Idaho modern oldtimer builds underground & solar $50 houses

“Mike Oehler lived for over 30 years in an underground home that he built for $50 (and expanded for $500) on his land in Northern Idaho near the Canadian border. Now in his seventies his arthritis keeps him from hiking up to his home, but he continues to “write and proselytize”

In 1968 like thousands of other San Franciscans hoping to go “back to the land”, Oehler bought property and began to build a homestead. After spending a winter freezing in a small cabin, he designed a home that would use the earth as insulation. With his first attempt he fell into the easy errors of what he calls a “first thought house”: a hole cut into a hillside with south-facing windows.

Gradually he began to innovate with subterranean design, creating better ways for letting light in: among them “the Hollywood Wing”, “the Royer foyer”, gables and most-importantly the “uphill patio” (which also provides space for an earth-sheltered greenhouse). He also created an inexpensive, low-tech approach to basic design with what he calls PSP or Post/shoring/polyethlene.”

Owen’s critique of this concept:
In order not to ruffle too many feathers, it’s probably best to keep this critique fairly short. So, I’ll just itemize a few reasons why I’m not a big fan of this book or building method.
– Claiming you can build houses for $50 is misleading in my opinion. Seriously, what can you buy for $50? Maybe the plastic, that’s about it. Every builder knows there are all sorts of related expenses, so the true cost will almost certainly be much higher than $50 unless you’re just building a root cellar. (Our earthbag roundhouse cost $2,100, and I believe that’s a much more truthful cost estimate.) There are exceptions, of course, like the $100 adobe house I recently posted about. But just realize going that route (doing EVERYTHING yourself by hand – no chainsaw, etc.) could mean the project dragging on for years. For most people it’s more productive to build a house in a few weeks or months and then do other things such as income generating work.
– There’s nothing new about post and beam with wood shoring. Think about all the mine tunnels and associated structures built this way, as an example. Now add some plastic sheeting for improved moisture protection. That’s about it.
– Earth bermed construction is far easier and faster than doing underground construction that involves lots of excavation. This is what I’ve been saying for years. I’ve always suggested building on high ground and adding some earth berming around the house instead of going completely underground. 30” of berming is typically all you need. More than that is usually overkill. In Montana I would use post and beam, straw bales for upper walls, gravel bags on lower walls with 30” of berming with rigid foam and 6 mil plastic between the earthbags and the soil berm. Building this way could save you years of hard work! (Note how most of his projects never got finished…)
– You will not “freeze” in a small straw bale cabin. Don’t forget there are other natural building options.
– The drawing of his “first thought” underground house is misleading. There’s no reason to build completely into a STEEP hillside and put the house at risk of moisture problems. Instead, you can build against the side of a knoll or small hill with a gradual slope or one that slopes away from the house. That way rain and snow melt won’t come pouring into or against your house. In addition, you could add one or more swales above the house to divert excess moisture. Or you can dump soil around the house after it’s finished like I said previously (earth berming).
– It sounds like the author has sold thousands of copies of his book over 35 years or so. (Maybe because of the catchy title?) By this time there should be thousands of people who’ve built this way and reported their experiences. However, other than a handful of examples I haven’t seen many people use this method at all. If it’s so great then where are all the blogs, websites and new books on this subject?

In summary, other than a few window ideas (which are free on the Internet) there’s not much value in this book in my opinion. You can download a free post and beam building ebook online, and you can read books about underground houses by Malcolm Wells from the library.

This is just my opinion. Do the research and make up your own mind. Also, special thanks to Kirsten Dirksen for making this video. It’s the best video of Oehler’s work and it has encouraged me to share my view.

4 thoughts on “Idaho modern oldtimer builds underground & solar $50 houses”

  1. ALso, inside his book:

    He had an engineer to draw up for how many posts, beams, girders, etc are to be used according to what size you are building…


  2. Hi Owen,

    Mike was able to build his first house back in the 1970’s with many found and recycled materials. That is why the original build was less than $50.

    He first published the book in the 1970’s, thus the title. The book has been reprinted 7 or 8 times.

    He added onto that original TINY, TINY space for $500, again using mostly found and throw away windows and such.

    He got mill end boards from a local sawmill, etc.

    He also uses Pond Liners on the roof now, rather than Polyethelene.

    Yes, underground Mines have been built like this for a long time.
    In the video, Mike is showing the First Thought house, showing that it is NOT how to build, as water is always an issue.

    His ideas for an uphill patio with trenching around the upper hill area of the house helps to divert water away from the home.


    In his book he shows ways to build Flatland Houses, similar to how you prefer to build with berming and all.

    Yes, it would take much less energy to not have to excavate. ANd a home can built faster.

    And with Permaculture Design, Swales, Huglebeds and other ideas can divert water.

    Thank you for posting this. It will help to give people more ideas of how to build berming with earth!


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