When last did you allow your thoughts to travel down along your bones, through the soles of your feet and into the depths far below?
For many of us, the answer is… well… never, actually.
Central to the human experience
Despite the integral role soil plays in the entire human experience - from being the incubator in which our food is grown and the foundations on which we build our homes, to receiving the bodies of our dearly departed - we spend remarkably little time pondering its presence.
Let alone exploring its complex textures with our senses.
There is, in fact, a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that regular direct skin contact with the earth for at least 30 minutes per session (aka Earthing/Grounding) may have a plethora of positive effects on human health and well-being, including reduction of stress and inflammation levels, mood enhancement, reduced muscle damage and even balancing of circadian rhythms.
Walking barefoot on the beach, gardening without gloves or simply sitting with uncovered legs stretched out luxuriously on the back lawn will do the trick.
An immersive journey into the world below
However, when we started dreaming about creating a space that could facilitate uninterrupted contact between humans and the earth, we found our imaginations reaching for something well beyond the homely and the known.
We found ourselves asking the question: What if we could experience the earth from INSIDE?
The idea quickly evolved from creating an experience where people could descend into a hole in the ground and view the layers of earth from behind a pane of glass, to something far larger and more enigmatic.
A vision of cathedral-esque proportions emerged, where raw earth is exposed, offering a full and immersive sensory experience.
Considering the sandiness and rockiness characterising much of the Cape Peninsula and surrounding -Flats, we did wonder: would this even be possible?
Expert opinions and perfect locations
Knowing full well just how crazy our idea might sound to others, we set out in search of expert opinions.
Initial discussions with geologists and geotechnical engineers elicited an overwhelmingly positive response as well as a breakdown of the type of geological formations that would be able to accommodate the subterranean chamber we had in mind.
Within no time, we were scouring the greater Cape Town region for suitable sites and eventually landed upon the perfect contender: a previously farmed stretch of land at Lourensford Estate in Somerset West, largely unused except when serving as a parking lot for the occasional event.
Once an environmental impact assessment confirmed no ecosystem would be harmed, we dug a test pit to see what lay deeper beneath the surface. The first 2.5 metres down consisted of loose, previously disturbed alluvial soils; and below that, dense clay that, if treated right, would hold its shape optimally.
Working engineering wonders
It was soon established that the twin challenges we faced in the construction of EARTHBOX would be to retain and secure the loose and crumbly upper layers while leaving the deeper dense layers relatively pristine.
A detailed plan was devised to secure the upper layers with ‘bobby pins and a hairnet’ i.e. 400 steel rods of 3m and 6m long to hold a high-tensile steel mesh in place that covers and stabilises the loose soil.
In turn, to make the dense clay chamber below structurally stable, the walls would require a 70-degree angle slope and be benched with a step halfway up.
The process was continually informed by our design intention of creating a space for unhindered human interaction with raw earth. This means that although the chamber has been optimally engineered, it has been done with care to cause minimal disturbance to this ancient soilscape.
Enduring the elements
But little did we know that we were embarking on this challenging engineering project amid the wettest winter the Western Cape has experienced in decades!
Starting in March, the rain came early and continued throughout April, May and June. Saturated ground and wet working conditions delayed construction, requiring the team to adapt and invent as it became clear that the excavation of the entrance ramp had intercepted a seasonal underground watercourse.
A certain amount of water was to be expected but the extremes of rainfall and underground water tested the engineers and builders to the limit.
As is often the case with seemingly insurmountable challenges, however, it also created a perfect storm in which to stretch the limits of creativity and innovation.
This led to concealed drains and sumps being installed beneath the floor of the Main Chamber to collect and remove any water that might find its way in, redirecting it to a network of hidden drainage channels.
The completed chamber’s final protection from rain and sun is the earth-covered roof, providing shelter and shade, darkness & quiet.
Structural engineers calculated the load of the roof to fit the load-bearing capacity of the earth around the excavation and designed the structure accordingly.
How safe is EARTHBOX?
Naturally, people might wonder just how safe it is to descend into an underground chamber composed of raw earth.
Rest assured that, an important factor in delivering this project was safety, not only of our visitors, but also of the builders who worked on it throughout.
Geologists and geotechnical engineers spent months ‘reading’ the earth, interpreting the signs of different materials/densities and monitoring the earth for movement.
Structural engineers, in turn, were called in to design the optimal roofing structure for the Main Chamber and passages, ensuring that it would be able to withstand the mass of earth on top of it, using the minimum materials for optimal effectiveness
Final piece of the puzzle: What’s in the box?
A question we are often asked is what we’ll put inside EARTHBOX..
The quick and simple answer is… nothing. But you.
Driving our design intention is the desire to hold space for completely personal, unguided, unprompted sensory human experiences to unfold. A true expression of ‘to each their own.’
Every decision we made at every step of the way - large and small - has had your experience as a visitor at the heart of it.
The undulating garden offers time and space to transition from the everyday to the unusual.
Paths meander in a relaxed fashion.
Grassy berms, formed from excavated earth, offer visual interest and a sense of relation to the mountains.
The curve of the entry passage prolongs anticipation as you descend, the long curve and the roof reducing daylight as you go.
The serpentine exit passage is designed shorter and steeper, slowing your departure and exaggerating the effect of gravity, making it harder to leave.
This is a place of quiet and darkness gently lit for you to navigate.
The absence of colour wavelengths and green and blue hues is a form of sensory deficit – the antidote for our saturated brains.