Glenn's Underground Cabin Update

Started by glenn kangiser, January 30, 2005, 10:24:03 PM

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I saw a house once that was made of Railroad Ties... The guy would carry them home ones they were replacing...He would pick through them to get ones that were not rotten...

Talk about making something from nothing...

It is so awesome to recycle something. I have a wood stoveoil combo enterprise stove and I love it! I saved a few of them from the dump and accumulated enough parts to make one from several...All for nothing...Just a little of my time

Although it is not energy efficient one of the awesome things about building a camp is the sheer enjoyment from looking at it... going to a estate sale and buying 20-30 old barn windows...and re-using the old wooden windows in the camp

Turning what most see as junk into something useful.

Sidenote...Seeing that sidehill greenhouse gave me goosebumps...I barely slept the other night. I am craving more info and specs....



Were you talking about mine or Mike Oehler's???

Note - Mike is not recommending Penta, CCA or Creosote as preservatives as they have been found in bloodstreams (referring to Penta) of people exposed to it.  Creosote stinks but could possibly be sealed behind earth and plastic.  I have a couple ties I put under the bedroom foundation that I will seal off when I get that far.


I visted with Mike Ohler a few months back. He is not living in any of his underground houses. He is living in a small old conventional above ground house hooked to the grid. It is at the base of his mountainside property where his underground houses including the original $50 house is located. He took me on a tour of each one and I would have to say the earth is reclaiming them. He has not lived in any of them in a very long time. Still some green stuff growing in his underground greenhouse. That says alot about hoe good his techniques, because I would say that he has not tended to the greenhouse in long while either. Mike has some ideas about some videos he wants to make and to sell l through satelite tv/internet services. Just needs some investors. Kind of interesting considering that one of the first opinions he expresses in his book is how he hates TV and it is one of the scourges on the world. I would say that Mike is living hand-to-mouth right now just like all the rest of the good ole boys and ex-hippies who have managed to hang on to their piece of North Idaho paradise. Always lookin for the next angle on how to make a buck. By the way I can vouch that he still hikes around in barefeet. Mike is still the real deal for the most part.


Thanks for the update on Mike, danley.  I can see where mother nature could reclaim her territory if allowed to.  Even at that -it doesn't take as much work as paintng and keeping up a conventional house to keep her away from the door.  Then again - that was part of the idea- when it outlives it's  useful life let it go back to nature.

I'm glad he did the work on his system when he did.  I guess we can let him crawl up out of the ground now. ;D

Sharon-----  I thought of another thing you may want to study a little --French drains - you can get filter material that goes over perforated drain pipe - you don't even need rock around it--it can help to keep possible problem moisture areas dry.  Mike mentioned them also.  The black plastic coiled pipe is pretty cheap.  100 feet of filter sock cost about $22.00



Thanks, I'll check them out! (french drains)

Yep, I guess I am crazy.  But at least I will have a great home to live out my CRAZY life in... ;D

I am starting to plan the design of my house. (I know it will be a while till I build....since I haven't even seen the land...but I just want to start putting my ideas on paper.....then adjust to site later)  In the drawings that "DS" submitted, you mentioned that the offset room should also have an uphill that correct?  Could the offset room be 2-story with windows all around if the roof is slanted downhill and there is an uphill patio on the front?  Maybe I would need footings then, huh?  Just want a "lookout" reading/library area up a spiral staircase or ladder.  Any other idea that might work?


(Hi Kathy.... 8)  hope you have recovered from the stucco project)



I received a plesently surprising email from
Bruce (the man with the underground house you gave me the link for) and he pointed me to a website; where there is a good forum.

Here is the link to the discussion of his house and more photos to look at:



The main reason for the uphill patio is to prevent water from getting trapped on the uphill side of the cabin- that's why I mentioned it.  If there is still a place you may have a problem with water a french drain under the problem area and draining to daylight downhill -sloped all the way can help.

You can do anything you want to do as far as design goes.  I have a frog pond on the top of my place and even a boat dock (salvaged) - it goes from one roof section to another.  If I can have a boat dock you can have a lighthouse.   When you get your plans firmed up I would be glad to look at them and check for problem areas and give you suggestions based on what I know-- as always - my advice is worth as much as you pay for it. ;D

Kathy will be back from work Tues.  She checks in at work during break sometimes but can't sign in.  I actually have to work in the morning -- a real job!!!


Thanks for the link, Sharon.  I'm checking it out.



"...... even a boat dock (salvaged) - it goes from one roof section to another....)  So, THAT'S what is in the pics that is on top of your roof?   I would not have!  

I will definately get those plans to you.  I will, though, have to purchase the cable from the scanner to the pc so I can send them internet style vs. snail mail.

Hope you like the site.  I have been reading the forum posts, kinda fun.  Found out that the guy I bought my land from is in the Admin group for the, life is so strange how it takes you to a new avenue and then you wind up where you started again.  (bought the land, got into opts. as to what to build on it, then found the forum supported by the land

Have fun working your "real" job....obviously I can't wait to have that "fake" job you get to enjoy......LOL :D



Whoa,  I just renamed myself in that last post.. :-[
Guess I need to learn to drink so I have something to blame it on.....



Yes - last pic on page 11 it shows behind the ladder - has the stove pipe from the bedroom Franklin fireplace in front of it-- I got about 30 or so of them free - had to justify using treated wood by convincing myself that nearly all the treatment had washed off into the lake over the years.  People drank it all -I am safe.

You can go back and edit your posts if you want to make us think you are a better typist--  ;D - We may have seen it already though. --- Kinda like when I post something --then think better of it and go back and take it a different direction--  ???  Don't want John to have to kick my hind end too often. :-/



If I do build the lookout on a second floor, will I need footings?  

Also, not sure if I got the answer to the question "is there sides to te uphill patio that go up to the roof"?

And last but not least for the questions of the day, if I plan to add in later, do I plan ahead and make openings or just cut tou the wall openings as I add on?

Thank you,


Let me put it this way-- The little load you will be putting up there is nothing compared to the load that is already there, in fact if you don't put dirt on top the lookout- which I couldn't see you doing anyway - no place for runoff-- you are actually reducing the load as compared to the part that has dirt over it.  Insulate the roof to make up for lack of dirt.  I use 2 1/2" foam I got free from a cold storage remodel.

Speaking of loads - Mike recommended reducing the load from the design load of 2' of dirt and 1 foot of water to 1 1/2' of dirt -same allowable water .  I have places that are only 6".  I estimate Mikes design at 450 lbs per square foot.  In actuality, you will probably not get over 150 to 200 lbs per square foot.  Say 200 lbs per square foot x 64 square feet per center area post = 12800 lbs    My ground will handle it with nothing more then the  diameter of the post for support.  Engineers will probably have a cow but my ground is harder than the back of my head.  It has no problem with it.  Different ground can vary but many hillsides are very hard -that is why they are hillsides.  Soft ground will not take that much load-- in that case you could reduce the load and use foam board -membrane - then a lighter load of dirt - plants will grow with only a few inches of soil  - native - no problem usually - others -if you have water use drip irrigation.  The other site recommending going 8 feet out from  all sides of your cabin with the roof membrane where possible is a good idea.

My uphill patio is kind of captive but with the greenhouse is not much problem - steps up to the greenhouse.  Trails to sides would be good to drain of excess captured water.  I have a driveway above that serves as a continuous uphill patio or water drain off area also.


You still didn't get an answer -- up the stairs to top ground level - now in the greenhouse - out the back greenhouse door to the shop - turn right around the batteries/power station and out the door onto the roof at the end of the greenhouse glass.

You can plan expansion now or later.  It is very little problem to add on anywhere at any time as all the framing is designed full strength as if it was loaded on both sides.  Just dig the dirt away - remove or cut boards after adding end support if necessary and continue on.  Build connecting rooms -offset rooms -secret rooms- secret passages - all kinds of fun things.  You are only limited by the imagination of you or any other interested parties who "get it" - they will many times offer things that they think are cool - you will know how to do it.

This picture shows the door from the greenhouse on the right - behind the wood on the left is the door to the roof -enter through tool room this side of the white ladder.  Greenery is roof garden - rooftop frog pond is last of the greenery with cattails.



Well, snow has arrived...bummer!

OK, moving on from if there are sides on the uphill patio.  My land is level near the road and then slopes down (can't read the topography map, but I'm told it is fairly steep) toward the north.  So, if I want to take advantage of the southern exposure on the uphill patio side, how deep (from house away from house not deep into the ground)  can I go to get more sun?  I was thinking of doing more of the Earthship on that south side and then  Mike's way on the rest.  Don't know that I will use tires, but maybe cob with a tire foundation....except cob doesn't do alot of maybe the few rows of tires and then glass like Earthships.  I realy want to incorporate the inside planters and recycle the graywater.  I would slope the roof to match the slope of the hill the same as with Mike's ideas instead of the ES way. What do you think?

Thank you,


If I picture this correctly, the sun will be to the south of your cabin so in the winter lots of glass  in the uphill patio should allow sunlight to shoot deeply into the cabin if not blocked by trees, etc.  Sun angles should help determine roof slopes too.

Maybe John's Sunkit would be a good tool to have along when you get to your property to help answer some of the questions about where the sun hits- angles of roofs etc.

You may want to start near the level area at the top to maximize the amount of sun you can get.  Possibly lowering the area in front of or stepping the uphill patio with an additional terrace will allow more light.  Mike also thinks you  should have light and views from at least the four points of the compass - not just sunlight.  He likes glass in most of the areas that are above ground.  Sun scoops , clerestories, Hollywood wings, Royer foyers gables can all get light into different areas of the cabin.

Insulation board could help quite a bit if it is super cold there in the winter.

I think Mikes methods and reasons for them make more sense than many of the other ideas out there.  It sounds like a good choice to me.  Modifying things the way you want and working it out are what makes it yours.  There is noting like the view you get while looking out the windows of your underground cabin.



I don't know how cold it gets whre you are, but I was wondering what temps your house maintains?  Is it similar to the temps an earthship would get since they are both underground?

Thanks for the info,


At this time I can tell you what temps I have but it should get better next year as I get more of the center section closed in.  Currently hot or cold air can flow through the center and out the open great room entrance or up and out the green house.  No closed walls in the center yet.

That said, it is still not bad in the area we use as a studio apartment - the 4'6" level.

When we are  around 100+ in the day and over 80 at night for a couple of months it has little choice but to get to about 80 in there.  Winter time around 30 outside at night usually doesn't get below 50 without a fire.  So temperature variation while not real comfortable isn't extreme.  In your case I would worry about freeze levels and I think I would add rigid insulation even under the dirt if you have long extremes.  

I have the front porch mostly enclosed then the inner door closed.  As was mentioned in the other thread -JRR's greenhouse theory--each place has a definite difference in temp.  That is why I say it should change as I close off the center section.

At any rate - wood heat  or fans easily change it to a fairly comfortable temp.  At this time my kitchen wall is mostly single glass above counter level so the center section can influence inside temp quite a bit.  That wall measures 11 feet high by 17 feet wide.



How's the building going?  

I have been thinking that to start out maybe one of John's Victoria's Cottage (without the bedroom on the main floor) or the Builder's cottage would be a good idea to put on the land first to live in while building wouldn't be such a bad idea.  Then we would have a place for family to stay in when they come to visit.  I just don't want to put all our money into that and not have enough to put into the main house.  The cabin/cottage would just need to be finished enough to stay warm for the winter and would be finished as time goes on. Any input on that?  Don't know how far on the main house a person can get during a summer/early fall and be ready for winter, do you know?

Thanks again and say hi to Kathy for me!

PS..ok, maybe after studying the $100,000 victoria cotage and builders cottage, the builders cottage itself may be more within the price range!! (yet still a lot of money since it is not the main house!!) Maybe just start on the main house and hope to have four walls and a roof by winter.


There are a million ways to do things, Sharon.  Possibly if you wanted you could do something like The Builders Cottage  with the idea of it having a different use later.   It could be done with a slab floor and be a guest house or even -perish the thought- a shop or garage. A bathroom -and small kitchen could be plumbed back to back. Or if time permits as you say - you could start the main house.  

I think on these projects, if you worked straight - a couple months should put a serious dent in either project. :)

Kathy said Hi from work again - she's monitoring the forum when she gets a break at work.  We have a little fan club at the Veterans Hospital.

A big Hi from us to all of you out there in VA Hospital land. ;D


Glenn my man,
Just a thought on those hoop frames. I was thinking they could be laminated up out of 3/4 ply, maybe to a thickness of about 8" or so. Used as a support for a ferrocrete dome or even a ply cladding, you have a structure that could be buried What do you think, any merit in the idea.


Looks like it has possibilities- I wonder if 3/4 is too stiff - maybe multiple 1/4"to 1/2" would curve easier.  Strengthwise you may get to actually loading it to test and be sure of safety - unless you have an engineer buddy that could help figure loads.


Hi Glen

That place is really freaking cool!
Very pretty Hoosier too.


Hi Elly.  Glad you like it.  No fancy carpentry like your place, but rustic is cool too, I guess.

The Hoosier came from a local homestead.  I was going to refinish it and a friend said "You're going to what???  Don't even think of it."  So there it is, an old time worn Hoosier.  


Hi Glenn and Kathy,

Life has been way too busy to explore my new love of building, but just wanted to check in and see how your building process is coming along?

Hope your Thanksgiving was as fattening as mine was!

Sharon ;D