My main line of thinking would be that you would build tall skinny housing that would allow the heat to gather in the upper levels in the winter and the cooler air would gather in the basement/lowest levels during the summer. Perhaps a dummy construction could be something like:

      |   toplevel  |
      ---------------
      | groundlevel |
---------------------------
      |   basement  |

Where the toplevel and basement are essentially mirrors of each other and double as storage/bedrooms depending on the season. In the winter you would fashion the top level as the bedrooms and the basement would then serve as storage space and vice versa in the winter. The groundlevel has a kitchen, living space, bathroom and whatever other types of rooms you want to inhabit year round.

The goal would be to reduce the energy usage by only having to heat the top bedrooms and main level in the winter and only having to cool the basement (perhaps not) and the main level in the summer.

Would you be able trap enough heat in the winter and stay cool enough in the summer to justify building your house like this or is it more energy efficient to heat individual rooms on one main living level?

Additionally:

The way I see the advantages of this house is that all heat whether it be from your furnace or fireplace or stove or human body would move upward through the house and into the spaces that you would be living in the winter. In the summer all of that same heat is still gathering in those same places but because you are now sleeping in the basement the temperature of the upstairs level doesn't matter too much. You can open the windows and let the heat escape while you stay relatively cool in the basement or on the main level.

I have a feeling that given a seasonal temperature range of +/-35°C that reducing the heating/cooling needs over the life of the house will far out weigh any sustainability gained in the construction of a more traditional home but I am more than willing to be proven wrong in that regard.

A complex question. But overall: No, it would not be more sustainable.

Initially, such a design requires more materials. How much more depends upon the ratio of the wall area to the floor area. Building materials tend to have high energy costs; the above-ground part will use 25-50% more materials.

Building underground is also more energy intense: digging out the basement and constructing non-permeable walls is not easy. But once constructed, sub-surface dwellings offer good energy savings, especially if well insulated. In the long term, perhaps the higher initial energy cost would be recouped.

But over-all, we would just have a bigger house for the same number of people, requiring more energy to build, and because of greater surface area, more energy to operate.

  • Assuming that a house will have to heat/cool itself for 50+ years in a climate that can vary from +/-35°C based on the season it seems to me that a lot more would be gained from curbing the heating and cooling over those years as opposed to saving some up from sustainability in the construction. I originally intended for this question to be more about the post-construction energy benefits of building skinny and tall. I will edit my question to reflect this. – Jack Fraser Jul 9 '14 at 13:32
  • 1
    I think my answer is still "No, it would not be more sustainable", but I'll update my answer properly when I get a chance, probably in a couple of days :-) I think multi-level dwellings can have many sustainability advantages, so the issue is the resources used in the extra level. I am re-thinking whether it would cost more energy to operate. Interesting. – andy256 Jul 10 '14 at 2:19

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