Most of our lives my wife and I worked to make money to pay the bills to keep us comfortable while we worked to make money — you get the picture! As we became empty nesters, with both our sons starting their own families, we decided to see if we could simplify our lives and retain comfort while requiring less money to maintain that lifestyle and fewer resources to sustain it. At the time, we were living in an urban environment and realized that to really simplify our lives, we would need to find a more rural situation.
We found a 10-acre piece of raw land in 2000 and started out by camping on weekends to begin to get a feel for the land and what was available around it. The next year, we built a small cabin that we could leave our camping stuff in — a 10-by-12-foot structure that didn’t require a permit. Up to that point, we had been hauling water by barrels to mix concrete for the small foundation.
As we got closer to selling our urban house, we took out an equity line of credit so we could begin to put some basic infrastructure in for when we decided to make our move. Our first consideration was to get a well in place. By the summer of 2002 we were ready to put an ag-barn in place, which only required a $60 permit. We even had a barn-raising campout week and invited some friends out to camp and help us with the basic framing of the barn. It was actually a lot of fun, even though the temperature that entire week was higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
By September of 2002, we had our barn closed in so we could store our household possessions when we sold our house in the city. We bought a fifth-wheel trailer to live in until we were able to build a home, and finally moved onto our country homestead in September of 2002.
We got electricity from a generator, and when we inquired with the power company about getting electricity out to the homestead, we were told it would be at least $20,000. We decided to take that money and put it into a solar system, which has evolved into a very reliable system with panels, batteries and back-up generator. Our well is even solar-powered now, though we didn’t have that at first.
We initially put in a small septic system for our trailer, but the next spring, we got a county permit and put in the largest system they allowed for single-family plots with the anticipation that we would expand our accommodations as time went on. We also built a freestanding kitchen, bathroom, and laundry building so we could get rid of the trailer and live in part of the barn.
We spent a lot of time and money developing the soils on our homestead so we could plant an orchard and large garden.
We have been interested in non-conventional building techniques for some time, and have explored many different options through the years. In the summer of 2007, we began a journey that would lead us to one of the most unconventional homes we have ever experienced. We were already living off-grid and were searching for ways of keeping our carbon footprint way below the national average. We were not completely altruistic in this quest, either, because we were also guided by the practical considerations of keeping our energy and operating costs as low as possible.
Having seen a few homes built by tunneling into the mountainsides of Napa and Sonoma valleys in California, as well as wine storage caves, we were very impressed by the constant temperature qualities of underground homes, but not so impressed with the costs of the same. So we began to research how we could build underground with as limited as possible cash outlay.
While reading a book called Dare to Prepare by Holly Deyo, we noted some plans for a makeshift bomb shelter constructed from a cargo container. There weren’t a lot of details, but the idea stuck with us and plans began to develop in our minds and then onto paper. Over the course of the following year, those plans grew into the reality of our home, built of two 40-foot-long cargo containers inserted into the southern slope of our property in Northern California.
Why would anyone in their right mind want to chuck conventional wisdom and building techniques in order to build a home out of recycled shipping containers? After all, only Hobbits live underground and they have big feet – right?
Actually, the reasons for using cargo containers to construct an underground home are not as strange as it might seem on passing glance. The cost of construction is one reason that makes them attractive. Our two-container dwelling, or 640 square feet of floor space, cost right at $30,000 fully finished. That is less than $50 per square foot, which is less than half of the conventional costs for construction at the time of this writing. A livable space could be done for even less and a lot could be saved using recycled materials.
We now have a wonderfully comfortable home that is solar-powered and uses very little energy, as well as land on which to grow our own food. We don’t need a lot of money to keep our homestead up and running. We don’t have city water or electric payments, and our taxes are quite low because we are rated agriculture. We have lots of room between ourselves and our neighbors, and we can see amazing star displays at night. We wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It takes a different way of looking at things, but it’s definitely worth a try!
We didn’t realize at first how much interest there would be in this unusual home. We were just very happy with how well the concept worked. With 100-plus degree temperatures outside, the inside of our home never rose above 82 degrees. If we were better about closing off the solar tubes and had heavy insulated curtains for the front windows and doors, it would be even more remarkable. During the 20-degree nights of mid-winter, the inside temperature doesn’t go below 62 degrees, even without supplemental heat, and it is easy to bring that temperature up with a small RV catalytic heater. This means we have no air conditioning costs and very little heating costs throughout the year. Even though there is a substantial savings of cost per square foot in building with this technique, the real cost savings are ongoing through this energy savings on a monthly basis, and it will get even more notable as energy costs continue to rise.
As we shared the idea with friends and people would visit us and remark on the unique qualities of our home, we began to understand that maybe we had ahold of a concept that needed to be shared. Finally at the prompting of our older son, we decided to write a book and share the process we engaged in building this unique home. Our book is called Off Grid and Underground, and in it we go into detail about the decisions we made and what we would do differently.
We hope you will be stimulated by this presentation and should you decide to go ahead with constructing your own masterpiece, we would be glad to try and answer any questions you might have. You can find my contact information on my blog, Offgrid and Underground. Enjoy the journey.