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20th August 2007 | Draft

From Lateral Thinking to Voluminous Thinking

unexplored options for subterranean habitats in dense urban areas

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Lateral thinking vs Voluminous thinking?
Conventional objections
Legal (and financial) issues of subterranean property ownership
Preliminary technical (and financial) issues
Technical (and financial) issues
Potential marketing concepts or modes
Evaluation of economic viability and marketing
Evaluation of market segmentation
Environmental, resource and quality of life issues
Demonstration, research and testing opportunities
Time factors: urgency, anticipation, phasing
Examples and clarifications
Enabling technology breakthroughs
Enabling legislative and jurisdictional breakthroughs
Relevant industries, expertise and government authorities
References and links


Much is made of the limited space available on the surface of the Earth, especially for housing and especially in the urban areas to which people have tended to move from the countryside. This form of "lateral thinking" has been associated with much-regretted forms of urban sprawl and increasingly problematic access to adequate housing in urban areas. At the same time the urban sprawl has increased pressure on undeveloped areas, notably those provisionally set aside as "green belts".

The question explored here is whether there is already a case for "voluminous thinking" -- or when such thinking may become relevant, if not essential. By this is meant the possibility of progressive development of subterranean property, in urban areas, notably at depths not previously considered, whether 100, 500, 1000 or 5000 metres -- or more

The issues relevant to the feasibility of such development include: ownership of subterranean space, financial significance for the real estate market, relevant construction technology and associated costs, continuing infrastructure costs (air conditioning, heating/cooling, pumping, etc), associated risks and security issues (flooding, earthquakes, etc), reduction of pressure on conventional infrastructure (transportation, green spaces, etc), acceptability to various categories of potential users, and symbolic significance (new frontier, etc).

Most people have never considered living underground. Therefore there is very little awareness of the potential or of the real advantages and disadvantages. However it would be a mistake to deny the extent of underground experience to which people are habituated in major cities (lengthy commutes in subways), shopping malls below ground level (eg Montreal). The Channel Tunnel is another experience which no longer invites comment.

The purpose of the following proposal is to offer triggers to the imagination as to the possibility of property ownership and development deep underground. The question is how people would respond to unusual housing options offered to them. As with any opportunity, the issue is not whether it appeals to all, but rather whether it would be acceptable, if not welcomed, by some.

As a marketing opportunity, it focuses on the challenge of ownership of the Earth beneath any real estate and the opportunity for the owner to sell this unrecognized resource now to those who anticipate the capacity to inhabit such volumes in the future.

The intention is to shift from focus on costly subsurface structures to the potential of low cost high volume subterranean habitats offering a significant enhancement of quality of life.

Lateral thinking vs Voluminous thinking?

The question is why no feasibility studies are undertaken on the proportion of people (students, nurses, shop assistants, tourists, etc) who would be prepared to live underground -- if costly commutes could be reduced to a few minutes?

Why is it assumed that housing requirements must either be satisfied horizontally or vertically -- and never downwards?

What is the market for such facilities? Clearly there is some bad experience with "high rise" buildings, but lessons have since been learnt and other parameters could make "low fall" buildings viable.

What factors preclude reflection on subterraneran options, notably at a time when some consideration is even given to use of orbital colonies or to those based on other planetary bodies?

Despite the creativity associated with the process of "lateral thinking", to what extent is the latter implicitly associated with:

Given the (exponentially) increasing population pressures on urban areas, any mathematically simplistic assumptions underlying "lateral thinking" (and leading to radial expansion over the surface of the land) will have to be complemented by the 3D geometry of "voluminous thinking" at some stage!

There is an irony in the degree to which a society focused on "globalization" should be constrained by what amounts to a "flat Earth" perspective. This is also reflected in the constraints on more integrative configuration of disciplines, strategies and values -- another connotation of "thinking globally" (Spherical Configuration of Interlocking Roundtables, 1998; Future Generation through Global Conversation: in quest of collective well-being through conversation in the present moment, 1997; Spherical Configuration of Categories to reflect systemic patterns of environmental checks and balances, 1994; Configuring Strategic Dilemmas in Intersectoral Dialogue, 1992)

Current situation

In a presentation to the International Tunneling Association (May 2005), the President of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations remarked:

In 2001 there were only 19 megacities. By 2015, it is estimated that there will be about 60 megacities, most of which will be in developing countries. Estimates predict that by 2030, 60% of the world's 8.1 billion people, 4.9 billion will dwell in cities. These increases will place an enormous burden on land use and will lead to degradation of land 2 and forests, loss of biodiversity, and a decline in the quality of air. Against this backdrop, underground space will be used more and more for housing, offices, warehousing, garages and storage as well as for infrastructure in the coming years. These developments will promote environmentally sustainable urbanization by conserving energy, reducing air pollution and creating more open scenery above ground, and thereby allowing cities more land uses options. [more]

As noted by Loretta Hall (What are the Characteristics of Underground Buildings?

Some underground buildings are stereotypical bunkers designed to protect people, computer systems and data, and physical objects such as paper documents, photographs, and films. Most underground buildings, however, are attractive, comfortable structures that serve many different functions. More than 500 nonresidential examples in the United States include schools (from preschool to university levels), offices, factories, warehouses, stores, libraries, performing arts theaters, museums, convention centers, and athletic facilities.

The emphasis in what follows is however on the potential for "subterranean" construction at much greater depths than is implied by conventional understanding of "subsurface" construction and "earth-sheltered" buildings.

The focus here is on:

The question, as with outer space, is how to establish appropriate distinctions from a mindset dependent on what is effectively a "flatland" approach to subterranean opportunities -- a "superficial" caricature of "lateral thinking" where "voluminous thinking" is called for.

Conventional objections

These tend to focus on:

There are various technical issues associated with underground office, dwelling space, storage space and factories. Many of these have been addressed to some degree: nuclear bunkers, mines, storage in old mines, etc

All over Japan, an underground construction boom has quietly gotten under way. Many different kinds of facilities are being built: not just the underground shopping malls that have long been a familiar fixture in this country, but a host of other structures including art museums, electric power plants, and dams (Going Underground: Japan's Subterranean Construction Boom, Trends in Japan, 1997; Letter from Tokyo: Opening up a new urban frontier deep underground. Independent, 8 July 1998)

Legal (and financial) issues of subterranean property ownership

From the perspective of any conventional developer, the key issues are:

More generally, what are the business opportunities for development underground -- for subterranean development at deeper levels?

In the absence of relevant studies, some objections focus on the legal implications (in some jurisdictions) relating to:

Clearly such issues are necessarily:

However some indications of the principles involved may be derived from:

Of particular interest are the following:

Relevant policy issues include:

In some cases a deliberate government policy is articulated to develop underground building, for example:

In summary it would appear that distinctions should therefore be made with respect to the following sets of policy issues:

Preliminary technical (and financial) issues

A primary issue for investigation is whether, or under what conditions, subterranean construction is more economical (or otherwise viable) than construction of high rise buildings.

It is of course the case that some cities might be highly unsuitable for such subterranean construction because of geological and other factors. In other cases, it is assumed that four approaches might be relevant:

It is appropriate to note the range of institutions and conference series focused on underground construction including:

The lst International Conference on Geological Engineering (October 2007, Wuhan,China) has as one theme: underground building technology. A 30-year European strategic plan has been developed by the European Construction Technology Platform (Strategic Research Agenda for the European Underground Construction Sector, 2005).

Technical (and financial) issues

These issues can then be clustered as follows:

  1. Subterranean construction. In this connection, issues include:

    • relevance of traditional shaft mining technology, and the costs of conversion required for larger diameter shafts
    • relevance of tunnel drilling machines and the costs of conversion required for them to drill vertically
    • technical and financial feasibility in relation to subsurface geological characteristics
      • rock (Manhattan), chalk (London), sand (Brussels), etc
      • subsurface water and the level of the water table
      • vulnerability to earthquakes
    • disposal of extracted material
    • modular construction (security doors, secondary shafts, etc) to minimize risk in the event of accidents or disasters
    • adequate access to the surface, both under normal operating conditions and in the event of accident or system failure
    • evaluation of construction costs (and consequently market value) per cubic metre of (habitable) space created at different depths

    As noted in Depth of the Deepest Mine (The Physics Factbook, 2003): "Many problems arise when digging so deep into the Earth. The most obvious is the heat. For example, at 5 km the temperature reaches 70 degrees Celsius and therefore massive cooling equipment is needed to allow workers to survive at such depths. Another problem is the weight of the rock. For example, at 3.5 km the pressure of rocks above you is 9,500 tones per meter squared, or about 920 times normal atmospheric pressure. When rock is removed through mining this pressure triples in the surrounding rock. This effect coupled with the cooling of the rock causes a phenomenon known as rock bursts, which accounts for many of the 250 deaths in South African mines every year". In the deepest mines (~3.5 km) air pressure is roughly 2 atmospheres.

    The question is how such constraints might apply in the case of shaft habitats, rather than in a network of tunnels, especially when possible use may be made of the temperature differential between those depths and the surface as a source of (geothermal) energy, notably when combined with innovative use of water both for air conditioning and for hydraulically powered lifts.

  2. Continuing subterranean infrastructure costs. In this connection, notably at increasing depths, issues include

    • maintenance of infrastructure facilities :
      • air conditioning, additional to experience already acquired in high rise buildings,
      • lifts, additional to experience already acquired in high rise buildings,
      • drainage (water, waste), additional to experience acquired with pumping facilities in mines and tunnels
    • security issues
    • preventive measures against accidents (fire, flooding, electrical failure, etc)
    • evaluation of continuing costs per cubic metre of (habitable) space at different depths

An effort was made in 2005 to scope out the research requirements to 2030 by the European Construction Technology Platform (Strategic Research Agenda for the European Underground Construction Sector. 2005). Significantly it sets out the likely directions of technological and organizational changes that will need to be converted into specific research programmes over the coming years. Its purpose is to guide and stimulate all those interested with the relevant research programmes, whether from a governmental, industrial, social, funding, policy or regulatory perspective. However its focus is stated as follows:

Our aim is to let free above ground space for the use of the citizens, taking the infrastructures underground. In order to do that, Underground Construction will be efficient, safe, with a complete social acceptance and with a minimum impact on the environment.

It is appropriate to stress again that the concern in what follows is with habitats -- of potentially lower cost and in greater quantity -- rather than infrastructure alone, as envisaged by that research agenda. The study is however extremely useful in clarifying many of the research issues, notably relating to sustainability, as discussed below.

Potential marketing concepts or modes

These aspects can be considered with respect to quite distinct marketing approaches or "modes", whether or not they are in some way combined in any marketing campaign:

  1. Mode A: Imaginative marketing of hypothetical property: a marketing approach designed to provoke the imagination and elicit a financial return in the process -- as with the market for gimmicks and executive gifts. This approach has been notably adopted with respect to the "sale" of land on the surface of the Moon and other planets, in exchange for which people acquire a "legal title" (eg Lunar Registry,, Planetary Investments). Whilst far from serious, this serves to orient people to future possibilities by reframing their possibility of acquiring "real estate". It may be compared with the sale of "real estate" in cyberspace -- or of web "domains" -- which, as a business proposition, have proven attractive to millions. Even more realistically is the possibility for current owners of unrecognized real estate assets to sell title to volumes beneath their property to those who anticipate the possibility of exploiting it in the future. An ideal transaction on eBay -- especially for those with mortgage dificulties?

  2. Mode B: Anticipatory marketing: to the extent that legal title can be correctly ensured, a more coherent approach could be taken to the sale of subterranean property in the case where no access is currently possible. This applies to the case where property at depths of, for example, 5,000 metres (or 10,000 or more) can be sold in anticipation of future access to such real estate. This speculative approach has some similarity to the futures market. It also has some similarity to the sale of land (in past centuries), notably on distant continents, to those who might at some stage travel there, possibly as pioneers. An aspect of this approach might be to generate interest to a degree which promotes a speculative run on the acquisition of such properties and the rapid revaluation of their worth.

  3. Mode C: New frontier: The enterprise would emphasize the extent to which subterranean habitats represented a new frontier, calling for a degree of courage and daring. Orbital environments (space colonies) and undersea habitats have been tentatively presented in this way -- and are the subject of high profile documentaries (and the commercial possibility of seat reservation). It may be argued that underground environments are more accessible to pioneering endeavour, especially if opportunities for underground habitat construction can to some useful degree be framed in the same way as cabin construction in wilderness areas by the pioneers of the past. (cf Martin Fackler. Letter from Tokyo: Opening up a new urban frontier deep underground. Independent, 8 July 1998).

  4. Mode D: Normal sale of real estate: sale of developed subterranean property following the many formulae already developed for conventional real estate (including time-sharing and leasehold). This might include the notable variants of:
    • completed construction (ready to move in)
    • partially completed construction, where some rooms were habitable but others required further work
    • uncompleted construction, where owners would apply their own building skills to completion, or even to extension of the space (a striking model in this respect is the Australian subsurface town of Cooper Pedy).

  5. Mode E: Demonstration marketing: restricted sale of property for hotel and other facilities specifically in order to function as a demonstration of what subterranean accommodation might be like, as a prelude to actual development or as a means of marketing subterranean habitats (at whatever depth)

  6. Mode F: Tourism marketing: as an extension of Mode E (as discussed further below).

  7. Mode G: Research: initially at least (and as further discussed below), the economic viability of such an initiative can be presented in relation to research on more general and longer-term interests, whether oriented to space travel or to backup facilities in the event of systems collapse on Earth. The range of research themes points to the probability of interest on the part of various R&D communities, whether academic or application oriented. Many would therefore be of interest as themes of imaginative postgraduate study -- including the economics of commercial potential.

Of relevance to any imaginative marketing strategy is that such options have to some extent been prefigured in numerous science fiction scenarios with which several generations are familiar.

Indication of conditions of viability of market approaches
. Research
title to property
title to property
to property
Now Mode G Modes A,C,E,F Modes B,C,E,F    
Future (10-years) Mode G   Modes B,C Modes B,C,D,E Modes D,E,F
Future (10-50 years) Mode G   Mode B Mode D Mode D

Evaluation of economic viability and marketing

The associated issues may be clustered as follows:

  1. Marketing: Issues include:
    • given the golden real estate rule ("location, location, location"), what weight would be attached to high proximity to urban centres, possibly combined with ready access to green zones (especially if constructed beneath them)
    • impact of subterranean depth on purchase, rental or running costs
    • whether the (rental or purchase) cost would be sufficiently attractive compared to that of above-surface accommodation options
    • whether the option would be attractive:
      1. as a primary residence (for students, urban dwellers, etc), and perhaps especially for those with physical handicaps challenged by access to surface facilities and transportation systems where little provision has been made for the disabled
      2. as a secondary residence or service apartment (for workers with an above-surface house elsewhere, thereby allowing more people to live in distant rural areas -- over the weekend -- if they only had a few minutes commute during the week)
      3. as a temporary residence, possibly in the form of a hotel (for tourists, business visitors, etc)
    • whether time-sharing options might apply
    • attractiveness for facilities other than accommodation:
      1. hotels, convention centres
      2. restaurants, entertainment facilities
      3. warehouses
      4. offices
      5. educational facilities, penal institutions
      6. medical facilities

  2. Access to facilities: These need to be distinguished from those already associated with high-rise units (with which they would compete):
    • access to parks
    • reduced horizontal transportation
    • access to medical facilities
    • access to entertainment facilities
    • access to schools

  3. "Subjective" issues: These need to be distinguished from those already associated with high-rise units (with which they would compete), recognizing that these issues will be assessed differently by different clusters of people faced with the need to make compromises in their choices:
    • Security issues and risks: accidents (structural failure, flooding, fire), disasters (earthquakes), utility failure (electricity, water, etc), crime (as evident in some high rise buildings) and terrorism. Clearly there are aspects of subterranean habitats which may be perceived as offering a higher order of security than normal -- as is the case with the rising numbers of gated communities and the vulnerability of high rise buildings to some forms of gang intimidation or terrorism.
    • Psychosocial issues: comparison with "gated communities" and intentional communities; weight attached to claustrophobia (vs agoraphobia) and the associated phenomenon of increased cocooning; whether the values associated with "penthouse" high-rise preferences translate in any way into the "deepest" subterranean habitats. It is appropriate to note that throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, more than 70 undersea habitats were put into operation, manned by aquanauts from a variety of nations; new possibilities are under conditions (Chris Wright, Sleeping with the Fishes, 2007). Behavioural indicators from undersea habitats have long provided guidelines for consideration of analogous issues in space environments.
    • Access to light: this is typically cited as a fundamental issue, even by commuters who seldom see the light of day from their homes, or possibly from their workplaces; the value of the proximity of light and greenery (via an elevator ride) needs to be explored, especially for those urban dwellers who otherwise have to travel significant distances to have such experience
    • Sense of well-being: such issues are discussed below in relation to quality of life
    • Symbolic issues: these can be fruitfully explored from a number of aspects to which different potential subterranean inhabitants would be variously sensitive or indifferent:
      1. a womb-like experience for those valuing the sense of shelter and security offered by enclosure (possibly including some with autistic tendencies)
      2. a sense of an especially "grounded" existence with a special relationship to the "bowels of the Earth"
      3. environmental values attached to a reduced environmental footprint
      4. a daily descent to Hades, and return, for those attracted to such underworld mythology and its psychosocial implications (Enlightening Endarkenment; Persephone, Hollow Earth theories, psychopomp, etc)
      5. religious and theological sensitivity primarily associated with surface features of a holy land (as scripturally defined) in contrast to a degree of possible indifference relating to volumes hundreds of metres below with which there is no psychocultural identification; such flexibility might opens up negotiating possibilities in situations as the Middle East (notably in the light of the compromises made regarding use of surfaces of the Holy Sepulchre by different Christian denominations) [more]
      6. caricatures of such inhabitants as "troglodytes" and "dwarves" (demonstrably a matter of indifference to the inhabitants of Cooper Pedy, to cave dwellers of the past or of the 20th century, or even to those inhabiting earthen structures)
      7. caricatures of such habitats as "ant burrows" (of little significance in comparison with caricatures of skyscrapers as "ant hills" or "termite mounds")

Evaluation of market segmentation

The previous section points to the need for a careful evaluation of the actual and potential market, depending on sensitivity to how the enterprise is framed and publicized.

Beyond the purely economic factors highlighted above, and those relating to greater convenience, of particular interest is segmentation based on culture, tradition and personality type. To what personality types is such an enterprise likely to appeal, and possibly to what age groups?

There are also interesting issues in relation to those who have very little possibility of normal access to housing and whether this proposals also suggests opportunities for various forms of government funded "social housing":

Environmental, resource and quality of life issues

Various issues can be usefully highlighted:

  1. Energy requirements: A key question, relating to financial issues discussed above, is whether subterranean habitat construction and occupation can be achieved in such a way as to be either more economic and/or more environmentally sensitive than surface construction, notably in comparison with high-rise buildings. What indeed might be the environmental footprints of such development? Careful comparative study is required of above and below surface costs of:
    • construction (especially given the opportunity of opening up levels deeper than it is feasible to go higher)
    • air conditioning (especially given the different degree of access to the atmosphere)
    • heating/cooling (especially given the different degrees of exposure to vagaries of weather). Underground building is already a recognized method for energy conservation.
    • operation of lifts/elevators (especially given the opportunity of opening up much deeper levels)
    • drainage and pumping (especially where the water table is relatively high)
    • waste disposal
    • emergency facilities
    • reduction of surface transportation/commuting costs (especially with direct links to underground transportation systems)

    The key issue is the extent to which, and the conditions under which, subterranean construction can substitute for surface construction, especially in the light of surface transportation and environmental costs. Given the significantly higher temperatures at great depths (notably in the light of exeprience in deep mines), deep habitats suggest options that have not been discussed in relation to reduction of emissions due to the heating costs of conventional surface habitats -- however these advantages might be outweighed by air conditioning and cooling costs (if energy benefits cannot be derived from such levels).

  2. Green belt preservation: A current issue is the degree to which housing requirements will necessarily be given higher priority than preservation or extension of green belts and their associated wildlife. Clearly there is every possibility that such subterranean habitats could be constructed in proximity to green belts or even beneath them -- possibly even beneath urban parkland (eg in the case of London: Hyde Park, Regents Park, or Hampstead Heath). It is however appropriate to note articulated concerns of development by stealth (The Heath and Hampstead Society, Undermining Hampstead, 2007).

  3. Air pollution: Clearly by reducing urban transportation, increasing air pollution can be avoided and possibly significantly reduced (which may be of special interest to those with certain respiratory challenges). Of particular interest is the nature of cooling/heating for subterranean habitats and its effects on air pollution. Clearly attention has to be given to vulnerabilities associated with dissemination of substances through closed systems (the airplane infection effect).

  4. Noise pollution: Of great interest is the manner in which subterranean habitats can be designed so as to minimize noise pollution and vibration -- in notable contrast to above surface accommodation. This may be especially relevant in the case of noisy neighbours and the considerable projected increase in aircraft traffic.

  5. Light pollution: Although ranked as a minor concern, it is appropriate to note that subsurface construction necessarily reduces light pollution.

  6. Health: It is possible that subterranean dwelling, with easy access to green space and minimum commutes, would encourage a shift in life styles with increasing numbers walking or biking to work. It might be especially valued by those with allergies, or disabilities dependent on easy access to medical facilities.

  7. Reuse of brown-field development land: Subterranean construction under brown field sites might well avoid some of the pollution issues associated with surface development on those sites.

  8. Reuse of abandoned subsurface structures: Under some conditions, old tunnels, bunkers and mine shafts might offer means of reducing construction costs

  9. Appropriate use of surface spaces: Some of the above options point to the possibility of making more appropriate use of land surface by moving some infrastructure "down"

  10. Privacy and related security issues: These issues are well-recognized in high-rise apartment blocks and require corresponding attention in the light of the learnings there. Possibilities might include the capacity to order (and pay for) a "private" elevator car for a particular journey at a particular time

  11. Quality of life and sense of well-being: A vital dimension, for those free to choose between subterranean and surface dwelling, would be whether subterranean dwelling offered a greater sense of quality of life.

Demonstration, research and testing opportunities

  1. Demonstration: In contrast to the conventional approach to offering people the opportunity of visiting "demonstration homes" and "sites", more is required to give credibility to subterranean facilities.

    The photographic study of Wayne Barrar (The Machine Room: Visualising a Commodified Subterra, 2002-2006) is a step in that direction.

    People need to be able to live, however briefly (overnight or for a weekend) below ground in the types of construction that would be feasible. They need the opportunity of getting a sense of the infrastructure (notably the lifts) and the facility of access to the service. As with passengers on cruise ships, they also need to be given some familiarity with security features (bulkhead doors) and secondary access tunnels.

    Such experiences could be extended into:

    • a form of holiday typical of tourism to a major city -- and certainly a potentially attractive option on visiting some locations (an example is the marketing of the Ice Hotel in Lapland).
    • early use of underground convention centres (as proposed for Ottawa) -- recognizing that a number are already constructed just beneath the surface (Tokyo, Edinburgh, Toronto, Birmingham, Turin), or with limited exposure to outside light (Brussels)
    • underground retreat centres, "a quiet space to get away from it all", possibly even extending to a form of hermitage
    • underground therapy centres (as with salt mine therapy in Eastern Europe)
    • underground recreation areas (as with Montreal malls)
    • underground places of celebration and worship, exemplified by the complex of underground temples constructed by the Damanhur community in Italy

  2. Research: A demonstration/test environment would enable and encourage exploration of issues such as the following, a number of which could be associated with analogous research with regard to space habitats:
    • environmental control (air, water, heat, etc), notably where account must be taken of particular geological conditions (high/low water table, geothermal opportunities, etc)
    • recycling (air, water, etc)
    • structural design, notably modular design reducing vulnerability to earthquakes (Japan) and various forms of system failure
    • aesthetic design, as a challenge to architects, landscape gardeners, and interior decorators
    • "home extension" opportunities, notably the conditions under which individuals could extend their units into the surrounding volume in a "do-it-yourself" spirit, exemplified by accepted practice in Cooper Pedy subsurface dwellings.
    • psychosocial factors, notably building on past research on disruption of circadian rhythms; ironically the rapid orientation to the virtual environments of cyberspace can be recognized as a form of anticipation of the impact of cocooning in spaces of choice (whether subterranean or not)
    • viability for particular groups: especially interesting is the possibility that particular groups may prefer such environments under certain conditions (elderly, students, etc) or consider them as tolerable as the current facilities offered (penal establishments, etc)
    • opportunities for gardening/horticulture: this may be seen as a significant attractor (and compensation) and requires exploration of how spaces (of what size) could be viably created for individual initiative, possibly in contrast with the allotment model
    • opportunities for agriculture: this could parallel research into the need for such facilities on long space journeys or at their destination
    • opportunities for animal husbandry: given the extent to which intensive farming is already practiced without exposure to normal light, underground facilities are a natural extension

  3. Research on economic viability: Further to points made above, the scope of any such "voluminous" undertaking suggests a wide range of socio-economic research required to substantiate possibilities. This could usefully include:
    • learnings from the implantation of high-rise buildings in urban environments, the arguments originally presented and the blindspots subsequently highlighted
    • windows of viability beyond the advantages of high-rise buildings, namely the point at which the cost of subterranean extension downwards is below the cost of surface extension upwards (or even laterally)
    • the factors that would ensure that subterranean habitats are recognized as offering a higher quality of life than surface construction and especially high-rise surface construction, whether or not a premium price is placed on access to this advantage

  4. Closed environments: Both demonstration and research could be related more generally to the challenge of closed environments, exemplified by the emerging concerns with respect to space environments, but given particular focus by the probability of environmental, economic or social system collapse on Earth. In contrast with an open system approach to the unconstrained expansion of the human population and its use and disposal of resources, particular constraints must necessarily be taken into account where the need to recycle becomes essential. Such closed environments may only be recognized as an option by some, but certain forms of system collapse may render them essential. This was first recognized in relation to the (past) nuclear threat. It remains a concern in relation to possible future biological and security threats: epidemics, bioterrorism, etc. The concern is of course increasingly recognized in preferences for residence in "gated communities".

Time factors: urgency, anticipation, phasing

  1. Urgency: the case of the United Kingdom:

    • John Prescott calls for radical thinking about housing (Editorial, Guardian, 19 July 2002), especially in the South East -- where it is estimated that some 120,000 housing units are required. Green belt land is to be progressively sacrificed. At what point will consideration be given to the possibility that far more people can live in Central London -- beneath existing housing?
    • In anticipation of the anniversary of 11th September consideration is being given to contingency plans for the evacuation of London (Independent, 17 September 2002) and notably the financial square mile.
    • On taking office as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown (July 2007) announced plans for a massive housing construction programme, notably taking advantage of brown field sites. He stated that tackling the shortage of affordable housing was his main priority and has promised to build three million new homes by 2020 (Brown announces plans for 3 million houses, Telegraph, 11 July 2007).
    • In response to the exponentially increasing usage of London's Heathrow airport, BAA is seeking planning approval in 2007 for a third runway -- which will displace local communities and destroy green belt facilities -- using arguments that will presumably have to reinvoked when the new facility becomes overloaded

    Curiously no study has been made of the feasibility of underground housing for London. This may well be extremely relevant to the position of Kent -- especially given its experience with the Tunnel project. The question is why no effort is made to look into the conditions of feasibility. Given the chalk beds in the South East and the equipment already used for tunnelling, surely a feasibility study is merited.

  2. Anticipating the need: the more general case: Clearly an important issue is when use of subterranean volumes will be viable in economic and environmental terms, and where, and which factors will force the issue more rapidly.

    The concern then will be with what degree of anticipation such possibilities need to be explored and tested, responding to whatever restrictions and constraints emerge

  3. Phasing use: Clearly there would be reasonable reluctance to use such facilities if it was assumed that it implied a permanent move underground. On the other hand, as with underground transportation, the use of subterranean facilities is acceptable for a time. The question is what proportion of the daily or weekly cycle some people would be willing to spend in subterranean facilities ("downtime") and what proportion of "up time" would be felt to be appropriate. Such issues figure in relation to remote research stations, including space stations, and in the case of incarceration.

    Obviously preferences would vary and may themselves vary over a year. Downtime might be more acceptable in winter for example (Montreal malls).

  4. Phasing extension: Subterranean construction can be usefully structured so that further extension in depth can be envisaged whenever this is considered appropriate. This contrasts with the constraints on vertical extension of existing high-rise buildings.

Examples and clarifications

It should be emphasized again that the focus in this proposal is not on "buried" construction and dwellings, or habitats at a depth of less that 50 metres, but on the possibilities at much greater depths. Much of the literature focuses on "subsurface" constrtuction and not on construction at deeper levels, whether or not the same principle apply.

  1. Subsurface experiences or their equivalent:

    • manning:
    • underground research facilities
      • hostile enviuronments (Antarctic, Arctic)
      • high security research laboratories
      • particle accelarator laboratories
      • underground computer server "farms"
      • biochemical laboratories (cf White Pine Mine, 2002, operated by SubTerra LLC)
    • underground commercial facilities:
      • storage facilities (including waste disposal)
      • factories
      • shopping malls (Montreal)
    • civil defence shelters (Switzerland), notably with respect to nuclear attack (USA)
    • open plan offices with little or no access to natural light
    • subsurface therapeutic facilities (as in some former salt mines)
    • emergency government underground facilities (USA, UK, Canada, Germany, etc)
    • underground intentional and religious environments (Cooper Pedy, Damanhur)
    • utility conduits beneath cities (such as those of New York favoured by the homeless)
    • institutional "incarceration" (penal institutions, etc)
    • deep mining (Depth of the deepest mines, 2003; How deep into the Earth has the furthest person ever been, 2000; Gold Fields bets R4.7bn on deepest mines, Business Report, 8 September 2006)
    • speleologists
    • underwater habitats, and promotion of the future of aquanauts (Living Under the Sea, BBC, 2007; The Aquanaut's Home Under the Sea, CNN, 2007)

  2. Possible cases predisposed to early implementation:

    • rich countries especially those short of land and prepared to experiment (eg Dubai, Singapore)
    • countries with major slum area challenges (eg Rio de Janeiro)
    • countries with subterranean geology amenable to relatively low cost construction (eg London chalk, Brussels sand)

    Clearly some sites offer a considerable comparative advantage with respect to subterranean construction and the advantage such construction would offer in terms of access (eg financial capitals capable of offering access to their central business districts)

  3. Partially sunken buildings: How underground must a building be, to be an underground building? (cf Loretta Hall, Underwhere?). Some applications focus on partially sunken housing, in contrast with this proposal.

  4. Overground entrance facility: People are more comfortable entering an underground building through an inviting structure, rather than (as an extreme example) descending a stairway through an unadorned hole in the sidewalk. Centennial Science and Engineering Library (CSEL) at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque presents an example of a prominent entryway to an underground structure. Freestanding kiosks may be used by architects to provide attractive, protected access to elevators and stairways.

  5. Protected constructions: More far fetched perhaps, but perhaps an interesting option -- given attention to the risks of terrorist strikes, nuclear attacks, and biological warfare -- is the question of protected environments. Possibly a case could even be made for a form of construction of some "high rise" buildings which could be lowered into subterranean vaults in the event of such risks.
Going Underground
(report by Angus Watson, House and Home,
Financial Times, 7-8 August 2010)

Reawakening the Underground
(report by Matt Bolton,
BBC News
, 10 November 2011)

Derek Taylor, head of development control for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, says: 'Ten years ago, there were virtually no applications to dig large basements. Four years ago, it seemed that every second application was a basement conversion.' In the past three years, the borough granted 461 'digging-down' applications, rejected 42 and 66 are pending.... Theoretically, since they are invisible, basements fall under permitted development rights and are not subject to planning control. Guy Bransby, director of Jones Lang LaSalle, who devised Jon Hunt's five-storey basement application, says: 'If you can't see something, it doesn't make any difference.' In Hunt's case, his London borough judged that creating such a vast underground area changed the character of a listed building, and so denied it.... Perhaps the only limit to mega-basements is developers' and oligarchs' imaginations. What's next? A swimming pool that drains to reveal a helipad? A private underground rollercoaster? Perhaps in 20 years' time we'll see 20-storey 'magma-scrapers' popping down all over London.

There are around 40 abandoned or unused Underground stations in England's capital -- huge caverns of prime real estate going to waste in one of the world's most expensive cities. As transport patterns changed over the past century, the underground network waxed and waned, with new stations opening and others closing to match demand....

Ajit Chambers is a former City of London banker who quit finance to set up the Old London Underground Company in 2009, which is leasing the subterranean land from the city. He hopes to transform these old stations into an array of nightclubs, museums, restaurants and galleries, turning subterranean London into the city's newest tourist attraction. Chambers recently invited me below ground at the Brompton Road Tube station in West London, which he intends to turn into a restaurant and museum in time for the 2012 Olympics. There are also plans for public tours of the War Rooms.

Underground Cities: the Future of Business
(report by Kieron Monks, CNN, 18 November 2014)

London's 'ghost stations' are a paradise for urban explorers, daredevils who compete for the most spectacular photos of their visits to the abandoned labyrinths that stretch under the capital. But the party may be over, as London seeks to transform its abandoned tube stations into a powerhouse of urban development, and address the problem of expansion in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Ex-banker Ajit Chambers, 41, is leading a campaign to push the ghost stations into service. The founder of the Old London Underground Company has plans to develop 26 sites with an estimated value of £3.6 billion. He envisages leasing and converting them into retail parks, entertainment centers, offices and cultural experiences....

In a 2013 report, the US National Research Council suggested that "facilities underground may be the most successful way to encourage or support the redirection of urban development into sustainable patterns."

"It's absolutely a growth area," says Mark Hansford, editor of theNew Civil Engineer. "All the businesses we talk to anticipate growth in construction of ever deeper underground spaces. In London a growing number of properties are three or four stories deep. With so little space there has to be new ways to make use of it." Hanford says that technology has played a role, with the development of self-supporting concrete, and 3D computational modeling that allows architects to plan at ever-greater depths with minimized risk. "There has been development of skill in underground tunneling that gives confidence to clients now, that projects will be built on time and budget," says Hansford.

Hansford adds that energy costs could be significantly lowered through the warmer atmosphere underground, another inducement for potential occupants. For the future of business, the only way is down.

[see video of Europe's Underground City]

Thinking "voluminously" underwater?
A Japanese engineering company, Shimizu Corporation, has released ambitious designs for an underwater city, a modern-day Atlantis
(Julian Ryall, Ocean Spiral - city of the future: in pictures, The Telegraph, 21 November 2014)

A series of underwater eco-villages, entirely self-sufficient, spiraling "oceanscrapers" reaching the sea floor,
are planned by Vincent Callebaut through the Aequorea project.
They would be constructed using recycled plastics from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Tom Jenkins (Plans for underwater 'oceanscraper' revealed, CNN, 4 January 2016)

Enabling technology breakthroughs

The rate at which exploration of the new frontier can be rendered feasible is dependent on development and adaptation of technologies (in fields in which there is already a rapid rate of R&D) such as:

Introducing... the earth-scraper:
Architects design 65-storey building which plunges 300 metres below ground

(report by Hugo Gye, Daily Mail, 12 October 2011)

Architects have designed an incredible 65-storey 'earth-scraper' which plunges 300 metres below ground. The stunning upside down pyramid in the middle of Mexico City is designed to get around height limits on new buildings in the capital.The subterranean building will have 10 storeys each for homes, shops and a museum, as well as 35 storeys for offices.
Esteban Suarez, from architecture firm BNKR Arquitectura, said the building would also house a new cultural centre. He said:

  • New infrastructure, office, retail and living space are required in the city but no empty plots are available.
  • Federal and local laws prohibit demolishing historic buildings and even if this was so, height regulations limit new structures to eight storeys.
  • The city's historic centre is in desperate need of a makeover but we have nowhere to put it, this means the only way to go is down.
  • The Earthscraper preserves the iconic presence of the city square and the existing hierarchy of the buildings that surround it.
  • It is an inverted pyramid with a central void to allow all habitable spaces to enjoy natural lighting and ventilation.
  • It will also allow the numerous activities that take place on the city square year round such as concerts, open-air exhibitions and military parades to go ahead.

Enabling legislative and jurisdictional breakthroughs

As noted earlier, a number of countries and/or cities are already taking the need for enabling legislation and administration very seriously.

The question here is how to distinguish between the subsurface (and surface-related) issues and those which could be reframed as relating to another domain -- somewhat as is done with overseas territories (or the French DOM/TOMs). Special provisions for enclaves provide another example, as with government creation of "free trade zones" from which inhibiting regulations have been removed (cf Resources on Renaissance Zones, 2003).

Recognizing the need for imaginative social projects and a "new frontier", there is considerable advantage to creating exploratory zones, notably as a means of channelling the spocial frustrations of the young in an over-organized society.

The proposal opens the possibility for each country, potentially including the smallest, to have an "open frontier" -- but fundamentally an "inner" one, much as the kibbutz movement originally functioned in Israel.

The challenge for authorities lies in:

A striking current demonstration of the contrast is the increasing contractual use of security forces provided by private corporations in Iraq -- forces which cannot be held to the same standards of behaviour as normal military forces. In effect such measures deliberately provide for activities by proxy -- supposedly "beyond" government oversight.

Relevant industries, expertise and government authorities

Missing international authorities for subterranean initiatives include equivalents to ICAO and ESA

References and links

(keywords: "underground building", "subterranean construction", "subsurface habitats", "underground cultivation", "underground property" )

Institutions and conference series

American Underground Construction Association

Associated Research Centers for the Urban Underground Space (ACUUS): International Conference of Underground Space

Centre of Documentation on Underground Building and Planning [link]

European Construction Technology Platform. Strategic Research Agenda for the European Underground Construction Sector. 2005

International Association of Foundation Drilling [an international, professional, trade association representing the drilled shaft, anchored geo-support and other related industries]

International Exhibition Underground City (Moscow, 2004, 2007)

International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association [events checklist]

lst International Conference on Geological Engineering (October 2007, Wuhan,China)


Tina Grady Barbaccia. Creative Underground Reclamation Options: from office space and warehouses to bat habitats, there are many viable and often lucrative options for underground mines. Aggregates Manager, May 2006 [text]

Wayne Barrar. The Machine Room: Visualising a Commodified Subterra [a visual presentation based on the photographic research project, 'An Expanding Subterra' (2002-2006)] [text]

E. S. Burcher, S. Deutsch, E. McLaughlin, N. Zill. Applications of Behavioral Research on Undersea Habitats to Manned Space Flight. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) 1969-1120, Annual Meeting and Technical Display, Anaheim, 1969).

John Carmody. Underground Building Design: Commercial and Institutional Structures. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1983

Yerach Doytsher, Joseph Forrai and Gili Kirschner. Initiatives toward a 3D GIS-related Multi-layer Digitial Cadastre in Israel (New Technology for a New Century International Conference, FIG Working Week 2001, Seoul, Korea, Session 27 - 3D Spatial Information) [text]

Tetsuro Esaki. Underground Space Design and Practice, 2005:

Martin Fackler. Letter from Tokyo: Opening up a new urban frontier deep underground. Independent, 8 July 1998 [text]

Loretta Hall. Underground Buildings: more than meets the eye. Quill Driver Books /, 2003 [Information about more than 130 subterranean sites in the US and Canada] [contents]

Charles Higginson. The Father of Earth-Sheltered Design. Mother Earth News, October/November 2006, 218 [text]

W. L. High, I. E. Ellis, W. W. Schroeder and G. Loverich. Evaluation of the Undersea Habitats - Tektite II, Hydro-Lab, and Edalhab - for scientific saturation diving programs. Helgoland Marine Research, 24, 1-4 / March 1973, pp. 16-44 [text]

Keith Just. Living Underground., 14 Jun 2002 [text]

Mike Oehler. The $50 and Up Underground House Book [reviews]

D.V. Roberts. Sustainable Development and the Use of Underground Space. Tunneling and Underground Space Technology, 11, 4, October 1996, pp. 383-390

Witold Rybczynski. Big Digs: the problem with underground architecture. Slate, September 2006 [text]

H. Sandberg. Utilizing Spaces under the Surface of the Earth: Judicial Aspects (a professional opinion presented to the State of Israel, Ministry of National Resources, National Land Administration and Ministry of Justice), April 2000 (In Hebrew).

Science Reference Services. Underground Architecture [resources]

Subterranea Britannica. The Study and Investigation of all Man-Made and Man-Used Underground Spaces. 1995-2007 [text]

Undergound Bulding News [collection of documents] (edited by Loretta Hall)

Frank van der Hoeven. Multiple land-use through effective usage of subsurface dimension, 2004:

R.M. van der Ploeg, ir. J. Dorreman and ir. J.C.W.M. de Wit. North/South Line Amsterdam, Underground station CS on Station Island - Complex building techniques on an artificial island [text]

Ernst von Meijenfeldt. Below Ground Level: Creating New Spaces for Contemporary Architecture. Birkhäuser, 2003 [summary]

Malcolm Wells:

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