf-shaped house, known as the Bolton Eco House uses a ground source heat pump, photovoltaic panels and a wind turbine to generate on-site renewable energy.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of enquiries for this type of property. Our scheme is only one storey below ground level to ensure we still get plenty of natural light and can benefit from the natural topography of the ground.”

However, Wiseman, of The Basement Design Studio, believes that an increasing need for planning permission, and the extensive work required is likely to ensure that any progression towards subterranean suburbia will be slow.

“It used to be really straightforward. But with public pressure, people are now asking ‘What’s going to happen to my house? What’s going to happen to the underground water?’ Planners have reacted to that and have put in place tough policies in subterranean development. It’s a massive step up for people that want to spend the money.”

Nevertheless, underground homes continue to emerge, but they don’t have to mean the end of the skyscraper, says Stuart Fraser, of Make Architects.

“We don’t think this will lead to an end in tall buildings – nor should it – development in technology to build underground as well as over ground can only be a good thing to save space on our increasingly crowded planet.”

If anything, the latest below-ground projects still give hope to those that dream of one day dwelling 35 floors down. And rather than one or the other, skyscrapers will continue to rise, as plush cavern-like homes silently blend into the surroundings beneath us.

Until then, we can stare at plans for the Earthscraper and dream of living acres below ground. As populations rise, humans may have to become more downwardly mobile. It seems the sky isn’t the only limit.

The End
  • James Holland

    I love the pics. It’d seem quite spooky down there though, I think.

  • loskiefan

    wow cuhhhhhh thats loskie swag if i knew it

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