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Underground building thoughts

 
Bethany Nicole
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Hello everyone! I've been enjoying reading everything on Permies for about a year now, and I figure it's about time to ask a few questions! I would love to build an underground home someday (I'm am unfortunately an apartment dweller at the moment, but hopefully that will change sooner than later) I've heard people suggesting using buried shipping containers, which would be really neat, but I'm not convinced that a shipping container would hold up under 3 or 4 feet of wet soil... Maybe I just need to be convinced by the right people. =) I had a thought the other day though. What about those metal drain culvert things? You know, the ones that they put under roads/driveways for drainage? I looked it up and apparently they come as big as 18ft in diameter and they're created to be buried! They also come in concrete I think. Maybe something like this? http://webecoist.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/hobbit-houses-hidden-hobbit-hole.jpg
 
John Elliott
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Welcome Bethany!

One problem I can think of with those metal drain culvert things is that there is usually a lot of road noise above them. I suppose you could apply some acoustic tiles to dampen the noise and wear ear plugs, but still.....

Seriously though, the big thing about building underground is where you are -- how wet is it and does it freeze? If you are building underground in the desert southwest, you don't have many troubling things to worry about. In the northeast, you have water and frost depth to think about, meaning you may have to use vapor barriers and insulation in some combination to keep it dry and comfortable.
 
Bethany Nicole
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Wow John! You were quick! =)

I highly doubt I would be placing this thing under a road, but you're right, i think it could get echo-y in there. In my daydreams, I've got an 18' diameter pipe about 25'long buried in the side of a medium sized hill somewhere in the midwest. I have family in Missouri and the Ozarks have always felt like 'home'. Anyway, the thing is, I'm drained of funds and I was trying to think of some outside the box ways to get the heck out of Southern California! Underground living appeals to me for it's tornado protection, heating/cooling ease, and i like it really dark when i sleep. =) and I'm not so great with construction, which is why burying an already intact structure appealed to me as well.
 
Frank De Block-Burij
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Location: De Pinte, Belgium
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Bethany Nicole wrote: I've heard people suggesting using buried shipping containers, which would be really neat, but I'm not convinced that a shipping container would hold up under 3 or 4 feet of wet soil... Maybe I just need to be convinced by the right people. =) I had a thought the other day though. What about those metal drain culvert things? You know, the ones that they put under roads/driveways for drainage? I looked it up and apparently they come as big as 18ft in diameter and they're created to be buried! They also come in concrete I think. Maybe something like this? http://webecoist.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/hobbit-houses-hidden-hobbit-hole.jpg


Hi, I once found the specifications of shipping containers, and if I remember well, 2-3 ft of soil shouldn't be a problem at all. Unfortunately I seem to not have saved the file.
Else you can reinforce the roof quite easily with corrugated steel plates, or even with a reinforced concrete slab. Make sure to incorporate a plastic membrane. Mix the concrete with a product that makes it watertight.

Do you have any links to the "metal drain culvert things" ?
 
John Elliott
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Sounds like a reasonable idea for the Missouri Ozarks, but from what I know of the area, site geology is going to be extremely important. The soils can be pretty thin in places and what's under can be "harder than the back of God's head" as the local describe it. If you can find a south facing hill and if you can cut into it for the backside of your building, that might be a possibility. Having it partially buried will offer more protection from the occasional tornado than a surface built structure, while it may be easier to ventilate and keep dry than a completely below ground structure.

Is this along the lines of what you are thinking ?
 
Bethany Nicole
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Here you go Frank http://www.crestwoodtubulars.com/culvert-pipe.html That's the first site that came up on Google. It has some pretty good info.

John, that's pretty close to what I'm thinking. This pic was really my inspiration. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_tlGqYLK5mXU/Suzia4pqGZI/AAAAAAAAAXs/NA1O3gZoP8g/s400/culvert_house_door.jpg but I'd bury it at least 3-4 feet deep so i could grow some shallow-ish rooted things above it. but somehow (remember how this is a daydream right now?) I'd want the front door to look kind of like that pic and have it sticking out like a hobbit house, but the rest buried. so it would kind of have to be in the side of a hill. I agree with the 'harder than the back of God's head' comment! it's true!!

 
Paul Andrews
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Hi Bethany

Have you read mike oehler's book The $50 & Up Underground House Book.

If not I suggest you get it and read it. It outlines how you can build a light and airy underground home without having to resort to massive construction engineering.

Good luck with your plans

aman
 
Frank De Block-Burij
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Location: De Pinte, Belgium
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thanks Bethany
these culverts don't seem in any way practical, unless as corridors between individual underground shipping containers
they would allow for much more architectural freedom
I forgot to mention the importance of the water table:
not only the natural water table, much more the water table in case of a calamity like a flood
I think it is better (and much cheaper) to make the whole construction above ground
then cover it with a moat
loop up PAHS: Passive Annual Heat Storage)
Frank
 
Bethany Nicole
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Aman I have read that book. Loved it! It gave me all sorts of ideas! However, it also solidified in my mind that I need a preexisting structure... I'm simply incapable of construction! Seriously, it's bad. I tried to make a frame for a solar dehydrator and i couldn't even do that. Lol!! While I'm living in my apartment, I'm trying to hone some skills and simple construction is one of them. =)

Frank Thank you for those thoughts! I hadn't thought of the moat idea! I'm still not a fan of shipping containers. My Dad, until recently (they fired him right before he retired. Jerks...) was doing manufacturing work on shipping containers and my brother is with a trucking/shipping company that utilizes shipping containers. From what I've been told and from what I've seen with my own eyes, the strength of a shipping container is in the frame, but not really the sides. My brother buried one on his property as a bunker and for the first year-ish it was great, but then everything really started settling and the sides bowed in, and it got pretty dangerous, pretty quickly. I don't know what kind of shipping container he used, and I'm sure that there's some kind of super-reinforced kind that can be buried no problem, but for me, (not everyone, just me) =) shipping containers aren't an option just yet. I could be completely wrong, but geometrically speaking isn't a circle/cylinder stronger than a rectangle anyway?? Please understand that I'm not trying to start anything, I know that people can get in very heated discussions about this stuff. Please know that I appreciate all comments, they give me things to think about while I'm living in inner city hell... LOL!! =)
 
Frank De Block-Burij
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Location: De Pinte, Belgium
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great, Bethany
very valuable information for me too
especially with your father and brother's experience
shows me that in my project, even if I have faith that they will not collapse,
I'd better reinforce the sides covered by the moat too, just to make sure
which should be simple and easy
the frame is indeed the strength which makes containers stackable
together with the corrugated sides and ceiling makes containers incredibly strong
geometrically speaking you are absolutely right:
just try to break an egg without exerting force on any point
eggs are strong
LOL
Frank
 
Andrew Parker
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An 8' diameter open bottom arch culvert set on top of a container should move the top load to the container's frame. I don't know that that would solve the sidewall distortion issues.

Steel culvert can fail spectacularly. Make sure you are using a gage appropriate for your use.

About 35 years ago, there were 3 culvert homes built here in the Salt Lake City area. They were all designed by the same man. The design was a 24(?) foot diameter open bottom arch steel culvert on a concrete pony wall with decorative pre-cast concrete (tilt-up) end walls. The culvert and pony walls were then sealed and backfilled with dirt (about 4 feet on top) then planted with grass. One was built by the owner. He went cheap and bought a used culvert, then he didn't follow instructions when he backfilled and the culvert collapsed. He ended up finishing it out as conventional stick built. The other two were built by licensed contractors with new culvert and they were finished as designed. Sometime in the interim, the dirt and culverts were removed from the other two and conventional roofs built, though the concrete end walls were preserved. I drove by one of them, located in Cedar Fort (now part of Eagle Mountain), last Saturday as I took the family on a long pleasant drive around the Oquirrh Mountains on a most beautiful day. I had tracked it down on google earth street view (I already knew more or less where it was but things change after 35 years) and wanted to verify the remodel.

There is a least one culvert bunker manufacturer around here. They seem to get fairly brisk business. I don't know that I would want to live in one.

There was an old Dr. Who episode that featured a concrete arch house with a glass front, tunneled into the side of a cliff. I saw it when I was a kid and always wanted to live in something like it.

Monolithic Domes have been buried and they have forms for tunnels and culverts. (please, no "concrete is evil" responses), but it isn't cheap.
 
Bethany Nicole
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Andrew, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that ANYTHING can fail spectacularly when you're talking about burying it and not taking proper precautions! ("The best laid plans of mice and men" and all that.) I do believe i saw that Dr. Who episode! =) I've always liked the idea of living underground, I blame Laura Ingalls Wilder "On the Banks of Plum Creek" I think that was the one where they lived in a dug out. The house that i grew up in had a walk out basement and the part of the basement that was underground was always so cool and I always felt safe down there when it stormed. Now that I'm older, I want that feeling again. Right now i live in a 3rd floor apartment in Los Angeles. No basements here! HA! I would give anything to move back to the Ozarks. I can find cheap land ('cheap' in every way. Inexpensive, crappy soil, newly logged etc.) but the housing is what's so discouraging! I wouldn't mind living in a trailer/van, but there's no tornado protection there, heating/cooling would be troublesome, and it doesn't seem like it would be terribly theft proof either, and that's important to me. I'm just trying to think outside the traditional house box and find something that I can call home/store my small amount of stuff in for 5-7 years until I can save up enough to maybe build a monolithic dome or something. And no, I don't think that concrete is evil, i think that it's a very useful tool!! Any concrete that I've interacted with, has served at least two purposes. The original purpose, lets say a sidewalk, and then after it's lived its life as a sidewalk, it gets broken up and either used as filler in another project or used a little more creatively as stepping stones or chunks to build a retaining wall or something like that. Concrete may not be the nicest thing for the environment, but since it isn't, I always try to reuse and recycle it as much as possible instead of bringing more in! Yep, I like concrete! =)

 
Brian Knight
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Are you trying to make your permanent residence completely underground? I guess doomsday scenario is one reason and even then there are many other considerations to make this extreme situation realistic in such an unpredictable event. There are several companies throughout the states that make pre-fab culvert and container dwellings serving this market and it seems business is booming for them. I have seen none that I would want to call home.

Natural light is the main issue to me. If you can daylight one of your walls, especially for passive solar gains in heating or mixed climates, its going to make your life so much better. Its also important to daylight your drainage elements. The picture above looks like a good recipe for a swimming pool. Speaking of which, I wonder if shipping containers have ever been used in that way..?

I suppose completely underground would be appropriate for surviving a Cat 5 Tornado but they are just so rare. I think even the chances of a direct hit of 3 or above is so remote that its not worth living without windows or climbing up and down ladders or stairs all day. Iam sure I would see things differently if I lived through one. I think safe rooms are a better alternative and the weather service's warning systems have gotten pretty advanced.
 
Andrew Parker
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The Monolithic Domes site has a good article about the pros and cons of living underground here: http://www.monolithic.com/stories/underground-homes-good-or-bad. Egress and condensation are probably going to be the most difficult obstacles to success.

If you are going with a culvert, just make sure that both ends are open and the bedroom(s) are at the end. A walkout or a sunken courtyard should give egress, light and ventilation.

Earth sheltered might be more appropriate and will certainly give you more site flexibility. Bermed walls and a green roof can give you almost the same performance as underground, especially with insulation in and/or around the structure.

I second Brian's suggestion concerning tornado shelter. A storm shelter or safe room is probably sufficient to keep you and yours safe, along with some "stuff".

I think that the wofati/oehler approach takes care of a lot of the cons in underground and earth-sheltered houses. I don't think it matters, necessarily, if the structure is made of wood, steel or concrete as long as it is structurally sound and you have properly addressed water issues.
 
Mary James
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Location: NW MT Zones 4/5 Rollins Mt
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We have a 7 ft diameter by 22 ft culvert for a root cellar as well as a 14 ft one for a storage area..We have had a few issues one of course has been a bit of settling that has flattened the top side a bit on the larger one..We did not cover these with a liner as they are makeshift so we have also found some how that water has leaked in,, Most likely from over at the end where we have a block wall and the vent piping..The smaller culvert seems to handle things much better it is under the road way up to our chicken house..Hopefully someday it will become the steam room it is meant to be..
Here is our home which is basically like living in a basement ,Not totally underground housing but similar .
http://www.motherearthliving.com/green-homes/laudhome.aspx#axzz2XuENQR8H
 
Andrew Parker
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Mary and/or James,

Nice home. Very nice.

How deep did you bury your 14' culvert? Was the culvert new or used?

Would a thick layer of small stones or heavy gravel stop gophers and other burrowing animals? My uncle had skunks burrow under his foundation walls and footings into his crawlspace once. He recommends against gassing or drowning gophers for that reason.
 
Mary James
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Our culverts are both sitting on a gravel bed, with about 3 foot of compacted clay soil on top of them, One has a greenhouse on it and a stone wall on the side with my potting shed attached.The other is under the road going to our chicken coop and driven on all the time..Our culverts were used in great condition.The owner just wanted them hauled out which was quite the chore to do.The thing about gravel and stone is the weight it brings.Structurally our home can handle a 4 inch layer of gravel on the roof which was what many places put on commercial flat roof structures.. At James other home they tried several methods for the gophers, from having gravel to planting grass, then to gassing the little buggers..The damage if they get through the epdm is a nasty surprise come a rainy season..They were getting the home ready to sale so the only other option was to bring in the ice and water shield then do the tile roof..It made the banks much happier as well since they are not to sure about lending on homes like these.
 
Andrew Parker
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Mary,

"It made the banks much happier" I think that may have been a major reason for pulling the dirt, and probably the culverts, off the homes I described in my earlier post.

I understand that expanded clay/slate/shale is popular with green roof builders to keep the weight down and improve water retention. EPS geofoam is also used to reduce the load on underground structures, but that could get expensive. You have a manufacturer/distributor in Belgrade, Montana, Big Sky Insulations. I had intended on buying SIPS from them for my second story addition, but I could not find an experienced crew in my area.

As to gophers, a heavy wire mesh might also work, but I don't know how long it would last in the ground. I saw an online source for a 4' x 100' roll of 1/2" galvanized welded wire mesh for $199. I am guessing it could be found cheaper. I wonder if it would be better to have a complete break between a green roof and the surrounding ground, in order to keep burrowing critters off.

You don't think that the 14' culvert might have been stressed from its previous use? I only mention it because of the incident I described earlier about the owner-built culvert home in which he claimed the collapse was due to the used culvert and the designer blamed the owner for rushing the backfilling. They could have both been right. Iirc, the designer specified new culvert after that incident and he only used licensed contractors, no more owner-builders.
 
Mary James
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Location: NW MT Zones 4/5 Rollins Mt
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Andrew,
The resale is a challenge on these types of homes,There is no doubt about it.Ours happens to sit in a very desirable location if we should choose to sale and was built to be able to stucturally hold a second and third floor if need be..LOl however we happen to love it here..
Our roof system came from Belgrade.They were very simple to install, took three of us to do it,they were all numbered for the slope.James has worked with them many times before..Same with the people we buy our roof EPDM from we have put in a few roof systems in our years,, LOL. James has been in construction for close to 40 years including the alternative building..
This house we have only had a few gopher challenges, his other home was more out in a wildlife preserve which was the one that had the serious problems.The deer jumping on the house are more of a problem,That is why we added the extra blue board for protection over the epdm.I looked at the expanded shale but really did not like it.We have used some of it on projects before..I have a plant addiction ,,LOL really the roof gardens look beautiful and do what they need to..
The culverts, the 14 ft one is looking good the 22 ft one has settled in and dropped about 6 inches. Yes it could be from previous use.We have not been to concerned about it as a good jack and adding in a bit more support inside if need be will fix it.We may be moving it sometime soon to build a work space over against the rocks where it is located.
 
Jon Crevez
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"As to gophers, a heavy wire mesh might also work, but I don't know how long it would last in the ground. I saw an online source for a 4' x 100' roll of 1/2" galvanized welded wire mesh for $199. I am guessing it could be found cheaper. I wonder if it would be better to have a complete break between a green roof and the surrounding ground, in order to keep burrowing critters off."


Welded wire mesh will last a lot longer than the woven wire cloth - something along these lines: http://www.bwire.com/index.html ---

The welded is a heavier duty because the wires are actually welded to one another as opposed to just being interwoven. This thicker welded mesh will last a long long time if placed underground and will be exactly what you are looking for when it comes to keeping out gophers.

Check www.mcmaster.com for pricing....
 
Logan Simmering
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I was looking at culverts a while back as a housing option, i found that long lenghts of large diameter pipe are pretty expensive, but decided a more cost effective, and architecturaly versitle way to do things would be to take a smaller section and set it vertically, and connect those sections with smaller diameter culvers laying horizontially. This arrangment should give you a lot more floor area for a given volume of culvert, making it more cost effectivem and give leave you with less of a shotgun house effect, it would leave you needing a roof, but i seem to recall figuring you could make a neet little dome out of pretty small sections of culvert, relativly cheap, as well.. This is all based on daydreaming and back of the envelope sketching and ive since moved on to earthbags as more practicle, so make of it what you will.
 
I agree. Here's the link: https://richsoil.com/wood-heat.jsp
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