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Building underground on the cheap

Cheap underground houseMike Oehler built his first underground house for $50 in 1971.  He used mostly scavenged materials, which he summed up in a very Thoreau-like table:

  • Beams and post - free
  • Millends (lumber) - free
  • Polyethylene - $15
  • Nails - $0.50
  • Flooring - free
  • Insulation - free
  • Paint - $2
  • Chairs - free
  • Tables - $2.20
  • Door - free
  • Cooler - free
  • Lamp - $4
  • Stove, stove pipes, and damper - $22
  • Windows - $4

The initial structure was only 120 square feet, and even though he lived there for four years, he admits he was on the lecture circuit for three of the four winters.

In an effort to turn the structure into a good place to spend a northern Idaho winter, Oehler added on in 1975 to produce what he calls the $500 house (costing about $2,000 in today's dollars).  The new structure (which includes the original $50 house) covers 370 square feet across three levels.  In addition to living in the $500 house since 1975, Mike Oehler has expanded his experience by running an underground-house consulting business where he designed and/or built several other houses using his methods.  (You can see more photos of the houses he inspired and built on his website, which is where I found the pictures in today's post.)

Homemade underground houseThere's a lot to like about Oehler's houses, but I want to throw in a few caveats up front (since you won't find most of these issues mentioned until nearly the end of his book).  The fact his houses won't pass code doesn't really bother me, but I am much more concerned by Oehler's update about the parts of his houses that have and haven't failed structurally over the years --- it sounds like root cellars built using his methods are problematic, as are non-full-time residences that aren't aired and warmed on a regular basis.  You also should be prepared to put in huge amounts of labor if you build using Oehler's methods on the cheap --- his original, 120-square-foot house took about 105 man-hours simply for the initial excavation.  Finally, Oehler admits that you might need to work harder to keep water out of your underground house if you live in an area like the Pacific Northwest (or, presumably, here) with "ridiculous rain."

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post where I begin to show you what sets Oehler's houses apart from mainstream underground structures.

The Weekend Homesteader is finally back in stock on Amazon, just in time for you to get started on the first spring projects!



This post is part of our The $50 and Up Underground House Book lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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I can't believe you haven't found this site. This is one owner built report. http://countryplans.com/smf/index.php?topic=10578.0

No mention of leakage after six months living in it. Tom

Comment by Tom Blum Tue Mar 26 13:51:43 2013

Seems that there are a few other underground house books on amazon. Have you looked at any other books? Is there a 'better' book? http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Underground+House+Book thanks!

Comment by drew Fri Mar 29 03:36:35 2013

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime