$50 and Up Underground House Book

Classic guide to low-cost subterranean dwelling

My wife and I had some property, but not enough money to build a house without going into debt. We enjoyed staying in a cave B&B in France and love the Troglodyte dwellings in Trôo, France. After consulting several books, including one by Rob Roy, this book just made the most sense. The methods are so low tech, a bum could make himself a mansion. Other books get into engineering with concrete, steel, rebar, etc., which cost a fortune and don’t necessarily function any better and, in some cases, maybe not as well. With this book and the videos, which are a must if you get serious, you really can build a home for the cost of a roll of plastic and a few other items, provided you do the labor by hand and scrounge materials.

Mike explains succinctly what took him years to figure out and you may might never discover otherwise: how to get in light from all four sides, how to protect untreated wood, how to connect the log post and beams together with pins made of low cost rebar, how to evenly compact the earth backfill by hand as to allow nature to finish the job (the backfill also functions as earthquake bracing keeping you tight under the surface rather than hinging at the point where the building meets the ground, a method similar to what Frank Lloyd did to prevent quake damage in Japan). Mike shows how to make a foyer or a gable to keep water flowing around the door opening rather than across it. Skylights are notorious for leaking, even on a conventional house. So Mike invented the “sun scoop,” a method I used that allows natural light to shoot right through the full length of the underground complex at different times of the day and year depending on your design and desires. He also shows how to make clerestory windows to let light into the high side of the house through an uphill patio or a wraparound.

I was a bit skeptical at first. How could all of this work and be so cheap? This type of dwelling is not for everyone, but if you do it right it really does provide great shelter. There are engineering tables in the back of the book providing rule of thumb guides and safety information. It won’t get you something that will pass a code inspection, but I’m of the opinion codes and building regulations are written in part to provide sales for corporations and taxes for the government. A friend of ours designed a small underground house. She wanted to go with engineers and permits. Last estimate: $1.5 million dollars. And she has yet to get it approved. Sadly, she will never build her dream. This book even has a chapter of strategies for getting around that. Keep in mind, too, this book is not a house plan. You learn how to build nearly any design you want. Just put the safe framing building blocks together in a design that suits you, keeping the important rules and directions in mind. After the basic structural requirements are met, the only limit is your imagination…

We started our house in 2002 and had a very crude shelter within a couple months. I framed in about 2,000 square feet, made about a thousand or so fairly comfortable, and continue to expand into it as we need it. We have a studio apartment area, a master bedroom and two bathrooms, as well as a porch area with a conversation pit, uphill patio, green house and shop. We have added a large garden to raise much of our own food, a carport, wood shed and two-story rammed earth, rock and salvaged boat dock and bridge timber garage. With natural earth temps around 50 at night, only a small fire in the wood stove is required to keep things warm. The roof is a garden. It feeds and shelters us and provides a park-like setting with flowers all around. There is no exterior painting required. Nothing to become an eyesore as the paint chips and deteriorates and the shingles rot off. Sure it takes maintenance and there are issues to deal with but if you build it, you will be intimate enough with it to know what to do.

My home is growing. It’s alive. It changes with time and will be here as long as we want it. Or if we leave and no one cares for it, it will someday revert back to the earth from which it came, to be just another one of natures reclaimed gardens.

— Glenn Kangiser


The $50 and Up Underground House Book
Mike Oehler
1981, 116 pages,
Available from Amazon

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