The Terry Beadles family of Michigan knows how to get from middle-income, middle class America to Middle Earth. Just roll up your sleeves and build yourself an underground house.
Our All-American Dream
Two and a half years ago, our family of four was living the All-American Dream. My husband had a good job as an insulation installer, and I stayed home in a four-year-old “rancher” and raised our two sons (then 9 and 7). The house was cute, it had white siding just like it was supposed to, it was located in a nice middle class and middle-income suburb of Vicksburg, Mich., and we were beginning to grow quite dissatisfied with everything about the way we were living.
Despite the heavy efforts we had made at decorating our rancher, the place — like so many other suburban “cookie cutter” houses these days — lacked any kind of personality or integrity. And the flat land surrounding the home was attracting more of its kind at an alarming rate. And the development was growing more and more desolate with each addition. And the increased automobile traffic that all those new houses brought in was rapidly making all the new asphalt and concrete streets around us too dangerous for our sons to ride bikes on.
Finally — after four years of watching our All American Dream steadily erode into a nightmare — we had had enough. “We don’t ask much,” we told each other. “Just a home with some character, in a more isolated spot, with real native trees around it. Shucks. We’ll even compromise and call anything with a trunk 3 inches in diameter a tree. But we’ve gotta get out of here!”
After several months of canvassing realtors’ listings and thousands of miles of not-so-patient searching we found what we were looking for! Fourteen acres. Not heavily wooded, but stimulatingly wild. And those hills! After four years in a flat suburb, the hills seemed absolutely sensuous! And the neighbors were a real plus too: Two owned 80 acres each, and the third was a monastery. All of three frowned on “development.”
As soon as we had our option-to-purchase in hand, we excitedly began designing our new home. “It should be a rustic cabin!” we said . . . and then — because we had been brainwashed by Madison Avenue for so long — we added: Rustic in appearance, anyway. But of course we’ll need a dishwasher, and air conditioners, and a clothes washer and dryer, and mixers, and blenders, and ice crushers, and can openers, and all the other electric appliances that are, well, essential to the modern way of life.”
Yes, it’s true. Like so many others, we wanted out to the simple life . . . but we wanted to drag all the blessings (curses?) of “civilization” right along with us.
I’m sorry to have to report that it wasn’t any part of our Better Nature that made us “see the light” and change our wicked ways. It was plain of money. Quite simply: If we had had a contractor put up the house that we wanted (beautifully rustic on the outside but with a starkly efficient and mechanized interior) we would have had to mortgage away the better part of the rest of our lives in order to pay for it.
That was a rude shock! We didn’t want to give up a large part of our earnings for the next 25 or 30 years just for the dubious privilege of “moving up.” We had better things to do with that money. We wanted to travel. We wanted to go back to college and take some “fun” courses. We wanted to live; not grub along paying off an expensive contractor-built house loaded with “timesavers.” Still: we did want that house. What to do?
Discovering Alternative Architecture
And then — it was about May 1976 — we started to notice a number of articles here and there that dealt with “alternative” architecture and energy taken from the sun and the wind. We bought a book on the subjects, borrowed a few others, and covertly read still more in the local bookstores.
“That’s it!” we shouted. “We can build the house ourselves. And if we put it underground so the earth insulates the building and modulates its heat requirements, it probably won’t take much fuel to keep the place warm. Why, we can probably do all our heating and cooking with wood. And if we put up our own wind-powered generator, why, we can have many of those electrical appliances we want without ever having to pay a utility bill!” We were just thrilled to death to make these discoveries.
And scared to death every time we thought about actually putting our new discoveries into practice. Could we really build our own house? Should we? And if we did, should we really build it underground? If that was such a good idea, why didn’t everyone else do it? And what about solar, wind, and other forms of “alternative” energy? Did they really work? Could we make them work for us? Boy! When you’re coming from middle-class America, that first step into Middle Earth can be an overwhelmingly big and frightening one.
So we vacillated for a couple of months. We refused to face the one subject we most wanted to think about squarely. We diverted our attention to other things. We even agreed to take a trip out west with some friends to give us more time “to think about” what we knew in our secret heart of hearts we really wanted to do anyway.
That trip — or rather the threat of it — finally proved to be the catalyst that our Big Project needed. Because the night before we were due to depart — and after the car was all loaded — we woke up and just knew we were going to stay home and build a house instead. And that’s what we did.
The Beginning of Earthwon
What a relief! To tell the truth, we had always wanted to explore and colonize a strange planet and (considering our then tenuous relationship with Mother Earth) that was more or less what we had just decided to do. We drew up a rough floor plan on July 2, 1876, took out a building permit, and — finally — set ourselves to work.
I always tell people that there are two versions of the house we built: [A] what we intended to do, and [B] what we actually did. In reality, things weren’t quite that cut and dry. What happened was our thinking and the building kinda evolved together; from a sometimes rather-impractical concept of how the world operates, to the construction of a very satisfying, low-cost, and energy efficient dwelling that now snuggles up to its ears in a hillside overlooking some beautiful fields and forests.
We wanted a fairly large house (2,300 square feet), we wanted to build it in southwestern Lower Michigan, and we wanted to heat it with the so-called “alternative sources of energy.” That was a big order right there: Although zero is more common, temperatures of 20 below are not unusual in our neck of the woods during the winter. Couple that with stretches of horrible overcasts that can last two or three weeks at a time during the worst cold snaps, and you’ll quickly realize that we don’t get much help from the sun when we really need it.
We knew right from the beginning, then, that we’d have to rely on wood heat for our winter comfort. But could we warm our whole 2,300 square-foot home with just one stove? We knew that might be stretching it a bit . . . but — maybe — if we built a two-story house and opened the lower level into the upper floor (thereby turning the structure into one large but compact space) and placed our wood-burner in the very center of the lower level . . . well, maybe.
A two-story dwelling it would be, then. And underground, so the earth around it would help moderate the building’s temperature both winter and summer. And if we built underground, concrete was obviously the best material to use … except that poured concrete would be too complicated for Terry, the boys, and me to handle and too expensive for us to have a contractor put in. And so we settled for concrete block construction that we could do ourselves. See! Our thinking and the design of our building just more or less evolved into their current forms together.
From the beginning of the project, money was always on our minds (probably because we were never really sure we were going to have enough to finish everything we had started). In the first place, we borrowed $10,000 on a personal note to buy our 14 acres. (My father cosigned, the banker was brave, and we had to agree to repay the loan as soon as our other house — the rancher — was sold.) We also had $2,300 in a savings account when we began the whole undertaking . . . and that was it, except for what we could squeeze from Terry’s weekly paycheck as we went along.
A Labor of Love
Our first major expense — after the purchase of the land-was the $400 we shelled out to the operator who dug the 32-inch-by-6-inch by 17-inch deep hole for our house to sit down in. The act was also our first real introduction to gravity: Everything, including the excavator’s bulldozer — we soon noticed — eventually winds up at the bottom when you’re building on a slope.
I took over after the ‘dozer had finished the rough work and hacked out our building’s footings with a pick and shovel. (Another discovery: Clay can get mighty tough in the summer sun.) Then, just as soon as I had that job completed, we had a Redi-Mix truck backed in and the footings poured.
Immediately after that, it rained! A real gully washer which rearranged our dug-out hillside so badly (gravity again, you know) that we couldn’t even see the freshly poured cement anymore. So we gritted our teeth and cleared away the mud . . . then spent the next 4 months laying the blocks for the first floor walls, putting in the second floor itself (so we’d have something to set our one section of scaffolding up on), and laying the blocks for the second floor walls.
I mixed all the block mortar by hand in a trough and Terry laid up the walls. We used Type M mortar (which is rated five times stronger than the regular stuff), just to make sure the finished structures would be able to hold back the 17-inch high banks of earth behind them. We also ran 3/4-inch reinforcing rod down through every second running block in the walls (then filled in around the rods with mortar), and made every fourth one a double or “pillar” block (which was filled solid with Type M mortar too).
All this work was complicated by the fact that we were clocking 25 miles out to our building site and 25 miles back again on Saturdays and Sundays. Weekdays — when the boys and I drove out in the morning or early afternoon in one car and Terry came down after finishing work in Kalamazoo (35 miles away in another direction) — were even worse. But we always returned home — long after dark — brown from the sun and dirt, exhausted, and satisfied.
Our life was further complicated during this period by the fact that we had no supply of potable water on our new property (every drink we took “out on the job” was carried in, for months, in gallon milk jugs). An investment of $672 for a 142-inch deep well eventually cured the problem . . . sorta. Because, after spending that chunk of cash, we didn’t have anything left over for a water-pumping windmill (and working a hand pump for that long a “lift” was tough). And then — once we’d tapped our water supply (even if it was the hard way at first) — we figured we really oughta go ahead and install a septic system (which, by the time it was backfilled and its plumbing, etc., was bought and installed, forced us to borrow another $7,000 on a three-year payback basis).
It was that septic tank loan that just about broke our little hearts. The last thing we wanted to do at that time was increase our indebtedness, but we were racing with the clock: Our $10,000 loan had to be paid off in less than a year; which meant that we had to finish off our new home well enough to move into it so we could sell the rancher and take the money from that deal to pay off the $10,000 loan. If we had tackled our project on a somewhat smaller scale, of course, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in that kind of bind. But we were already committed.
And that’s just when Mother Nature let us know that she had no intention of holding her winter snow back on our account. Unfortunately, the walls of our new house were a trifle short of being completed at the time and there was absolutely no roof on the building at all.
So we spent more money for professional bricklayers to finish off the last few courses of the main structure and put up a round tower that will eventually become Terry’s astronomical observatory. A 1,200-gallon, sealed cistern (that our water pumper fills on days when the wind blows so we’ll have something to drink on the days it doesn’t) was then set into place just outside the west wall of the house and backfilled.
Which finally made it possible for Terry and another fellow (a cement finisher by trade) to “build” our roof by pouring 3 inches of concrete over a layer of galvanized steel decking that was spread across laminated beams made of four thicknesses of 2-inch-by-8-inch yellow pine spiked together (the laminated beams are actually stronger than solid 8-by-8’s). We then sealed the cement with tar and began working on the inside of our new — but still far from completed — house that winter.
First we filled in between joists with fiberglass insulation (laying in wiring as we proceeded) and nailed up our 1-inch-by-60-inch fir ceiling. Then Terry and his helper poured the 4-inch thick downstairs concrete floor (which made it possible for us to build a terrifically comfortable stairway of 2-by-2’s to replace the ladder we had been using to get up and down). And in went the Thermopane windows (four big ones on the south side of the house and one tiny one — just big enough to be used as a fire escape — in each of the boys’ bedrooms on the east). We roughed in plumbing and raised interior walls. We started kitchen cabinets of green oak and immediately tore them out and rebuilt with particle board and ceramic tile (lopsided shelves, we found, don’t quite do the trick). We installed a wood-burning stove (an Estate Heatrola) which really chewed up the wood, but had hardly any effect on our new dwelling’s temperature at all. (Whether this was due to the heater, us, or a certain amount of “curing” that our house had to go through is a moot point. We’d had no other experience with wood heat at the time.) It was a great day when we moved the $50 “bargain” Heatrola out and put a $500 Grandpa Fisher in its place. (We had heat for a change — once we came home after 18 hours away and found glowing logs waiting in the stove to greet us! — and we could cook for the first time in our new home.)
At long last winter gave way to spring, and the solid ground in our drive and yards turned into a virtual sea of mud. So every day we hauled another load of 16-inch long 2-by-4’s out to our property on the car roof, parked the vehicle along the road, and then gaily slogged up a footpath — 2-by-4’s on shoulders — to frame in another closet.
It’s funny how bored we didn’t get as — day by day — we made our house grow from a bare shell into a bare shell with more parts. (Why is it that all the really hard work that goes into a dwelling is hidden away from you until after you have the floors, walls, and roof in and think you’re almost done?)
By then, scrounging had become a way of life for us. So we pounced on the bargain, during Mud Season, when we were offered 80 panes of double-thick 4-inch-by-6-inch sheets of tempered glass (enough to cover the Trombe wall we had planned for the south side of the house) for only $5 each (they were seconds from a patio door company). The bargain buy was delivered well after dark on a very slippery and very windy night. What fun! And the breakage wasn’t too bad, considering. But the experience changed our plans for us (the thought of lifting 60 pound sheets of glass 17 feet in the air gave us the shakes). Instead of a Trombe wall, we now have a 300-square-foot solar greenhouse (which also serves as a wood drying room and vestibule) built onto the south side of our home.
Throughout all this work, we had used hand tools as much as possible. For speed’s sake, though, we also borrowed a gasoline-powered generator from time to time so that we could run an electric drill, a saw, etc.
Arrival of Wind Power
It was a Red Letter Day for us, then, when we learned we could buy a reconditioned Jacobs windplant (the best windpowered electrical generator ever built) plus batteries for only $2,325 from North Wind Power Company. It wasn’t long after that that we were hoisting our very own “Jake” to the top of its 75-foot tower and watching it begin to charge its bank of batteries with “juice.”
Hey! We needed to finish off the wiring in the house so we could use that electricity! And an exhaustive check of the local building code with the township inspector turned up an interesting fact: There was no building code for 32-volt direct current wiring. This gave the family electrician — me — a big shot of confidence. I might blow up the house, the generator, or myself, but I couldn’t be sent to jail for it. Well, my wiring job does look a little ragged in places, but it works and it’s never given us any trouble.
Somewhere along the way that spring, we also bought a used pickup, which was a real life and car saver. Unfortunately Terry had to sell the remainder (most had already gone for 2-by-4’s and nails) of his ham radio gear to pay for the vehicle (and just after we had the electricity in too).
The Finishing Touches
By May of 1977, we had finished the plumbing on our new house (Toilet Day ranked another big “celebration” red mark on our calendar) . . . thus finally ending one water problem (the lack of it). To keep the ledger balanced, however, we immediately discovered another inconvenience that had to do with water: The roof started leaking like a sieve.
We had originally intended to completely cover our house’s roof and north, west, and east (except for the two “fire escape windows” in our boys’ bedrooms) sides with earth. That’s why we built the place of concrete and concrete blocks in the first place (to carry the load of dirt). But we ran out of earth — and money with which to move same — before we were able to realize our grand concept.
Well, as I’ve said before, there are two versions of our house: [A] what we intended to do, and [B] what we actually did. In this case, what we actually did was  put a double-sloped metal roof on the building,  move into the house in June of 1977, and  start adding 31/2 inches of fiberglass insulation and T-111 woodpanel siding to all the exterior walls that never quite got covered with earth.
As things currently stand, then, somewhat over half (instead of all but the south side, as we originally planned) of our new home’s exterior is in direct contact with the earth. The exposed portion of the walls — as I’ve just noted — is insulated with 3 1/2 inches of fiberglass and covered with siding. And the buried sections are insulated all around for the first 2 feet down from grade level with one inch of styrofoam. We applied no insulation at all to the outside of the exterior concrete walls from 2 feet below the surface on down, so that the earth itself could moderate the building’s temperature both winter and summer.
Once all the insulation and siding were in place, we began to concentrate more and more on the “details” that have added so much to our standard of living. We winterized our water system, for instance. And converted an old 110-volt AC refrigerator to run on 32-volt DC so the electricity from our Jacobs windplant could keep us supplied with ice cubes, cold storage, etc. What luxury!
Another luxury that we soon added was hot water when my dad welded up a 9-by-18-inch heat-exchanger box from 3/16-inch plate steel and we bolted it to the back of the Fisher. (This, plus the Kalamazoo cookstove we had already added to the kitchen — where it sits backed up to the same heat-storing block wall that the Fisher stove backs up to in the living room — pretty well finished off our heating, cooking, and water heating system.)
We’ve also pretty well finished off all our home’s interior walls with BondBloc; a concrete-plaster-like compound which contains a large number of fine fiberglass fibers. When a coat of this material is troweled onto both sides of a stacked block wall (with no mortar put in between the blocks at all), it produces [A] a handsome, waterproof, attractive surface and [B] a wall that is three times as strong as one built with conventional mortar joints. (That still doesn’t beat blocks laid up with Type M mortar, though, you’ll notice.)
In short — although we do have a thousand things we still want to do to our new place — the hardest work is now completed. We take more time off these days to just relax and enjoy living on our 14 acres. And — as so many others who’ve made the switch from the urban and suburban middle class to the Middle Earth way of life have done — we find we use our time and space a little differently now than we did back in Vicksburg. We’re currently more in tune with the earth’s cycles, and we love it.
The Benefits of Our Underground House
On hot summer afternoons, we retreat to our cool (naturally earth-tempered) living room. In the fall, a revitalizing brisk walk into the nearby woods yields heaping buckets of walnuts and hickory nuts, that the family later cracks while gathered around a cheerfully blazing winter fire in the Fisher. And now that the grass has grown in and we’ve done some work on the drive, spring is no longer Mud Season, but a delightful time to “get back outside again” and enjoy our 14 acres.
Sure, we still have plenty of work ahead of us. There are carpets to put down in the bedrooms, storage space to finish out, green oak walls to stain, light fixtures to install, a woodshed and a carport to build. And we still intend to add 400 to 600 square feet of glasstopped solar panels to the hillside in front of the house to feed more heat into the greenhouse (and then on into the main house itself) during the winter.
But we already have electricity, heat, hot water, refrigeration, and all the other comforts of home and it doesn’t cost us a cent (except for the telephone) in utility bills! That’s real freedom: the kind that far too few people even dream of enjoying these days.
And, really, it didn’t cost us an arm and a leg to start living the gentler, more satisfying way of life we now live, either. We figure that our land, the 2,304-squarefoot house, windplant, water-pumping windmill, etc., so far has cost us a grand total of just $23,983 ($11,658 for the house alone). And we’ll probably spend at least another $600 finishing off the new home and, maybe, $2,000 to $3,000 landscaping the property. Which isn’t too bad, especially since we’ve “paid as we’ve gone” for the most part and we don’t have any 25- or 30-year mortgages staring us in the face.
Sure, we’ve worked hard to build our place. But that just made us healthier and stronger. And now that we’re snuggled into Earthwon (we feel that our new home really is “one with the earth” and that “the earth has won us over”) . . . we’re already thinking about what Earthtu might be like!
EDITOR’S NOTE: In 1978, MOTHER EARTH NEWS staffer Travis Brock visited the home described in this article and has been in touch with the family since.
Although Travis (who has inspected a number of underground and semiunderground dwellings and talked to their designers and builders during the past year or so) feels that the Beadles family would have an even more efficiently heated and cooled home if they had gone ahead and put the whole thing underground as they originally planned, he agrees that they aren’t doing badly as things now stand.
Terry, Joyce, and the boys — for instance — got through last winter comfortably while burning only about three cords of wood. This is very good considering that [A] their new home wasn’t even completely finished off at the time, [B] the same sized “conventional” house probably would have consumed eight to 10 cords, and [C] other comparably-sized, completely-underground houses that Travis has visited have burned comparable amounts of wood through roughly similar winters.