avowed "green" architect, Malcolm Wells builds into, rather than on top of, the
A conventional architect "gone green," Malcolm Wells designs buildings that literally
blend into the landscape. The homes and office buildings he creates, like his
Underground Art Gallery in Brewster, are built into the earth instead of on top
of it. Such construction, he says, offers advantages of natural insulation, fire-
and soundproofing, and exteriors that need little maintenance. It also leaves
landscapes unmarred by boxy buildings that may or may not be aesthetic assets.
just trying to undo the horrible damage I did as an office building designer,"
says Wells, 77, a tall man with self-deprecating charm. "I feel guilty for years
of knocking down forests. Then it dawned on me that we can make buildings green.
I think a building should disappear into the landscape as animals do. Most architects,
because of their egos, don't design that way."
Underground Art Gallery, which displays the artwork of his wife, Karen, and where
Wells has his architectural office, appears embedded in a grassy bank. Steps lead
down to the building's facade, a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. In season,
wisteria and grasses droop over the eaves. Inside, the light-filled space is cool
in summer, cozy in winter, not the dark and dank interior that many people erroneously
expect in an underground building.
prevent leaks, the building is wrapped in a thin rubber membrane that will degrade
only if exposed to petrochemicals or sunlight, says Wells. To keep humidity low
-- most of the moisture in an underground building is brought in by people, he
says, not leaks or condensation -- a dehumidifier is used.The building is bolstered
with steel beams to hold the 100 tons of earth on the roof. That earth and 6 inches
of styrofoam superinsulate the building.
year, Wells heats the gallery by burning just 2 cords of wood in a small stove.Wells
has written more than 20 books, including The Earth-Sheltered House: An Architect's
Sketchbook (distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing, 1998) and Recovering America:
A More Gentle Way to Build (Chelsea Green Publishing, 1999), a picture book contrasting
the built environment to natural landscapes. Malcolm Wells also paints landscapes,
which are displayed at the Addison Art Gallery in Orleans.
grew up in Haddonfield, New Jersey, during the Depression. He attended the Georgia
Institute of Technology, then joined a Marines civil engineering training program
during World War II. The war ended two years into the program, and he went on
to apprentice with a New Jersey architect. During the 1950s, six-year apprentices
were allowed to take the architectural exam; he passed and registered as an architect
without attending architecture school, one of a very few to ever do so in the
immediately, he garnered a commission to design a church in New Jersey. It won
an American Institute of Architecture award, and his career was launched. He started
a firm that specialized in office buildings and factories. He estimates that he
paved more than 50 acres of land with buildings and their surrounding asphalt.What
might have been the pinnacle of his career proved a turning point: In 1964, his
firm designed the RCA pavilion at the New York World's Fair, a grand structure
that drew lines of visitors and even a visit by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Watching
the spectacle, Wells considered the significant energy and water wasted and the
landscape displaced by a building that would be bulldozed in two years.
after, he visited Taliesin West, the Arizona compound of the renowned American
architect Frank Lloyd Wright, where a cool underground theater provided respite
from the desert climate without marring the landscape. Wells vowed that from then
on, his buildings would be earth-sheltered whenever possible.With his first experiment,
his second office in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, he learned that earth alone was
not a good insulator and could in fact pull heat away from the building. He began
insulating buildings with styrofoam, which allowed the earth to help keep out
the cold but not conduct heat away from the building. When the 1970s oil crisis
generated a surge of interest in low-energy buildings, Wells published a booklet
called Underground Buildings, which eventually sold 100,000 copies.
1,200-foot gallery, which he built in 1985, originally was planned as his and
Karen's home, but they ran out of money for adding living quarters. So they live
in a nearby tiny shingled bungalow built in the early 1900s from a Sears-Roebuck
catalog kit.Malcolm Wells lectures internationally and has produced more than
800 drawings for underground-home builders. He doesn't keep track of how many
underground buildings have been constructed using his plans, but some notable
examples are the Cary Arboretum in Millbrook, New York, and the offices of Construction
Fasteners Inc. in Reading, Pennsylvania.
costing about 10 percent more than conventional construction, an earth-sheltered
building reduces heating and cooling costs, resists fire, buffers outside sounds,
is tornado-proof, and requires little outside maintenance. Wells designs his earth-sheltered
structures with skylights, light wells, solar tubes, and south-facing windows
so the buildings are filled with natural light.
Wells, "Since there are plantings on the roof, there is no net loss of green area.
An earth-covered building heals the scars of construction."
2003 Globe Newspaper Company.