I did so, and was invited here to tell my story....
SO here goes. This is the original post with minor changes...
I have posted parts of this on other forums, and have gotten a few answers here and there. I have sort of summarized my thoughts and findings. If you recognize this from other locations, I have refined what I have learned and brought a lot more content into the main post.
I have been looking into a (relatively) cheap way to produce a home for the last few months and I have most recently been looking into the Post-Shoring-Polyethylene method pioneered by mike oehler (of the $50 dollars and Up Underground House fame. www.undergroundhousing.com). I have his book and have read it cover to cover several times. It looks like a highlighter exploded in it now, with all the side notes I’ve taken.
Underground housing appeals to a lot of us for a lot of reasons. But it's typically a very expensive thing to do. So unless you have a rich benefactor uncle (don't we all wish...) its not usually a feasible thing. This may be a feasible way to build your hidey hole and still be able to afford ammo to defend it....
For those of you who aren’t in the know, I’ll summarize a bit. The basic principle is to take a heavy duty wooden structure (preferably designed to withstand the inward pressures of the weight of the earth involved) shore it up, and cover the outside with polyethylene plastic (I’m looking at pond liner myself). Then slowly back-fill dirt against the plastic and eventually cover the entire structure, leaving obvious spaces for windows, doors, etc. The dirt covering the plastic negates the damage that is typically done by UV and weather on plastic sheeting.
I'm in an area that receives about 36 inches of rainfall annually. I've located a hilltop on the property that I'm in the process of purchasing. My thought is to construct the structure practically on top of the existing ground (even if I have to haul in soil to do so) and berm soil up around and over it. I also want to put one big piece of poly sheeting over the top of it (and out from the house several feet, only about 8 inches under the soil) and create a sort of umbrella effect, so that most of the water will run off the sides. Most of the moisture should only get to the location by capillary action in the soil. I plan to use a lot of gravel (river rock) and sand, as well as a ton of plastic drainage tile to keep the water that doesn’t roll off the sides draining away efficiently. (there are three things to emphasize... drainage, drainage, drainage...)
I have access to a few wooded acres, a pile of (mostly) maple logs that have been ever so neatly stacked about a mile away, and a chainsaw or 2 (maybe three if I work on one). My wife works for a plastic manufacturer, so its likely that I may have access to some more inexpensive sheeting than average.
The design requires a few creative paths to provide adequate lighting so that you’re not living in a tomb (which is better than the usual path of south-facing windows and blank back wall, prone to leaks and dungeon-like gloom). Obviously a lot of emphasis goes into structure and drainage. A lot of emphasis also goes into design, so that there is adequate light and ventilation.
The design I'm working with makes use of light and ventilation in all directions, creating cross breezes, and utilizing the winter sun as often as possible. This would eliminate a lot of the usual underground house (dank cave/cellar) issues.
rob roy (a big name in the owner builder movement, better known for cordwood building than underground) suggests putting foam insulation around everything. His reasoning is essentially this: The ground is just thermal mass. It is a poor insulator. It cools and warms seasonally. By providing insulation around your UH you separate your thermal mass from the earth, which is prone to (slow seasonal) temperature swings that are not always within our comfort levels. 46 degree earth may not be cold when compared to the outdoor temperature of -15, but it’s still cooler than most people find comfortable as a living space. Ever sit on a 46 degree toilet? Yeah, you know what I mean.
Rob uses the analogy that an underground house is just like an above ground house that's in a different climate. Instead of being in a climate where the temp may swing from the 100's to below zero, it rests in a climate where it gradually swings a few degrees over several months. That doesn't mean that the "underground climate" is a comfortable temperature all year round. Usually it’s a little on the cool side and the house needs to be insulated, otherwise its like trying to heat a tent in that same type of climate.
In short your heat is being bled off into the earth. If you insulate (and he suggests all six sides; even below footings if possible) then you keep your heat inside a small envelope. Add some thermal mass to keep your heat inside the envelope and a little heat goes a long ways. A small wood stove to warm the hands in the dead of winter may be enough BTUs to keep the whole thing heated. I plan to insulate about a foot beyond the walls (provided that I can keep that soil relatively dry) to provide adequate thermal mass so that I may not have to heat much at all.
I also wanted to note for those of you who are interested in these things, the water and power situations have been considered as well.
There’s a hill about 150 yards to the east that’s 35 feel higher. There is an old homestead there. All the buildings and structures have fallen in except the old windmill and well. Im planning on cleaning (if it's structurally sound) the old well and building a ferrocrete tank (cistern?) for the windmill to pump into and let gravity feed water into the house (may have to supplement with a pump if pressure isn't enough). I’m hoping it would deliver enough to at least flush toilets and keep the faucets running if power wasn't available. Showers might not be feasible though without pressure supplement.
A power line runs along the edge of the property which means I'm going to have to bury electricity for about 150 feet. I'll probably work on some alternate energy project later down the road, but that is not within my price range right now. I've planned to use natural lighting as much as possible and plan for situations where electricity isn't available by removing as much reliance on it from the initial design (like the water situation). I even have an experiment running using the Jean Pain method for heating the water and probably the house itself without power if that's even needed. If it works out this winter, that may change the way my design goes from here on out.
Maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree, but I look at it like this: if I live in it ten years and it costs me $10,000, that's about $83.00 a month. Compound what that saves in heating and cooling costs, I figure about $25.00 a month in the 3 coldest winter months and $35.00 in the 2 hottest summer months that’s $145 a year or about $1450 over the 10 year duration, making it a $8550 total investment. If nothing else it saves me enough to build something different.
Mike has lived in his for over 30. If I can make it to 30 years for $10K that’s about $28.00 a month, and saving $4350.00 in energy costs (that’s at today’s prices).If it lasts 50 years, it’s free. (Wishful thinking, I know). Oh, and I’m not in an area where building permits are required, so I can be a bit more free with my design than I would otherwise.
Anyone have the videos that mike oehler offers? I’m interested to learn more, just not sure if it’s $95.00 worth of interest (what he charges for his videos). I may order them anyway, as this design seems to be getting more solid every day and as I discuss this more the problems and questions seem to be resolving themselves. The more I work with the idea, the more feasible it seems. If anyone has bought them and scrapped the plan, we might talk...
So that’s my plan in a nutshell. Lots of labor involved in this project. But I have a lot more time than I have money.
So here’s the question: Has anyone here tried this particular building principle to see if its sound? I just want some real world facts. If anyone has any links or resources that I should look at I would appreciate it as well.
As a side note I have thought about termites. I'm working ways around it but if anyone has any ideas I'm all ears. I know they're pretty diligent little critters, so quite a bit of thought needs to go into that. One person suggested plastic underneath but that would be hard to do I think.
I was pointed to a forum where one owner/builder is constructing his own. It provides a lot of pictures and gives a more visual idea of what is possible. There is so much natural light in several of the pics that it’s difficult to remember that it’s an underground house. The builder is a mod at the www.countryplans.com forum. Thread link Here.
This article may have some bearing on what you're trying to do. Be sure to go down to the very bottom of the page and click on "Requested Paper for the Global Sustainable Building Conference 2005, Tokyo, Japan, Sept. 2005" for more details.
It sounds like you're planning on buying an existing house and moving it to the site, is that correct?
I don't have any excruciating interest in underground homes, but I've read about a few. And if memory serves (always an iffy thing), all of them seemed to have an outer shell of stone or concrete. EXACTLY how do you intend to deal with the termites? I just have a funny feeling that it isn't possible to bury a wooden structure underground without them causing a major problem. My main issue is the weight of the (rain-soaked) soil on top of a termite-damaged support structure.
Great strides have been made in thin-wall ferro-cement in the last twenty years or so. Do you think it would be possible to place a wood-framed home on a concrete pad, and then form an outer shell of concrete? It might not have to be very thick... maybe.
It's an interesting concept, but without an ironclad plan against the termites, I'm not sure this would be feasible. And I don't think being trapped (sorry) underground with poisons would be a good thing.
Have you ever investigated stone/concrete slip-form building (I think that's what it's called)? I know there is at least one book on the subject, although it may be out of print. Build your perimeter and supports this way, then backfill it the way you planned?
Here is one site on it: http://www.hollowtop.com/cls_html/stone_home.htm
I would like to hear more about this, what your final plan is, how you do it, etc. Low-cost housing is something that many people would be interested in.
You have a lot of important issues here, but your initial post is sooooooo long that it's hard to address them all in one big post. Would it be okay to ask you to start a few different threads. I want to talk about the other forum in this thread. If you could start a thread about insulation and the PSP style in another thread, that would be great.
I have the videos and plan on watching them soon.
About the other forum: Yeah, that was weird. That forum is a really great forum and I've been using it for years. But they have seen a lot of folks get burned by crazy ideas, so in a way they are trying to be helpful. I think if you referred to this style of building as "PSP" it might get better reception. You could mention that it costs far less than underground houses and that it is far faster than underground houses, and it appears to not have all the problems that underground houses have. Just an idea.
Yes! That annualized geosolar is fantastic stuff! Unfortunately, it does not mix well with the PSP stuff.
PSP has no cement. It is logs (from your property) + wood planks + black plastic. Inside your home, it looks kinda like a wood cabin. But the real magic is with the windows facing uphill. It sounds wacky at first - but once you understand how it works, it seems (to me) to be damn smart.
I think a buried shipping container would not do well with a lot of soil on it.
quittrack I really really get the the "more time than money" thing and have considered some strange ideas in an effort to just save enough for a few years so that I can move on to what I really want. This idea in particular except using concret block has stormed through my head more than once.
i think insulation is prudent as rob suggested. It will be easier to heat but not without need for it. as for whether it is a sound building practice I don't htink that is a yes or no factor. If every aspect of the job is carefully considered and constructed than yes. If you choose to be as cheap as possible and take short cuts everywhere than no. sound building practice implies that it can last safely for some time and a structure like this if not worked out ine very detail wouldn't fit the bill.
I was curious why shipping containers wouldn't do well buried in soil? I feel like there would be cheap ways to solve the "soil contacting the container" problem. PSP shipping containers? I guess it just sounded like a cool concept and I feel like we could come up with different ideas to make up our own theoretical hybrid. Wait a tick...
New Thread: Shelter Brainstorm Bucket.
So! With that wee bit of rust you already have, it will just keep going and going.
There is supposed to be a product that stops rust from continuing, but the cost to cover a shipping container, inside and out, probably wouldn't be feasible.
I've got Mike Oehler's book, too, and hope to be able to use it someday.
Someone I know lives in west Tulsa. Her soil is very heavy clay soil. She's lived in the same house for 22 years. No termite protection, never seen any.
That termite map makes me wonder whats up with Wisconsin? How do the termites know the difference between southern Wisc. & northern IL or southern Minn? Seems curious to me.
There could be some other facet of the soil that they like or dislike, like acidity or lack of sulfur or something. I guess only the termites know for sure!
I live with my grandmother (she's 95), and my youngest daughter, who is mentally handicapped. We moved over here from the Oregon Coast about five years ago, with Grandma's three cats. The cats had always had fleas over at the Coast -- it's a milder climate, but also the soil is more acidic and loamy. As soon as the cats were able to get outside and roll around in the dirt here, the fleas disappeared, and we haven't seen any since. I know the climate isn't the whole story, because fleas live even in the Interior of Alaska -- one time my grandfather ran a trap-line from our homestead there (when I was small) and he brought a lynx in our house to thaw so he could skin it -- we had fleas all over the place for a few days from that lynx. I suspect the soil has a lot more to do with it than the climate, at least for fleas. Termites, now, seem to need warmer winters. I've seen them on the Oregon Coast, but nary a one here on the dry side of the mountains.
If you've got clayey soil, maybe that makes the difference. Maybe they choke on it? *grin*
Susan Monroe wrote:
The elevation there is 2,000 ft.
If you've got clayey soil, maybe that makes the difference. Maybe they choke on it? *grin*
Well, in the summer, if it isn't watered regularly, it's hard as a rock! I doubt that even termites could burrow through that stuff!
There are a lot of considerations and concerns with any structure, but with an underground structure there are more. The upside of it all is that I won't have a conventional roof to worry about. I won't have exterior walls to paint every two/three years. I won't have to worry as much about the weather. If a storm blows through, I probably won't notice. I won't have as many heating/cooling costs. If my design is sound, I shouldn't have ANY cooling costs, and a wood fired rocket stove would likely take the chill out of the air in the winter.
I go over my design a lot, do calculations on loads and stresses, look for potential places where moisture would build, look at the way air would likely flow through a room, etc.
I don't have all the answers, and there are certainly pitfalls that i haven't thought of or no one else has pointed out, but I think I have the majority of the bugs worked out of the design.
BTW: here is a pic from krameterhof.at of the kind of oehler-like thing that sepp builds in a day:
My research on cement says that cement collars are sometimes worse than actual soil contact. On pilings is okay - but then you lose all the bennies of a pole structure.
I live in an area with clay soil (neighbors actually have an adobe house built from the adobe thats 2-4 feet under the topsoil) and there's plenty of termites around.
A barrier of sand can be used to prevent termite intrusion into homes -- the specifics as to sand fineness, barrier thickness, and usage can be found at: http://www.greenbuilder.com/sourcebook/termite.html
Exterminators in CA are using a concentrated orange oil product as a termiticide; perhaps a layer of plastic, then a layer of felt soaked in concentrated orange oil, then wood might be effective.
What does the sand do to the termite?
I read the book by Mike Oehler and immediately set to work on a root cellar using that technology. Let me make my point clear as secondary perhaps only to drainage...... wood species, wood species, wood species.
Being a resourceful individual, and apparently having my better judgment clouded by hope and exuberance at the time, I used, for my "sheeting", a large pile of cottonwood two by fours that I had recently inherited from a local sawmill friend.
The structure did give me ten years of very dependable service before the natural and untimely deterioration of the cottonwood made it unsafe.
I have since used large steel storage tanks, buried horizontally, filled partially with pea gravel to make a level floor base on which to pour concrete, for my underground root cellars.
I expect to get multiple decades of service from these steel tanks, but would like to get back to more natural construction in my future projects.
In fact, PLEASE start a new thread and tell us about your experiences! I'm on a HUGE Oehler kick right now and am struggling to find existing shelters and past experiences with his techniques!
Mike Oehler was at two days of Sepp workshops about ponds. And as sepp brought up a picture of a wood shelter (like above) then Mike started to talk about the importance of selecting the right species.
paul wheaton wrote:
What does the sand do to the termite?
Sand grains of the correct size (called 16 grit; with a diameter of 0.06 to 0.1 inches) can be used as a termite barrier because termites are unable to dig through or move sand grains of that size. A field test in northern California showed that installing a sand barrier 18 inches wide and 3 inches deep in crawl spaces along the inside of the foundation wall effectively stopped termites. [pesticide.org/subterraneantermites.html]
It kept taters and carrots cold but unfrozen and homemade cheeses that we kept inside a little refrigerator were maintained at the right temperature range to cure well into June. All in all we were happy with it, until we noticed that the c-wood was rotting pretty badly in spots. ops:
I'm glad that Oehler had the foresight to warn others about species type.
The only pics I could scratch up were of the steel entrance and a portion of my wine collection behind which you can see the pole construction and the painted 2x4 sheeting. Between the steel entrance and the main cellar I set a round steel tank for a tunnel to get us further back in the earth.
How deep is the material on the roof? You mention three feet, but that looks like less. Much less. Unless I don't quite understand the scale.
It gets thicker toward the cellar itself.
I had hoped to dig it out by now and replace with concrete, then the price of scrap fell, and funds have become scarce. Now I'm debating whether to go with logs...
paul wheaton wrote:
How high is that opening?
Just over five feet high. My tank was 5'6". We're not short people, but not giants either, so it works. My cellar ceiling is about seven feet.
First, we have
Sepp, building a shelter in a day (above).
Total cost for the structure is about $1000 (two layers of felt and one layer of pond liner) plus the cost of the track-hoe. Note that the soil is a meter deep over the structure.
And then we have Mike Oehler's designs that are in many ways similar - with light coming in all four directions.
Then add in the idea of the umbrella architecture:
(more details at http://www.norishouse.com/PAHS/UmbrellaHouse.html )
And a look I like:
(more at http://www.simondale.net/house/index.htm )
I really like the idea that most of the materials come from the land.
And I really like the idea that something can be built so quickly.
And I really like the idea that the structure requires little, if any, heating or cooling.
And so I want to add to it a bit. I want the roof layer to be like this:
12 inches wet soil
newspaper (half inch)
newspaper (half inch)
newspaper (quarter inch)
8 inches of dry soil
newspaper (half inch)
newspaper (half inch or more to get a smooth, even surface)
wood (2xX or logs)
So instead of double layers of pond liner/felt/insulation that is trucked in and costs about $8000, the total cost might be about $200.
Will it work? Am I brilliant? Or am I gonna die under eight tons of dirt?
"There are several thousand reasons for avoiding the temptation to site a dwelling way up on the ridge top." -- Bill Mollison, permaculture design course pamphlet.
He exaggerates the number, obviously, to make a point. I paraphrase: You'd be in the wrong thermal belt for one -- poor thermal efficiency. It ends up being much colder up there than if it were sighted down near the keyline, and that means higher fuel costs, more and earlier frost, higher wind, less fertile soils -- poor zone 1 plant location in general; hilltops are a fire hazard because, "fire sweeps with fantastic rapidity uphill" often from both sides, meaning there's nowhere to escape; poor choice for a well to be drilled; greater expenditure of resources and effort getting things uphill, especially in poor weather.
Earth-bermed houses are terrific, but you might want to rethink the site location.
A lot of people cry when they cut onions. The trick is not to form an emotional bond. This tiny ad told me:
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