Mike Oehler - Underground Housing

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Mike OehlerUnderground housing is a concept whose time has come again. Its advantages over above-ground housing are spectacular. It stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It blends in with nature rather than rearing above it. It can double the yard space in a city. To the neighbors it looks like a park. It is the most environmentally sound. It uses half the building materials. It is the safest form of housing: it is fire resistant, radiation resistant and is impervious to tornado and hurricane strength winds. It even does better in earthquakes.

Where are the traditional tornado shelters located? Where are the fallout shelters? Where does an army go to defend itself? In a world that is increasingly hostile, it's really nice to know that Mother Earth herself is providing your safety.

This special feature is reprinted from Countryside, A small stock journal - The magazine of modern homesteading:

"The biggest investment most people have is their home. A mortgage, or rent, is a major item in most budgets. Many Americans who can't scrape together a down payment on real estate, or get a mortgage loan, feel locked out of The Good Life, and the American Dream. And according to some sources, thousands of people, even in America, have no homes at all.

Most people regard these as inevitable facts of life. Since there's little they can do about them, they might as well ignore them.

A few, however, are proactive. They think outside the box, and they have a fighting attitude. They consider huge, luxurious and expensive homes to be irrelevant to human needs, and wasteful of space, materials, and money. The cost of interest on a 20- or 30-year mortgage is especially galling to them.

mike oehler 2These housing pioneers have included Ken Kern, whose "Owner-Built Home" started many people on the road to mortgage-free housing in the 1970s. Rob Roy's "Mortgage Free," as well as his books, videos and workshops on low-cost cordwood construction, have led the way out of the morass of overbuild, overpriced and consequently overfinanced housing.

Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome enjoyed great popularity among owner-builders in the 1970s, and log construction has become so common most log homes are now built by commercial enterprises, not do-it-yourselfers. Other individuals and groups have been promoting building with straw bales, cob (a mixture of clay and straw), adobe, and houses that range, literally, from under the ground to the treetops.

One of the people who has broken new ground (literally and figuratively) is Mike Oehler, author of "The $50 & Up Underground House Book." His innovative and ingenious construction methods and design techniques have been in use for more than 20 years, but few people today are even aware of them.

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One reason might be because his methods are too easy, too "primitive," and maybe too inexpensive for most modern tastes.

On the other hand, these qualities are exactly what some people are looking for... and what could become extremely valuable in certain situations.

When planning this special feature on "Wilderness Survival," "Countryside" considered using the old "Boy Scout" and "Air Force Survival Manual" advice on emergency shelter. Frankly, we couldn't envision readers of this magazine needing emergency shelter of any kind unless they became lost in the wilderness. Temporary and emergency shelters used after hurricanes and earthquakes are more likely to be Red Cross tents rather than something made from branches, or even tarps.

Mike Oehler has a different view. He thinks people will leave the cities in droves after a catastrophe, when population centers no longer function and are uninhabitable. They would seek food and shelter in the countryside.

Ridgetop Eco HouseIf they encounter Mike Oehler or anyone like him, they'll be handed an ax, a shovel, a roll of polyethylene, and directions for building an underground shelter with the PSP system.

This building method is almost as fast, almost as easy, and almost as inexpensive as a Boy Scout hut with the same area. But with a little more work, time and money, you can build an actual home with the same method. Mike Oehler has lived in one himself for more than 20 years.

Oh, by the way – this system can also be used to build root cellars and bomb and tornado shelters.

This is something worth knowing about.

It's safe to assume that most people have never considered living underground. Therefore they have never looked into the possibilities and know nothing about the concept.

However, it's equally safe to assume that of those radical enough to not fit into that majority, most have heard only about concrete constructions that are relatively complex, expensive, and... well, basement-like.

Mike Oehler's PSP system, incorporating his unique design innovations, is a totally different concept. In its way it is both as simple and as amazingly ingenious as a paper clip.

Living underground

Underground homes, according to Mike, are not dark, dank, airless spaces, with artificial lighting... or even skylights. On the contrary, the properly designed and constructed U house provides pleasant surroundings, a better view (more on that later), and is most aesthetically pleasing, inside and out. It is weatherproof, soundproof, relatively fireproof, and requires less maintenance. It is warm in winter, cool in summer, has superior flooring, and the pipes never freeze. It has no foundation, uses less building material, requires less labor, and is ecologically sound. It can be concealed if you choose, defended if need be, and you pay less tax on it. It can be built by anyone, in a very short time, for hundreds, not tens of thousands of dollars.

Now are you interested in living underground?

2-8thousexterIf we have your attention, now we can tell you that the key component of the Oehler PSP system is polyethylene sheeting.

That, along with the "$50 & Up" price tag, is probably a psychological turn-off for those accustomed to thinking of even manufactured housing costing many thousands of dollars. Who would want to live in a $50 plastic house! Let's set that objection to rest first, by taking a quick look at the construction method, and why it makes so much sense.

PSP stands for post/shoring/Polyethylene. These structures are, basically, pole building, built underground. The low cost projections assume the posts and shoring will come from the building site, or nearby.

The space is excavated, posts are sunk, boards (shoring) placed against the posts between the posts and the earthen wall, polyethylene behind that, and the space is backfilled.

The same basic method is used for the roof. Girders are placed on the posts and secured, beams are placed over the girders, boards go over the beams, followed by roofing felt or tar paper, poly, and earth. Insulation can be added to the roof to provide the same R-value with less soil (and weight).

6-twentyMany other details are added to this basic description in "The $50 & Up Underground House Book." The basic method, however, is all you would need to construct a secure emergency shelter, quickly and cheaply. It will be far more comfortable than the sod houses or rough log cabins of the pioneers, and its durability can't begin to compare with that of a tent or similar shelter.

If the poly still bothers you, consider these facts:

The very word plastic has a negative connotation for most homesteaders and environmentalists. We can use plastic sheeting for cheap greenhouses, but we know it won't last more than a couple of months: definitely not what we would choose for building a home, however temporary.

At the same time, poly is looked down upon because we're told that in landfills, it will persist for perhaps a hundred years! It won't degrade: it will just sit there.

Turn that negative into a positive. If polyethylene, protected from sunlight, will last a hundred years underground in a landfill, why wouldn't it last that long when sandwiched between boards and earth in an underground house?

This kind of brilliant breakthrough thinking is demonstrated in many ways in "The $50 & Up Underground House Book." Another example is how the use of treated wood for posts is eliminated.

Fence posts and barn poles, sunk into the soil, get wet. Normally, wet wood rots. The industrial complex answer to this is to treat such wood with chemical preservatives (including, in the past, some that are now banned for being carcinogenic. But even those still in use are questionable.)

Anyone who has removed rotting fence posts has probably noticed that, in most soils, the area of decay is just below ground level, where soil microbiological activity is greatest. Often a post can be almost completely rotted out at this level, while the wood several feet deeper in the ground is still solid. So it's possible that a post, buried two feet or more into the ground, in an excavation already as much as six feet or more in the ground, will last a very long time.

6a-20thousBut Oehler doesn't take any chances, with either rot, or chemical preservatives.

He makes use of the old-time observation that charred wood doesn't rot. He chars the bottom two feet or so, of the posts simply by roasting them over a campfire. If any finishing touches are necessary, he uses a propane torch.

Then for additional insurance, he wraps the post bottom in several plastic garbage bags secured with duct tape.

There is, obviously, much more to say about PSP construction methods, but that's putting the cart before the house, especially if you aren't convinced that subterranean housing is a reasonable alternative. What will convince you are the design possibilities. What's more, before you start to build, you need a plan.


The PSP construction process is simple and easily understood. But the concept of living under the ground is extremely alien to most people who haven't been exposed to Mike Oehler's design concepts. In addition, proper design is the single most important key to the success of an underground dwelling, in terms of light, ventilation, and most importantly, drainage.

So it's not surprising that Mike spends most of his time and effort, in his book as well as videos, on design."

Learn More Underground Housing

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