I read an interesting article on the “earthlodges” of Native Americans in the Dakotas the other day. I’d learned early in my life when the family moved from New York to “Indian Territory” – Oklahoma – that not all Native Americans lived in those portable teepee tents so prevalent on the plains. I knew the ‘civilized’ tribes of the southeastern United States were able constructors of log cabins for their permanent villages, and of course knew about those spectacular adobe pueblos in the southwest. And while I learned in junior high Oklahoma history about the sod-roofed shanties built by white settlers (and for which Oklahoma was famous), I’d never heard of earthlodges.
Earthlodges are large round structures from 20 to 50 feet in diameter which are built to be much more permanent than the yurts that basically amount to a Mongolian version of teepee for migratory people. Lots of people these days have deck-mounted yurts that are popular as camp cabins or gazebos, but they’re not really something stable or well-insulated enough to live in full time.
In contrast, the earthlodge is dug into the ground and framed with logs, covered with woven willow mats and then covered completely (except for a smoke hole in the middle of the roof) with mud and sod. Your basic hobbit house, but as its own hill rather than dug into a pre-existing hill. Of course, there are some modern earthlodge designs that combine aspects of natural landscaping and lodge building, which are actually quite nice if you don’t care much about windows. It would be quite easy to engineer one of these with skylights, so interior darkness can be alleviated.
The original earthlodges were built communally, often housing between 15 and 25 people. They provided solid, very well-insulated shelter for harsh Dakota winters, and stayed naturally cool in hot Dakota summers. They lasted only as long as the palisade poles and main support logs lasted in the ground, about 7 to 10 years before they’d rotted enough to need replacing. Since it took only about a week for a group to construct an earthlodge from scratch, the old one would simply be torn down and a new one erected in its place. The old logs recycled into firewood made this village system quite efficient given that the Dakotas do not enjoy the thick, lush forests of the American southeast.
For a new homesteader looking for cheap, eco-friendly housing on a tract of raw land, it’s not difficult to see how the problem of ground-rot could be simply eliminated by seating the anchor and palisade logs in concrete. The thermal mass of palisade logs plus dirt/sod can be nearly warm in winter and cool in summer as 3-foot thick adobe walls. More modern – and fully waterproof – coverings take the place of those woven willow mats, and fewer palisade poles would allow for regular insulated walls or an opportunity to place windows and/or exits to porticos, or to build storage rooms or closets off the main structure. For a truly permanent structure, some research on new under-sod waterproof roofing material would probably be a good idea.
The niftiest thing about this kind of permanent shelter is that if your land is raw enough to need some clearing, the logs and poles can be taken as part of your clearing plans. These will have to be de-barked and dried above the ground, there are many good Do It Yourself books and plans out there for site-built log homes that have clear instructions on how to do this. If you’re planning to grow crops, the sod shouldn’t be hard to come by. Rather than a big central fire pit and large hole in the roof, a central wood stove with just a pipe running up through the roof will protect from the elements much better than the wicker baskets the Mandan people used to cover their smoke holes when it rained.
It also strikes me that the side walls could be constructed of straw bales and covered with mesh and stucco or adobe instead of mud and sod and still be as easy to heat and cool. Some may consider rock as well, if the land has an overabundance of those that need removing before crops can be grown. Any of these alternatives for some or all of the side walls would make for a very handsome home. The sod roof does have great appeal, I’ve always envisioned a hobbit house with wildflowers instead of just more grass to have to mow.
The interior, once you’ve got the central roof supports and planned your walls, can of course be framed and subdivided as you please for cooking sleeping and living areas, bathrooms and utility as you wish. The Dream Green link above also offers a plan for a ‘multi-lodge’ made up of several octagonal earthlodges connected to a front portico area. This idea offers the possibility for future expansion as the family grows.
So chalk this up as yet another eco-friendly green construction to think about if you’re new to homesteading or are planning to build more structures on your homestead than you’ve already got. A far less modern (more true to origin) version of earthlodge would make a very serviceable combo barn, root/wine cellar and tool/vehicle storage shed. For as long as you can keep the livestock from eating the walls and roof, that is.