Building underground gives you the opportunity to add special features to your house which are impractical on surface structures. They are some of the many pluses of underground construction and part of why building below is so exciting. As you build, or after you have lived down under for a while, you might invent some of your own to add to the list.
Perhaps no feature of my house has caused as much comment from visitors, proven more practical, or provided as much satisfaction as the barbecue windows.
These windows, which open in, face out on a portion of the Uphill Patio which is waist high. The patio at this point is very confined. It's more like a window well than a true Uphill Patio. (This is due to the fact that I wanted to save two trees growing above, but no matter.) Because it is so confined there is considerable protection from the wind—an important factor as we shall see. This confinement also seems to create something of a draft, or chimney effect.
Sometime in the first several months after moving into the $50 underground house, I decided to try a cooking fire out there. This was due to the draft and smoke problems I was having with the fire window where I had been cooking. I dug a small pit in the earth, put some bricks around the edge of the pit and used a salvaged steel oven rack for a cooking grate. It was now possible to cook outdoors just by reaching through the windows.
The advantages to this feature are numerous. It allows you to cook outdoors while standing inside out of the rain, hot sun or other weather conditions. It allows you to cook outside while remaining inside convenient to your kitchen—you don't have to carry everything out. It allows you to cook at a comfortable waist high level, not hunkered down over a campfire. It allows you to barbecue from the inside over charcoal or local wood without installing costly, trouble prone, energy consuming fire hoods or other smoke eliminating devices. Because you are actually cooking outside, the fire does not heat up your cool underground home on hot days. In the evening, or at night, the fire throws a fine mellow flickering glow up onto the ceiling, rafters and on some of the walls of the house.
In the winter when it is too cold to open the windows for extended periods, you will cook on your kitchen or heating stove. The barbecue area then becomes an accessible wood storage area, as convenient as opening your windows. As much as a week's supply'of firewood may be stored out there at one time ending both unpleasant trips out into the cold and the mess of sawdust, wood chips and bark which always litter the floor when wood is stored in the house.
The warm weather system is not foolproof. If you cook with wet or rotten wood, and if there are strong wind gusts that day, and if there are other windows or doors open in the house creating an interior draft, the smoke may be sucked inside. This can be alleviated to some degree by shutting the windows when you're not actually stirring the pots or turning the food.
But what if you are rushed and must cook with wood that has been out in the rain, and you have a house full of visitors who keep coming in and out continually opening the main door which creates an interior draft due to that day's high wind gusts, and the house begins to fill with smoke and some well meaning soul opens an upper level window to let the smoke draw out but which serves only to draw more in, and everyone is beginning to cough and gasp and throw you watery-eyed looks which clearly doubt your sanity and reason and imply that they think very little of you and all of the bragging you have done about the wonders of your damnable barbecue windows—what then?
Well then, friends, you close the barbecue windows, go through the patio door shutting it firmly behind you and—smugly—resume cooking from your new position in:
You may still choke and gasp from the smoke—that's not going to change until you get some dry wood or until those strong gusts die down—but at least your critics can now open some doors and windows and breathe again.
The patio barbecue area will allow you to cook outside in nice weather, to actually be outside, not just leaning through a window. Few things can activate this writer's male chauvinistic tendencies—indeed cause him to snarl with contempt—as much as hearing some vacant-headed woman accost her man with the question, "How would you like to stay inside cooking over a hot stove on a nice day like this?" I wouldn't like to, and so I don't. I do what women always did before they lost every single last shred of intelligence: I cook outside.
In the warm, predictably good weather months of July and August I often move the whole kitchen outside on the lower terrace near the Royer Foyer. In addition, I usually set up a second kitchen, a field-kitchen, complete with cooking pots, pans and utensils, plates and food supply at the site of whatever big project is going at the moment. There I cook over a camp fire.
But in the spring and fall months when the weather, though often nice, is unpredictable I use the patio barbecue area. This allows me the luxury of cooking outside with a minimum of fuss. There is little fuss because the outside area is close to the kitchen and all the materials and utensils needed may be passed outside through the barbecue windows in just a few moments. In case of rain they may be passed back in again just as quickly, and the cooking process continued through the windows over the same fire. The cooking is rarely, if ever, interrupted.
The patio barbecue area is a way of making optimum use of the lowest part of the Uphill Patio. Little in the way of vegetation grows there since the sun rarely hits, but this lack of sun is an advantage to the cook; it's not always pleasant to be working over a hot fire when the sun is hot on you too.
Make this part of the patio roomy enough to put a table and bench or stools there and you can serve and eat outside with the same minimum amount of fuss. Carry through the same decor of the room adjacent to the patio— if the paneling in the house is painted white, paint the patio shoring white; if it is unpaint-ed inside, leave it natural outside; if you have indoor/outdoor carpeting inside, lay a piece of it on the ground outside—and you will create a wonderfully livable and functional outdoor extension of your house.
There is one other special feature related to the barbecue windows which must be mentioned; the Bachelor Bar. This feature has not been built yet, to my knowledge. That I haven't built one yet for myself is solely due to the fact that there is not enough space in my house, though I have wished a thousand times that there were. You may bet that all of my future houses will include this feature.
The Bachelor Bar is a work/eating counter which is built perpendicular to, and just to one side of, the barbecue windows. It should be high enough to make cooking preparations find Hh
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on it comfortable from a standing position for whoever is likely to do most of the cooking in your household. This will raise it a little above the height of the average kitchen table.
The Bachelor Bar makes it possible to prepare food on one surface (the bar) while cooking on another (out the windows in the barbecue pit) without taking a step. All you have to do is swivel on your heels to work one area or the other. It further makes it possible to sit while doing these things. The slight additional height will require a stool for this.
It has the additional advantage of allowing you to eat while sitting and continuing the cooking process at the same time. One hot course after another can come off the fire without you getting up once. This bachelor is tired of jumping up from the table to stir a pot or flip a hotcake during a meal, hence the name.
If you are serving others you can put them on stools across the bar and cook, serve them, and eat your own meal without ever getting up. This way you will never have to field the annoying question, "When are you going to sit down and eat?" This way, too, your guests or family will never be put in the position of feeling guilty.
A Bachelor Bar
In another section we have gone into the possibilities of constructing a greenhouse from the Uphill Patio. We mentioned how the heat radiation from the earth supplements the trapped and stored solar energy and combines with the heat loss from the windows of the house to automatically heat the greenhouse under most conditions without an additional heat source. It's been pointed out that this will in fact save the owner fuel for it keeps the heat down over the windows like storm windows. Here are some additional things to consider:
The shoring for the terraces, if constructed from rock, will retain the solar energy of the day and radiate it back into the greenhouse far longer during the night than will wooden retaining walls. The possible disadvantage here is that the rocks, each being separate entities glued together with concrete, may in time push in with the thrust from the hillside. I have difficulty seeing how a rock wall can be reinforced and integrated into the frame structure of the house downhill as can be done easily with a PSP retaining wall.
The corrugated greenhouse plastic or fiberglass covering makes a fine water collector. This water may be stored and used in the kitchen or bathroom or as irrigation for the plants in the greenhouse. If you have no water supply this could be vital to your comfort and well being. Even if you do have a water source, the fact that the covering keeps surplus water out of the Uphill Patio could be a deciding factor in the livability of your house in such wet areas as the Pacific Northwest rain forests. In those areas if you have no use for the water you will probably want to catch the runoff and divert it away from the roof to keep the soil there from washing down.
In really cold climates, a nighttime insulator covering may be made from old tent canvas, old parachutes, old blankets or any other material you can scrounge up. These should probably be quilted with straw, cloth bits, cattail heads or similar material forming the stuffing. Spread these quilts over the greenhouse in the evening, secure them, and in the morning fold them up and put them away somewhere. You will probably need to construct catwalks between the plastic or fiberglass sheets to facilitate the spreading of the covers. You may want the catwalks anyway to be able to get up there to sweep snow off.
In cold climates when there is little winter sun, your plants will probably stop growing at some point if you are not able to use artificial grow lights. This is unfortunate, but not a knockout punch. It is possible to keep many plants alive and healthy even if in a relatively dormant state of growth. It will still be possible for you to harvest and enjoy them. You just have to be careful of your planting schedule, timing the plants so that they reach maturity or near to maturity before the sun wanes. Only the experience of trial and error will tell you what and when to plant. You should also coordinate the growth of your greenhouse with the growth and harvest of your outdoor garden.
In 1977, with the help of a high schooler named Dave Eskin, I built an experimental solar/geothermal greenhouse on some flat land to the north of a high ridge. There is a gap in the ridge so we positioned the greenhouse to make full use of the three hours of sunlight which came through the gap in November. During the other hours of those November days the ridge blocked the sun. Yet my plants lived on with no supplemental heat or light source. I didn't lose the delicate ones, the tomatoes, cucumbers and beans until late November—seven weeks after the first killing frost. Early in December we had a real three day cold snap; the days were 15 degrees and the nights went as low as zero. I checked my remaining plants during the cold snap and found them frosted over and drooping. That looked like the end of the greenhouse plants that year.
But on a whim I checked the greenhouse again on the ninth of December and found, to my amazement, cabbage, radishes, parsley and lettuce still alive and edible. There were some freeze spots but they were easily trimmed out. So this solar/geothermal greenhouse turned out to be a roaring success. At the very least it will double my growing
season, for I can plant in the greenhouse several months early also. (I write this in the winter of 1977-78 so I haven't been able to complete the experiment yet.)
It is important to remember that this greenhouse did not have many of the benefits of an Uphill Patio greenhouse. First of all, since it was built on the flats, it was necessary to elevate the north side of it to make an optimum angle of sun penetration through the fiberglass. Though we bermed earth back of the north wall it was still not getting the full benefits of the geothermal heat. Besides, raising it exposed it to the wind. On a southern slope your greenhouse can and should be flush with the ground.
The greenhouse was getting only a portion of each day's sun. Your Uphill Patio greenhouses should do much better. When choosing your building site remember that the sun sinks much lower in the winter than in the summer. If you build in a ravine a ridge to the south could block the sun.
There was no nighttime insulation over the greenhouse. Some snow after the cold snap undoubtedly helped there, however.
Perhaps the most important advantage that this greenhouse lacked, though, was the heat loss from the house windows with which your greenhouse will be blessed. It's a free source of supplemental heat.
One unusual advantage that the greenhouse did have was a cold-sink or geother-mal radiator. But that explanation is for another day. The point here is that attached and/or sunken greenhouses work.
We have been promoting greenhouses built into the Uphill Patio. We expect them to be practical also when built over Royer Foyers and gables except when these face north. They will help to keep the heat down over the windows and doors though you may probably expect the plants to freeze out eventually due to more glazed surface and less earthen area to radiate heat. Then, too, these are usually entrances and the plants will be subject to cold blasts of air when the outside door is opened. All the more reason for constructing them, however. They will keep those cold blasts from entering the house. If nothing else these greenhouses should be fine areas for starting plants early in the spring.
Even the clerestories offer mini-greenhouse possibilities. Extend the roofs out several feet and construct some hinged, sliding or removable windows for the outside. These windows may be glass since they will be vertical rather than horizontal and nothing is likely to come crashing through them as might happen with a skylight surface. Window glass will also allow a view—a big attraction with clerestories. You should have a second set of windows on the inside which you can open to allow you to work on the plants and to provide ventilation in the warmer months. Plant in the enriched soil of the roof.
You may do well to add rabbit cages and worm tanks and possibly even fish tanks to your greenhouses. The rabbits will consume the surplus of oxygen generated by the plants and convert it back to carbon dioxide thus solving a problem which plagues the owners of many sealed greenhouses. Rabbits provide a small amount of body heat to the greenhouse though this factor may be insignificant. The meat they provide won't be insignificant, however. It is highest in protein of all the domestic animals. Rabbits have the best conversion rate of food to meat. Cattle require 20 pounds of feed to produce a pound of beef. Hogs require 9 (I think) pounds of food to provide one pound of pork. Chickens are four to one. But rabbits—glory" be—are three to one. Rabbits may be sold or eaten. Their pelts make fine clothing. Rabbits are excellent neighbors. They do not stomp around in the morning shouting cock-a-doodle-do. They don't even say moo when you are late for the milking.
If your greenhouse is large enough and your rabbits are few enough you may be able to feed them from the waste and surplus from your vegetable beds. What food falls through the cages, and the manure that goes with it, make the ideal combination of food for worms so you will want worm tanks below. The worms deodorize the manure quickly and turn it into potting soil for which commercial greenhouses pay good money. Or you may wish to use the soil yourself. The worms can be sold to fishermen or added to your garden or thrown to the chickens or fed to the fish if you have greenhouse fish tanks. The fish may be sold, or they may be eaten. The innards of the fish, when buried in the soil, make excellent fertilizer. So does the water from the fish tanks when you change it while irrigating your greenhouse plants (both at once). The fresh water for the fish comes from the runoff from the greenhouse coverAll of which is to say your greenhouse can go a long way to support you. It can also purify the air for your house, no small advantage in this era of air pollution. It can provide you with organically grown and raised foods the quality of which you are certain.
Root Cellar/Fallout Shelter/ Wine Cellar
One of the special features which you should include is a root cellar. If you are a back-to-the-lander this is a must.
Since, as a homesteader, you are going to need one anyway, why not build it as an extension of your house? An underground house offers the perfect opportunity. You can end those freezing walks in the winter, end shoveling snow drifts away from the root cellar door, end the possibility of your food ever freezing, end the possibility of theft or pilferage, and even be able to exercise a close degree of varmint control. Built into the wall right next to your kitchen, and incorporated with the Uphill Patio/greenhouse concept, you will have the enviable luxury of perhaps your whole winter food supply, both fresh and stored, just a few steps from your kitchen table. Safeway can't offer you that.
We aren't going to go into the benefits of a root cellar here. Everyone who knows the first thing about homesteading knows that hey are a necessity, as important to a homestead as a water supply or as a garden area, instead we are going to make a few practical suggestions.
In most climatic zones the root cellar should be built into solid earth off to the side of, and a few steps down from, the kitchen. The warmer the climate the lower the cellar should be. This is to allow more of the earth's cooling capacity to go to work during the warm months and to-allow the cool air to stay there when the door is opened. In areas of permafrost—solidly frozen earth—such as interior Alaska and northern Canada we suggest keeping the root cellar at nearly the same level as the kitchen floor. This will allow some of the coldest air to escape and to be supplanted by warmer air when the door is opened. If this raises the root cellar too close to the surface just pile more earth on top during construction. In all cases, the wall between the kitchen and the root cellar should be solidly insulated.
Since a root cellar is by definition a win-dowless room with three or more feet of earth on the roof you might want to design with the possibility of having it do double duty as a fallout shelter.
We are aware that the majority of our readers will scoff at the idea of having a fallout shelter. The idea of a nuclear war is unthinkable to most Americans, which is an interesting bit of national schizophrenia considering the fact that America has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to make her participation in a nuclear war effective. The Russians do not scoff at the idea. It is, in fact, Soviet national policy to construct fallout shelters. So is it with China. The Chinese have been digging like crazy for years and all of their cities are undermined with fallout shelters. Chinese leaders have repeatedly stated that they expect nuclear war. The same conclusion was reached by a task force of Harvard professors who studied the question. As reported in Time Magazine, the professors stated that since Westinghouse and General Electric have been actively promoting and marketing nuclear power plants around the world, and since the waste products of nuclear power plants are easily converted into atomic weaponry, atomic bombs are going to be as common among nations by the end of the century as are "Saturday Night Specials" in American cities today. The professors concluded that atomic war happening somewhere on this planet by the year 2000 is not a possibility, but a probability.
You may not care if you live after a nuclear war, but how about your family?
It takes little extra effort to adapt a root cellar to use as a fallout shelter. There should probably be a wall of earth between the main body of the house and the shelter/root cellar. There should be a passageway leading to the shelter with doors at either end which can be sealed tight. (The passageway can be built
with shelves and used for storage.) Having a supply of empty sandbags or even burlap bags (obtainable from many feed stores) which can be filled with dirt from the floor of the shelter in time of crisis and stacked against the door would be a good idea. The civil defense people can tell you how to set up an air filtering system. The system could draw from the main part of the house where the air would contain less radioactive dust. Food storage shelves in the root cellar could be constructed wide enough and high enough apart so that your family could sleep on them. In normal times they could hold food stuffs which could be cleared off. Sealable plastic bags could handle the body waste problem. All that remains then is the lighting system, radio, water supply and other items which the Civil Defense can also advise you on.
While you are at it you could build wine racks to hold either the store bought kind or your own homemade product. As a wine cellar the room would have a triple function. That way there would be at least some cheer during the weeks of waiting through the fallout.
Another fine advantage to underground housing is that you may build closets and shelves into any wall which is solid earth. You can't do this on an above ground structure; there would be lumps and protrusions all over the outside of the house. On underground housing these go unnoticed.
The only requirement here is that the walls of the closets and shelves be integrated with
the structural members—the posts—of the house. They must be able to withstand pressure. As explained in the section on construction, the pressure of the earth on one wall is transferred across the house and counterbalanced by the pressure exerted against the opposite wall. The closet and shelves built behind the posts must be able to withstand this. Aside from that there is no limit to the number you may build, or to the depth you may build them. You can run wild with this concept and perhaps for the first time in your life have enough closet space.
It is quite possible to have refrigeration without mechanical means whatsoever, without the use of electricity, kerosene or gas. There are two types of passive coolers: air cooled and earth cooled. By utilizing a combination of the two most of your daily needs will be met nicely.
My air cooler was built into the $50 house from the beginning. A neighbor gave me an old stand-up glass doored cabinet which I positioned so that it became a part of the wall on the Uphill Patio. The cabinet has two sets of doors. The upper ones are the glass ones, while the lower set are wooden. Since the patio is waist high at this particular section, I reinforced the back of the lower part of the cooler so that it functions as shoring holding back the earth of the patio. On the shelves in the lower part I store potatoes, onions, apples and the like. These are refrigerated to a mild degree by the earth which is on two sides (the cooler is in the corner of the house.)
The upper portion of the cooler, the part serviced by the glass doors, has no earth behind it. So I removed the back and replaced it with window screen. In the summer time this allows air circulation. At night the foods are always cool enough. Even during the day they are considerably cooler than the surrounding surface temperatures. This is because the cool air hangs down in the lower portion of that north patio where the sun rarely hits. The cooler also benefits on these days from the cool of the house. Even on 90 degree days the foods won't much warm above 70 degrees. Sometimes on those days I place damp rags over the foods. If someone really wanted to get into it they could rig up a system which drips water over the rags, but I have never found this necessary.
During the cold months I thumbtack clear polyethylene over the window screen. This keeps the food from freezing. The items which need the most refrigeration I put closest to the polyethylene on the lowest shelves.
The combination of window screen/polyethylene/glass doors allows light to enter the house through the cooler brightening up what could otherwise be a gloomy corner. Thus the cooler serves a triple function: it's a cooler, it's part of the wall of the house and it's a light source. I count the glass doors as two of the windows on the house.
I continually marvel that so few other people have utilized this system. I have, in fact, seen only one other system which is remotely close to this. It is at that most interesting of all high schools, Pacific School, just south of San Francisco in the Santa Cruz mountains. There the environmentally aware kids have constructed and use a refrigerator which juts out of a wall on the side of their kitchen. The foods are naturally refrigerated at night and during the winter by the cool coastal breezes. During the day there is an electrical refrigerating system which kicks on just as with any other refrigerator. A conservative estimate is that they save 30% of the
energy needed to cool their considerable food supply. I doubt whether the foods at M.I.T. and Cal Tech are kept in systems which are 30% energy efficient.
An earth cooler is particularly suited to underground housing. An earth cooler is no more difficult to build than digging a hole in your floor and lining it, putting on a cover-and throwing some insulation over it. The insulation may be as simple as an old blanket, or, if you are a slob, your winter coat.
Remember first of all that your house, being underground, will rarely register temperatures above 70 or 75 degrees even on the hottest days (assuming that you keep the windows and doors closed during the heat— you open them at night). Now consider the fact that a few feet down the earth temperature is likely to be around 55 degrees, and you have the secret of the system. The cool air, being heavier, will hang in at the bottom of the cooler. I used to have a garbage can sunk into the floor of my house. Sometimes on hot days when I had visitors I would amuse myself by handing the guests a jar of mayonnaise just pulled from the bottom of the garbage can. As soon as they felt the coldness of the jar I'd be rewarded with a look of astonishment.
During the hottest months an earth cooler will keep a jug of unpasteurized cow's milk fresh for four days, especially if you put a damp rag over it. You will surely want an everyday earth cooler in your kitchen area somewhere. The closer to a north wall and the further from the stove the better. For additional, even colder, refrigeration, sink a roomy cooler in the floor of your root cellar.
Firewindows are windows added to the lower corner of a room which, for whatever reason, is only three or four feet from floor to ceiling.
The firewindow on my $50 underground house gets its name because originally I had cooking and camp fires out there at night. It was pleasant to lie in bed comfortably snug in the house and stare into a camp fire. Comfortable, that is, until the smoke began to draw up through the house, as it usually seemed to do. Maybe it was the shed roof which drew it up, I don't know, but it was a
nuisance. It forced me to keep the window closed which wasn't nearly so much fun.
Not that I regret having the window. Nothing of the sort. It was a blessing. It gave me an emergency exit, reading light when I sat in bed, and cross ventilation. It gave me a view down the ravine. Kids love to climb in and out of it. As a gag, I still occasionally lead first time visitors through it into the house on their hands and knees, telling them that it is the main entrance. The firewindow was the
inspiration for the later invented Royer Foyer.
I still haven't given up on it as a firewin-dow. One of these years when I'm rich and idle I'm going to weld together a portable fireplace from some light metal, maybe sheet metal. I'll add a portable chimney and, presto, I'll have an instant fireplace for rainy days and winter months. On good days, I'll take it away and have a window again.
Deciduous trees allow warm winter sun to enter while blocking hot summer sun.
MATERIALS; WHERE TO BUY AND SCROUNGE
There are a number of secrets to keeping the cost down on your own house. Among them are:
(1) building small and adding on later as time and finances allow;
(2) avoiding the building codes;
(3) doing without such amenities as plumbing and electricity;
(4) doing the labor yourself or with friends;
(5) gathering cheap or free material, or working it up yourself; and, of course,
(6) building underground with the PSP system. This item alone gives you a roaring advantage over conventional surface builders; half of your material is right on the site and is absolutely free. Mother Earth is hard to beat for economy.
With the exception of the joy of building there are few parts of the project as much fun as scrounging material. It's exhilarating. It's like being the first one in a bargain basement at the start of a sale. It's like finding a hundred dollar bill on the ground. When you make a big score it's as though you just won a lottery.
By far your best chance of landing a windfall of free material is to tear down someone's old building. You may have to agree to turn over some of the salvaged material to the owner or you may get to keep it all yourself depending on what sort of deal you strike. Be choosy. There are a lot more buildings to be torn down than you may think at first, at least out West there are. Sometimes owners have to advertise for weeks to get someone to agree to do the job.
An old house is a gold mine. You can get windows, plumbing fixtures, pipes, insulation (maybe), structural members, nails, siding, and some fine old tongue-in-groove flooring. Sometimes you can get bricks or cinder blocks. Air ducts or radiators are another possibility. If you salvage carefully you may get most of the materials needed to build a new house.
Old barns and sheds are rewarding also. You won't get as much variety of material but you'll get some fine lumber. You may get the real stuff, not the 3A" and IV2" which is sold for 1" and 2" lumber today. One difficulty
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