Villa Vals, Hundertwasser, Matmata and Yaodong

by Katleen De Flander

Project by: SeARCH and CMA
Project Name: Villa Vals, Vals, Switzerland
Project Links: SeARCH , CMA , Villa Vals

Down the hill from the famous Therme Vals from Architect Zumthor, this private building that serves as a holiday house received a lot of attention since its construction (2009).

Referred to as the ‘hole house’ it is sunk in the alpine slope, taking advantage of the earths thermal insulation. The building claims energy neutrality, using a ground-source heat pump, heat exchanger, radiant floors and nearby generated hydropower.

This is a great example of the possibilities of subterranean building, completely integrated in the landscape. Villa Vals proves to have an excellent indoor climate and is flooded with light.

Villa Vals picture credits: Iwan Baan

Thinking back of my architecture studies, I cannot recall learning about how to make optimal use of passive solar energy, nor about how to use local resources. When I now tell my architect friends that I work on sustainable building and urban environmental topics, I always seem to stumble on a lot of prejudice. They seem to experience these topics only through rules and regulations that are putting limitations on their architectural freedom. ‘Sustainable building’ is often still linked with a mentality of ‘let’s-all-build-together-a-straw-house-and-live-in-peace-and-harmony’. For this reason, I attach great importance to examples like Villa Vals, which have a great architectural quality and prove that sustainability is a huge opportunity for innovation and diversification.

Although this is an inspiring example, it is of course not the first subterranean building. Vernacular architecture can teach us a lot how to make the connection again with ‘locality’. Designs become automatically diversified according to people’s needs, cultural differences, local environments, and availability of materials. Some architects are starting to realise that it is time to make a transition from universal designs to adjusting buildings to the place and climate where they are built.

Project Name: Underground building in the village of Matmata, Tunesia

Matmata, Tunesia. Maybe you recognise this traditional underground “troglodyte” building in the village of Matmata, Tunesia as the Star Wars setting for Luke Skywalker’s home on the planet Tatooine.

Picture credits: Wikimedia commons

Project Name: Yaodong dwellings in Northwest China

Yaodong, China. Other great examples of underground buildings are found in Northwest China where different types of cave dwellings called “Yaodong” provide a comfortable indoor climate for its residents.

Project by: Friedensreich Hundertwasser
Project Name: eye-slit house, Thermal Village Bad Blumau in Austria
Project Links: Hundertwasser , Bad Blumau

Hundertwasser. Also to mention concerning this topic is Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian painter who became involved in architecture and developed several models and buildings that are integrated into the landscape. New shapes as the eye-slit house or the pit house (built around a courtlike pit) or real built projects such as the Thermal Village Bad Blumau in Austria demonstrate his ideas.

Eye-slit house

Picture credits: Hundertwasser and Bad Blumau

Now I don’t mean that we have to all move underground and paint our windows tomorrow (as Hundertwasser claims for the “window right” of every tenant to embellish the facade around his windows) but we should certainly recognise the great potential of these examples and appreciate their respect for “locality”, excellent thermal qualities and multiple use of space.

Published on 5. September 2011
by Katleen De Flander


a reference blog on resources, urbanisation and transformation


The driving thought behind this BLOG is that we are in the need of a major transition in thinking and we need to get inspired. We have to approach ‘living’, ‘moving’, ‘using’, ‘creating’ in a different way. Many designers, urban planners, architects and other creative people are frontrunners for change and frontrunners need to be appreciated and shared.

Be inspired!

The team

Katleen De Flander
Katleen De Flander
Urban Environmental Research
Architect | Urbanist | Project Curator
Juan Pablo Ayala-Cortés
Juan Pablo Ayala-Cortés
Industrial Designer
Social Scientist


© 2010-2017