“He was building a sod house. The walls had now risen breast-high; in its half-finished condition, the structure resembled more a bulwark against some enemy than anything intended to be a human habitation. And the great heaps of cut sod, piled up in each corner might well have been the stores of ammunition for defence of the stronghold.” — A description of a 19th century sod house on the Great Plains by Norwegian immigrant O. E. Rölvaag in “Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie

Available materials shape and influence the structures we live, work and play in. Nowhere was this truer than in the Great Plains of the United States. In the late 19th century, as settlers came into Nebraska, Kansas, the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, they found few trees to build homes. They turned to sod as their building material, using wood only for the door and windows. Sod worked as an insulator keeping homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter. However, a sod roof did not completely seal out the weather, and a heavy rainstorm could often lead to wet clothes and bedding. Settlers would later add wood lean-tos for additional rooms and white-wash the interiors to lighten the space and protect it from the elements. The sod house was a practical response by the pioneers, but they generally built wood homes as soon as they could afford them, showing that culture plays a large role in our material choices. Sod houses no longer play a role in contemporary architecture, but designers still attempt to create environmentally sustainable buildings. The Wedge House (below) is a three bedroom house built to reduce energy consumption, using stack effect cooling and structural insulated panels. This home provides a model for reducing energy in a single family home environment.

While architects today use synthetic materials more than ever before, some of them have also returned to the sod roof, in particular, the rooftop garden pictured above. Agriculture had been integral to the urban environment into the early 20th century, but planning ideas removed food production from the city in favor of a more remote agribusiness based system. With the rising popularity of locavore and organic agriculture and concern that industrial agriculture is a contributor to global warming, rooftop gardens and other forms of urban agriculture are becoming increasingly popular as they shorten the distance required to supply food and use less energy-intensive means to grow them.


Learn More

  1. ArchitectureWeek .  Green architecture from the online magazine ArchitectureWeek.
  2. Center for Neighborhood Technology.  A think tank and public policy organization that researches and advocates for urban sustainability.
  3. U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).  This is the organization that created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for buildings.
  4. Cradle to Cradle Design.  A design process devoted to infinite life cycles, instead of a cradle to grave life cycle.