From Squalor to Shiitakes: the World's First Biocellar

Mansfield Frazier couldn’t wait to tear down his house. That’s because he’s turning it into what could be the world’s first “biocellar.”

A biocellar is essentially a greenhouse made from the remains of a demolished home. Cleveland, like many Rust Belt cities hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, is speckled with abandoned homes and vacant lots. Many of the properties are beyond repair. A biocellar is a way to salvage the foundation of a house and put it to productive reuse.

With permaculture designer Jean Loria and architect Robert Donaldson, Frazier carefully deconstructed the ramshackle Victorian house on his lot but left the basement intact. The next step is to top it with a greenhouse roof, creating what Loria has named a biocellar.

The biocellar builds off the concept of a pit greenhouse, which is any sort of greenhouse built below ground. At depths of four feet, temperatures stay a constant 50 to 55 F year-round. This is a big advantage in places where chilly winters cut short the growing season. The beauty of the biocellar design is that it harnesses the natural insulation provided by the basement walls and the surrounding earth, so the structure should not require additional heating. A water tank in the center of the biocellar will help to store the heat during the day and then radiate it into the structure at night.

water tank for solar heat storageThe goal is to create a place where crops can be grown all year. To avoid scorching the plants (and people) inside the biocellar during the hot summer months, architect Rob Donaldson developed a system to vent hot air through the roof and side walls.


3The plants and landscaping will be watered using stormwater collected from an intricate series of pipes that drain into a big rain cistern.


First they’ll be testing some high-value crops like shitake mushrooms and strawberries. They’re also planning to use the water tanks -- needed for heat storage -- to potentially farm fish.


Part of the aim of this project, as with Frazier’s other endeavors like the neighboring urban vineyard, is to create community improvement projects that are self-sustaining and provide good jobs with living wages. “The goal for the area of land is to create an urban agricultural zone that creates healthy food, creates jobs, and leads to the productive reuse of a land that was an empty, weed-overgrown field,” said Frazier.

“What we’re trying to do is put together architecture and biology in a social setting so we can grow plants, we can have fish, we can do a number of things like that and engage the community,” said permaculturist Jean Loria.

While it remains unclear whether the biocellar model could be scaled up and employed widely as a solution for vacant lot management, other communities are certainly experimenting with the approach as well. The Afterhouse project in Detroit, for instance, is drawing enthusiasm and community support.

Architect Rob Donaldson says their pilot biocellar is a chance to iron out the kinks in the design. “We’re trying to figure out how this is going to work. We’re looking at all the variables and we’re trying to solve them with this one so that later biocellars are able to use this as a template,” he said.

Dig into more of the science and design of the biocellar with this report from the Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative.