Living Outside the Box: Notes on modern-day cave-dwelling




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Last summer, I had the opportunity to
do some traveling in Costa Rica.  One of
my favorite experiences was a long hike to the top of
Diamante Falls, a series of seven
waterfalls beginning at 3,300 ft.  The
hike, itself, was invigorating, and the waterfall was stunning, to say the
least.  But what really made it
unforgettable was the cave behind the waterfall, where I spent the night.  In contrast to the dark, leaky cavern I had
anticipated, I arrived at a long opening in the cliff-side; this “cave” was
more like a large hallway in which one wall was rock and the other was falling
water.  Astonished at how inviting and
comfortable a space I found it (furnished with cots and Flintstone-esque tables
and stools), I was further amazed to find a fully functioning stove, sink,
toilet and shower – all in separate nooks and crannies, of course.

For me, this was just the beginning of
sophisticated cave-dwelling.  Until my
visit to Diamante Falls, I heard “cave” and I thought “cavemen.” But this one
was light and welcoming and equipped with modern appliances; nothing like Fred
and Wilma’s humble abode.  Still, it was
significantly more primitive than some of the cliff-side residences I had yet
to learn about.


A real-life Flintstones home, built in
the middle of two big rocks.  The house
was liveable until some time ago; you can still see a couch and some other
furniture in the inside.  Photo credit:
Andre Goncalves, MyShot 6/19/2012.


As it turns out, I was quite behind
the times.  A quick internet search for
“cave houses” found pages of results, ranging from
single-family homes to lavish hotels carved into a rock.  True, moisture and the lack of lighting can
be challenging, but aside from being in-fashion, there are actually several
benefits to building underground.  Says

The home has a low environmental
impact because few construction materials are needed (although care must be
taken not to damage the environment when digging out the cave). Cave homes are
remarkably energy-efficient. Most underground chambers maintain a temperature
in the 50s (Fahrenheit) regardless of the outdoor, aboveground weather. This
means only minimal heating is required in the winter, and they stay pleasantly
cool in the summer. An underground home also takes up a small amount of space
on the surface, leaving you space to plant gardens, attract wildlife or just
have a bigger yard. Plus, it’s very difficult to break into an underground home
— there are no windows to break through, just one main door and some
ventilation shafts.

Over the past few years, I’ve been
seeing more architecture that aims to incorporate the natural world, rather
than manipulate it.  There are some
tree-houses out there, and even
some contemporary
hobbit-style hill
.  But the energy efficiency of caves, in particular, is too
exciting for me to ignore, and by the way they’re gaining popularity, it would
seem that others agree.

Surely it was, at least in part,
because of this characteristic that
Dr. Charles Nystrom
pioneered the modern cave-house movement in the 1970s
.  But the real inspiration, as Dr. Nystrom
said, came from the Anasazi cliff houses of Mesa Verde in Colorado (pictured below), which were
built into the rock for both practical and spiritual reasons.  I can understand this; I realize that not all cliff-houses are situated behind majestic waterfalls like Diamante, but
there is an empowering “one-with-the-earth” sense that I’m sure all of them invoke, each in its own way.


The ancient Native American village of
Mesa Verde, Colorado, features numerous ruins built by ancient Pueblo people
known as the Anasazi. The Anasazi made this stone dwelling, Cliff Palace, their
home in the 1200s. Photo credit: William Lothrop, MyShot 2/16/2010.

Having lived most of my life in suburban neighborhood, I find the idea of living within a natural structure especially exotic.  Maybe this kind of housing isn’t for everyone, though with aesthetic allure, architectural originality, crime security, energy efficiency and resource conservation, doesn’t it offer something for a good range of homeowners?  Either way, as population and urbanization continue to increase, lessons from the ancient may be of use to developers who are willing to thinking outside the box to create innovative housing that works with the environment, rather than against it.

Further reading:

Some great photos and background
information on the Anasazi and Mesa Verde were recently featured in
National Geographic
Education’s Cliff Palace: Apartment home of the Ancestral Puebloans

— Lindsey Luria for National Geographic Education

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