This appeared in Australia’s Herald Sun:

Hobbitat could be habit forming

J. R. R. Tolkien wasn’t only a brilliantly eloquent and imaginative writer, he was avant-garde and a visionary — though he probably didn’t realise it.

According to one world-renowned dwelling designer, Tolkien’s vision of a hobbit-hole, the partially sub-terranean dwelling of the creatures in his novels, was revolutionary and, frankly, we should all be living in one.

Roger Dean, an English artist turned industrial designer, says a hobbit’s residence personifies comfort and provides preferable living conditions for those of us accustomed to living above ground.

For almost three decades, Dean has been designing and studying houses based on the principle of “defendable space”, the concept of living in which people feel strong and completely secure.

His research, which focuses on eco-friendly construction, led to him design a dwelling that looks not unlike Tolkien’s ultra-comfy hobbit-hole. It is curvy, earth-sheltered, grassed over and based on small, partially underground chambers built from rows of domes — as a typical hobbit’s residence might be.

“Round doors might have been a problem — they tend to trip people up — but Tolkien was writing for a fairytale, so he didn’t bother solving lots of the little problems, like ventilation. If he’d drawn instead of written he’d immediately have seen the issues,” says Dean, who rose to fame in the 1970s for his fantastically weird album covers, most notably for the band Yes and, recently, Pink Floyd.

“You could build something that looked like Tolkien’s descriptions and drawings that would function perfectly well. There’s no reason why, from an engineering standpoint, you couldn’t. It would have to be built to a human dimension, but it would be a fine house, not ideal, but it would be warm, dry and safe.”

Dean’s current project is a village of similarly comfy “domes”, located in Bishop’s Wood environmental education centre in Worcestershire, England.

Each of the homes, which look strikingly like a cross between the Tellytubbies’ dwelling and that of a hobbit, is touted as being far more environmentally friendly and healthier for human habitation than conventional above-ground housing and far easier to construct.

Inside, there are no harsh lines, there is no darkness and, most importantly, no harsh chemicals such as those found in the paint and wooden foundations of modern homes.

Lines of undulating walls, gentle, rounded windows and low ceilings give the illusion of space, when in fact none are markedly bigger than a typical four-bedroom home.

Everything is rounded, or “curvilinear”, as Dean, 69, prefers to describe the style.

“These aren’t underground, they’re buildings above the ground, which are grassed over,” says Dean.

“They offer incredibly stable internal temperatures: they’re warm in winter and cool in summer,” says Dean.

“Such dwellings are not only viable, they’re desirable. Every time we build a house we’re concreting over the country. From an environmental point of view, these buildings are healing the country.”

While Dean’s vision of 21st century living sounds a little far- fetched, he is in excellent company. Some of the architecture world’s greatest minds, including the late Buckminster Fuller, espoused similar partially subterranean dwellings.

Even Turkey’s 1400-year-old Hagia Sophia, which has withstood more than 15 major earthquakes and hundreds of minor ones, is based on similar principles to those of Dean’s buildings. Its use of intersecting domes, considered the strongest form of construction in the world, is what Dean tries to offer, on a grander, larger, above-ground scale.

More than 300,000 people, some queuing for up to three hours, have visited Dean’s prototype village. Dean says that the cost of creating one of his eco-friendly homes is identical to creating the equivalent home above ground.

His semi-subterranean village includes a 150-bedroom hotel, health spa, schools, even, ironically, a petrol station. Sustainable power sources such as wind and water power the village, but there isn’t a solar power source to be seen anywhere. The decision has nothing to do with Britain’s lack of sunlight. Instead it offends Dean’s aesthetic sense, he didn’t want to spoil the beauty of his pristine village with “ugly solar panels”.

But while Dean takes an academic, environmental view of the benefits of living like a hobbit, there are many, many Tolkien fans whose interest is spurred purely by their love of his books and desire to live like the most famous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, whose home was reputed to be the cosiest of hobbit-holes.

One avid Tolkien fan, who dubs himself Storm Bear, has set up BagEnd 2, a website devoted to building a hobbit-hole in a suburban back yard.

Storm Bear has researched the logistics and costs surrounding building a back yard hobbit-hole and shares his theories on the process with equally zealous fans, many of whom regularly visit the website.

After a year’s research, Storm Bear has discovered the most cost-effective way to create his own hobbit home: dig a dirty great hole, whack in a few concrete pipes, cover it over and, voila, you’ve got yourself a cosy home.

Unfortunately, Storm Bear appears to have forgotten to address one issue — ventilation.

Roger Dean:

Bag End 2: BagEnd2