Malcolm Wells, the visionary Cherry Hill architect who died Nov. 27 at 83, was considered a crackpot in 1964 when he gave up lucrative commissions for the RCA Corp., and began advocating underground buildings with earth-friendly sod roofs. But he lived long enough to see some of his most radical ideas become standard practice.

Widely known as "Mac," the Camden native - who grew up in Haddonfield - was a free-spirited idealist with a hermit's beard who worked for years out of a subterranean office located steps from roaring traffic on Cuthbert Boulevard in Cherry Hill.

When Mr. Wells couldn't persuade clients to participate in his architectural experiments, he turned to writing and teaching to spread his environmental philosophy.

Mr. Wells, dubbed "the Underground Man" in newspaper articles, moved in 1978 to Brewster, Mass., on Cape Cod, where he completed two more submerged buildings with "green" roofs.

His death there was attributed to congestive heart failure, his son Sam, also an architect, said yesterday.

Given Mr. Wells' unconventional approach to architecture, he won a surprising number of prominent South Jersey commissions.

Besides his own underground office, which is still in use, his best-known works include a law school for Rutgers University in Camden, RCA's Moorestown plant, Moorestown's library and municipal complex, the Scarborough Bridge in Cherry Hill, and the former Cherry Hill Library.

The last, which originally featured a rooftop forest that mimicked a Pinelands landscape, was demolished several years ago to make room for a more humdrum structure. Moorestown's municipal building was badly damaged in a fire in 2007.

"It shows how much more conservative these towns become. They would never hire such a visionary today," said Gregory La Vardera, a Merchantville architect who has documented some of Mr. Wells' buildings. "Every green architect today owes a debt to" Mr. Wells, he added in a Flickr post.

Long before words like sustainability and green design became part of our vocabulary, Mr. Wells had identified the building industry as a major source of the world's environmental problems.

He was among the first to look for ways to reduce the impact of architecture's footprint on the land. Inspired by the fledgling environmental movement that had begun with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, Mr. Wells vowed to embed his buildings in nature.

He hit on the idea of burying his structures and covering them with planted roofs, so they would be cooled by the earth. Rather than the designs being cavelike, strategic skylights made them bright and airy.

"At the time, green roofs, or any kind of earth on a building, was laughable," said Sam Wells. After Progressive Architecture published an article about his father in 1965, the magazine was flooded with letters saying he was "crazy."

In an obituary Mr. Wells wrote himself and had posted on his Web site (http://www.malcolmwells.com/index.html), he described his sudden awakening to the environmental damage caused by buildings.

"I woke up one day to the fact that the earth's surface was made for living plants, not industrial plants," he recalled.

Mr. Wells' career actually can be divided into two phases - before and after he became an environmentalist. Both were extraordinary.

Although Mr. Wells never earned a college degree, a stint in the Marines enabled him to sign up for engineering courses at Georgia Tech and the Drexel Institute of Technology, now Drexel University.

He landed a job at the RCA plant in Camden in the early '50s and did graphic design for the advertising department. But he was clearly destined for bigger things.

Mr. Wells went to work as an apprentice for the South Jersey architect George Von Uffel. He wasted no time in applying for an architecture license. After getting a perfect score on the exam, his son said, Mr. Wells formed his own office in 1953. And soon after that, he was designing research buildings for RCA.

In 1964, he shot to prominence when he designed the RCA pavilion for the World's Fair in New York City, a building that included big biomorphic curves. Several of his suburban homes were featured in House Beautiful.

But it was those very successes that caused him to reexamine his values.

Sam Wells said his father was appalled that RCA would casually demolish his pavilion after the World's Fair. That same year he announced he would never again design another throwaway, aboveground building.

"We live in an era of glitzy buildings and trophy houses: big, ugly, show-off monsters that stand-on - I should say stomp-on - land stripped bare by the construction work and replanted with toxic green lawns," Mr. Wells wrote on his Web site. "If the buildings could talk they would be speechless with embarrassment."

In a 1968 newspaper article, Mr. Wells predicted it would take 20 years for his ideas to take hold. Actually, it took about 40 years, but ideas he advocated, such as planted roofs and thermal wells to heat and cool buildings, are now the norm.

In addition to his son Sam, Mr. Wells is survived by his wife, Karen North Wells; a daughter, Kappy Wells; another son, John, of Harleysville; a stepson, Jonathan Kelly; a stepdaughter, Kirsten Engstrom, and seven grandchildren. His first marriage, to Shirley Holmes, ended in divorce.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.