Thursday, April 17, 2014

Books Review: $50 and up Underground House Book, Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse Book by Mike Oehler

First, a confession: we're huge fans of underground/earth-sheltered structures.  Cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, virtually immune to tornadoes, nearly invisible to alien invaders...the list of perks goes on and on.  We're also cheap. (Pronounced frew-gull.)  As it turns out, Mike Oehler probably has similar tastes. 

Covers of the relevant books.  The drawing on the cover of the $50 and up book is one of the less spectacular designs in the book, but shows how underground structures can be built even on relatively flat ground.  The drawing on the cover of the greenhouse book shows many of the features of Oehler's design, namely a lower section for standing room, trapping cold air, and potentially sheltering rabbits; a back wall with thermal storage devices, and a roof with venting capability.  We found a copy of the $50 and up book here, and the greenhouse book here.

In the foreword to the greenhouse book, Rob Roy (another underground house expert with his own series of books) says,
"I've always prided myself on sharing information on low-cost green building techniques in my books, but Mike out-flanks me every which way from a Mexican Sunday: the guy builds cheap, dirt cheap, and I say this with begrudging admiration." [Mexican Sunday is another of Oehler's books.]
The books are an entertaining and immensely useful guide to earth-sheltered buildings. Oehler brilliantly mixes personal experiences of building underground structures on the cheap with curmudgeonly (to use Oehler's own words) but endearing political commentary. (How many other books have an entire chapter devoted to circumventing building codes and fooling building inspectors?)

While most other sources on underground buildings advocate the copious use of concrete and insulation materials, Oehler explains how to design and build stable, structurally sound earth-sheltered buildings (provided building codes are not viewed as gospel truth) with materials scrounged, sourced from the homestead, or readily available at the local hardware store: mainly wood and plastic sheeting.

The steps and principles of construction are simple:

  1. Dig a hole, optimally on a ridge if a view of the surrounding area is desired, but optionally on a hillside or even on flat ground.
  2. Construct a post-and-beam frame in the hole, making sure to place a layer of polyethylene between wood and dirt, e.g., in the holes for the posts.  Also make sure the frame is braced against itself to keep the force of the dirt that will be added outside the walls and on the roof from buckling the frame.  In the greenhouse book, Oehler also mentions that he now chars the bottom end of the posts in a campfire to further preserve the wood.
  3. Add shoring on the outside of the frame in the form of lumber mill ends, scrounged boards, etc., again making sure that there is always plastic sheeting between the wood and the dirt.
  4. Backfill around and on the structure with dirt, making sure to allow for proper drainage.

Naturally, there are numerous details to each of those steps that Oehler outlines in the books, gleaned through his considerable experimentation with underground structures and experience in the construction industry.

Oehler walks readers through his methodology, which is arguably based on a series of questions:
  1. What do I want out of the underground building?  
  2. What is the simplest (and cheapest) way I can build a structure that gives me what I want out of the building?
  3. What are the problems with the simplest structure, and what can I do solve them?
  4. What are the problems with the improved form, and what can I do to further improve the building?
  5. ...and so on
Not only is this approach an incredible time-saver for folks like us, who tend to follow the same protocol, but the fact that Oehler has resolved these problems to a sufficient degree to live in his self-built underground houses for decades and to harvest vegetables year-round from his underground greenhouse near the Idaho-Canada border speaks to the soundness of his approach.

Criticism of these books is hard for us to muster.  Oehler calls it like he sees it, which is mostly endearing.  For example, as implied above, we learn straight away that he has a strong disdain for authority in general and especially government involvement in the everyday matters of rural life.  However, one doesn't have to read very far between the lines to guess that Oehler might be a little bit vindictive, even if the vindication comes in the form of somewhat petty remarks in the figure captions of his books.  But the cumulative effect of these comments does very little to detract from overall excellent works.

In sum, we are very happy to have Oehler's experience to draw from when we have a need for some outbuildings on our own homestead and will very likely use some of his techniques.  We highly recommend these books!


  1. Awesome! About the only issue I could find with the concept is soil type might make the framing more difficult in some areas. I have a particular place in mind that doesn't take digging holes very well, even relatively braced ones. ;) We, of course, have no practical experience in such matters, only speculation and thought-experiment.

    1. It's true that Oehler happens to build in hardpan clay instead of sand, but he talks about the 'angle of repose' of different soils in the greenhouse book. I think sand still works, it just takes a lot of extra digging...or a slightly higher-quality bracing outfit. :-)