The lilting rich and fruity falsetto
voice of Political Correctness
The 50 Dollar & Up Underground House Book by Mike Ohler: a book review
by Jeff Fullerton
Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
“A human being should be able to change a
diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a
building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone,
comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone,
solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a
computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.
Specialization is for insects.”
—Robert A. Heinlein
The great master and visionary of 20th Century SF included the designing of a building among the laundry list of skills that make for a well rounded and successful human. It is also the solution to one of our worst social problems—the issue of affordable housing are so simple that too often gets passed over or even systematically marginalized in the arena of politics and public opinion. I just had another refresher lesson in that regard recently when prompted by a series of personal challenges and concerns about the state of the Nation and the world to dust off the copy of Mike Ohler‘s: The $50 and Up Underground House Book that came with a video cassette version narrated by the author; which I picked up in the early 1990s.
The book was originally copyrighted in the late 70s at the tail end of the groundswell of interest in going back to the land and I first borrowed it from the public Library in Riverside California while I was stationed at March Air Force Base in the late 80s. I have long had an interest in earth sheltered structures—houses and greenhouses going back to my high school days. And of course I was always met with a good deal of skepticism from elders and friends that over the long haul I‘ve learned can be the biggest obstacle to putting a new idea into action on par with government restrictions above and beyond the physical challenge of gathering the resources and doing it.
Mike Ohler who had the appearance of an amiable back to the Earth hippie who actually walked the walk; built his first basic structure in 1971. In the video lecture version from the 90s I got a very positive impression of the author and his concept which can be seen in this more recent video on YouTube. Apparently he is still alive and well and some his early structures have even stood the test of time. Making this concept worthy of consideration in times even more uncertain than the days when Ohler sought his sanctuary in the hills of Idaho.
His unique innovative design is the Post / Shoring / Polyethylene method or P/S/P that involves building with wooden posts and beams with wood planking covering the roof and outside walls which is in turn covered with a sheet of polyethylene and backfilled with the native soil. It is essentially a low tech pole barn structure that is a radical departure from conventional underground architecture that usually involves concrete. Ohler refers to the designers of those structures as ‘concrete terrorists’ as he extols the virtue of waking on on soft natural surfaces vs hard concrete floors in modern buildings. His solution is a very simple earth floor overlaid with polyethylene for a vapor barrier and then AstroTurf. That was an improvement over his first thought design with straw on a bare earth floor that was a potential fire hazard if ignited by sparks from the wood stove used to provide heat.
Another simple innovation is to char the ends of the support posts that go into the earth or in later designs—wrap them with poly garbage bags to prevent rot and termite invasion.
The result is a very simple low tech shelter that in the words of an old Geico commercial: even a caveman could do it. The overall cost of the 1971 house which was a one room structure came out to $49.70—just under the namesake of the book. It involved a lot of second hand and salvaged material obtained free or at low cost. The price tag wound likely be higher in today’s economy but still way more affordable than conventional housing and much more energy efficient too.
One of the main reasons for going underground is to take advantage of the thermal constant of the earth which is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit year round. That would result in massive savings in heating costs in winter and would provide natural air conditioning in hot weather. It takes a lot less energy to heat a structure to a comfy 70 degrees when it’s 50 degrees outside your walls as opposed to 20 degrees or lower. Looking at the fuel gauge on my oil tank last night which is now hovering below half with my old poorly insulated two story farm house that has been set at 57 degrees much of the winter since the outside furnace was mothballed; it’s obvious that 500 gallons of oil that cost a little north of $1,000 would go a lot farther in one of Ohler’s houses. Even the larger multi room structures that he built later on or blueprinted further along in the book. Probably for a couple or even several years maintaining a decently comfortable temperature as opposed to lowering the thermostat and enduring the misery of suboptimal temperatures to stretch out costly fuel resources. You would think the environmentalists and social justice warriors would be all over this one since it embodies many aspects of sustainability and enabling the poor to have affordable housing that can be comfortable and affordable to heat in the winter. But the silence is deafening.
Of course it makes sense that environmentalists who want to clear rural people off the land don’t want solutions that involve the fostering of self-sufficiency and resiliency that are the obvious solution to the sustainability issue and rural poverty and poverty in general. You also have an establishment of government planners and commercial interests that want to keep housing costs high to control development or protect profits. I was hoping to include a classic quote from Robert A. Heinlein that comes from a list of his future predictions that such forces will continue to stand in the way of serfs like us trying to get or build for themselves; affordable housing. Mike Ohler too gives treatment to that issue in his book where I was really introduced to to the knowledge that the federal government was strong arming state and local governments into implementing uniform building codes by blackmailing them with the threat of withdrawal federal highway funding or other resources doled out from Washington.
What a dirty sleazy thing I thought at the time when I was more leftish in my thinking in those younger days. The book even goes as far as suggesting one might become an outlaw builder as in many jurisdictions a request for permitting such an unorthodox design might be hard to come by as it is an obvious threat to plans and profits of those who use regulatory hurdles to push people where they want them to go and force them to consume goods and services provided by established providers at overinflated prices. Much of our current social order in which critical life sustaining things like food, shelter, health care and energy is like a hydraulic despotism in which control of these goods is used to control people. Classic disturbing example is the manner in which food is used as a weapon in unstable Third World nations and it is the basis of our deepest darkest fears in regard to government officials who openly plan to seize control of such resources during times of crisis and use the crisis as an excuse to remake the society according to their plans and preferences.
Ever since the interruption of supply issue that made my outside furnace less tenable on top of a family crisis that is making me live with one foot in two places—I have been thinking seriously again about going this route. Even if it involves becoming an outlaw builder. Years ago I got ridicule from family members. Like an aunt who said no one would want to marry me because they’d be ridiculed for living in a hole in the ground and having a nut for a husband. Probably true. People are very set in their ways and resistant to unorthodox ideas. Hallmark of a culture in which the status quo is taken for granted; like death and taxes—or risk aversion in marginal situations when it comes with experimentation with something new and potentially risky. Even at the expense of clinging to a way of life that is failing. Even my friend Ray in Wisconsin where the cruel north wind continues to pour out its wrath was very skeptical and recommended I stick with my current dwelling.
Might as well face the reality that getting off the treadmill of modern hydraulic despotism is not easy. But it is not impossible.
I’m sort of wargaming a halfway measure based on the idea of moving between seasonal homes in the fashion of some American Indians who had summer and winter houses. I might be able to get away with building one of Mr Ohler’s basic one room design on the sly which would make for a great winter home and double as an emergency shelter in the event of a power grid collapse in winter or other disaster made the conventional house untenable or destroyed it. And the latter so long as it stands is still a very pleasant place to live in during the summer time.
Having the best of both worlds is better than burning bridges anyway and could makes for an interesting future article as well as case for libertarian activism on behalf of people being systematically denied the right to enhance their own quality of life in favor of being shepherded by the Custodial State. Mike Ohler’s The 50 Dollar & Up Underground House Book offers a good blueprint for enabling people to secure for themselves affordable shelter and is worth reading and promoting.
Especially in times like these.
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