Prepping: And Optimized Sod House

Don’t tell my wife about today’s column.  She’d probably think I’ve flipped out.  But, then again, she’s not an “over-think the problem” kind of person.  I am…

When we look at prepping – step way back from the problem – we need to begin asking at every turn “What could go wrong?”

We know, for example, that our little homestead in the woods is vulnerable to the risks of weather and earthquake.  And, for that reason, I’m always keeping my eyes open to find alternative ways to live should the SHTF at a personal level.

There are a lot of possibilities – but most of them have serious downsides.

  • We could simply pitch a tent and call it good.  Except:  It gets cold as hell in this part of Texas – down into the teens on a regular annual basis in January-February sometimes for a week at a time.  Not when you want to be living in a tent.  At the other extreme is summer.  Again, no fun.  Being in a tent when the low at night is 83 and you don’t have flow-through ventilation?  Sub-optimal.
  • Another option would be to lash some of that fancy-new ultra-high density line onto a tree, maybe 40-feet up.  Dangle the lines and build out from the tree-trunk.  A kind of floating-in-air tree house.  Sounds romantic, but did I mention that the big, tall trees that would work at home to the bark-dwelling brown scorpion?
  • Yurts….how about them?  Non-starter.  It’s a portable tend.
  • I’ve sung the praises of Mike Oehler’s book,The Fifty Dollar and Up Underground House Book.  This one hits much closer to the mark.  but there’s a lot missing, in terms of building what in my mind is evolving as a “Texas Ground House.

My budget for this project (a crazy thing to even think about while knocking on the door of 70) is not unlimited.  But, it should not be a constraining factor.

As I envision it, there would be two parts to this project.

The first would be a “back-up home.”

This would be small – cabin–like – and should be something that could be knocked-out in a couple of weeks by one person with a tractor.  The square-footage would be modest.  I’m thinking on the order of 300 square-feet.  Maybe 500, tops.

In many ways, it would be like an underground house.  But, it would have some above-ground portions, as well.

The second project (if I can cobble this one together in the next year) would be turning what’s now our carport (under the screen porch) into an “Earth Room.”

The Earth Room idea is simple:  We have dirt (behind a retaining wall) coming up about 4-feet at the north-end of the carport, already.  So, goes my (delusional) thinking, I could build modest retaining walls on the west and east sides, and then install a large overhang and a triple-glazed sliding door on the south side.

The reason for this room is it would almost automatically be kept cool during the summer because it would be, on average, bunkered with four-feet  (on average) of dirt on all sides (and the floor).  The top would be 8″ of insulation and the above-ground portions would be laid in with recycled 2-by-6’s which would give about an R-25 wall.  That’s witha couple of inches of styro on the outside, before back-filling.

The idea is that you won’t need too much insulation, though, since the subsoil temps are moderate across the South.

The next step in this exercise was to look at the US Department of Energy map of insulation zones in the US:

This doesn’t have to be precisely followed, but my sense is (since we’re in Zone 2) that we are better doing more than less above-ground insulation.  DOE makes some R-value suggestions:

As to the floor, seems to me the easiest way to handle those would be to put down a 12″ x 12″ grid of 1/4″ rebar on the 6″ of gravel that’s already in place and put in real 4,000 pound concrete 3″ thick.  (Slump before pouring… If you don’t know how, read here...)

The load of concrete won’t be free, but it would really be the heart of the whole project since if there’s “a pour” going, no reason not to pour the 20′ by 7-foot 4-inch sidewalls, too.  Trying to get all this done without a concrete pump would be the “hip shot.”

The idea of a semi-earth-sheltered home has been rattling around in my head a good long while.

When I saw how turn of the (previous) century sod homes worked out in the hot lands of the Great Plains, the idea continued to evolve.

This sod house is built almost entirely above ground.  But, as you wander through pictures of the Great Depression on the Library of Congress website, you’ll find that a lot of the rural homes in Oklahoma were “hybrids.”

Imagine burying 2/3rds of the above house and making the roof 4-foot thick dirt….

Engineering Research

The “test case” will be more modest.  Amazon has a suitable TetraPond Tear Resistant Pond PVC Liner, 14′ x 21′ for about $153 so for the “test room” it would be fine.

Then there’s the matter of figuring out the subsoil temperature.  A map on AgWeb over here will give you some ideas.  But for a more precise handle on how our “test room” would be, I decided to saddle-up the tractor and go dig a bit…

Even before that, though, there has been a ton of items added to my task-master list.  Questions like:

  • Do scorpions burrow into ground?
  • If yes, how deep?
  • Do snake borrow?
  • Again, how deep?

These were just few biggies that came to mind.

ORKIN figures scorpions can burrow a meter (or more) deep.  Fortunately, the burrows written up on LiveScience shouldn’t show up here. Still, the idea of a well-overhanging pool liner is important.

The good news is, most snakes don’t burrow, but they’re critters of opportunity, so rabbit and rodent holes might become prime real estate for them.  Seems like an ideal spot for Zeus the Cat to be standing guard duty.

I don’t know how far this thinking process will get…but as if I don’t have enough to keep me busy, here we go with another hare-brained idea…

Gives a purpose to scanning the Materials and Free sections on C/L as never before…

Write when you get rich…

author avatar
George Ure
Amazon Author Page: UrbanSurvival Bio:

25 thoughts on “Prepping: And Optimized Sod House”

  1. George, good thinking. As for “what can go wrong”, the list is large. So what are the common denominators of various senerios? Start with the beginning of your seven, Water, Food and Shelter. Now how to keep, use and protect them.

    Having been in more than one partial underground house I have loved them.

    Some comments/questions: The government insulation numbers do not take into account air flow or leakage which you are familiar with. If you seal the underground portion very well you will need recirculation to reduce mildew and mold. Drainage under the gravel. Is it needed? If winter heat is required your 50 gallon barrels filled with water placed in the sunlight will absorb heat and radiate it back during the night. The water can be used as backup or growing fish (carp or tilapia).

    A hillside is great for this application or build a berm all around. Water table in your area for depth of excavating? Couldn’t do this where I used to live as the water table was about two feet. Bit damp to say the least.

    Keep thinking and writing. Some good books out on this subject. Cheers!

    • Underground house. Circulation..make an the ancient Roman empire a common thing was to draw the air around the structure letting heat do the circulation. This if done right not only heats the structure but cools it..

  2. George, “Red October” will be here 10/1/18 – Monday is official start of the..lets call them “Festivities”.
    Ten Year Treasury Bond Price/Yield, US Dollar vs GOLD, 10 year Agreement between JP Morgan & US Treasury- RE: Bear Sterns takeover and assumption of YUGE Silver Short Position Expired, US Govt Fiscal New Yr starts.
    Personally I am going with the strong defense as best offense.On the October social agenda:
    (1) Judge K’s Confirmation to SC, (2) FISA Declas,(3)Rosenstien (“deal” done)Gone,(4)Sessions Unrecused. The only way they got Jeff Sessions approved was by agreeing to Rod Rosenstien as Assistant AG. Check the approval votes of RR vs Jeff Sessions, Sessions just barely got approved.Sessions is the “ace in the hole”
    As for nonsense regarding “entitled, arrogant, rich, frat boys…have a look see at Dr Fords yearbook on -line, although scrubbed from Internet prior to this horsehockey being spewed on US citizens, it is eye opening. Apparently Dr Ford was quite the “loose goose” in high school. Bunny ear wearing cheerleader pics, Targeting the “rich boys” at GTown Prep..
    GTOwn Prep by the by, is an outstanding academically rigorous catholic boarding school outside DC. Very competitive to say the least, some of the best HS school lacrosse battles I have ever had the privilege of watching.My kid played for powerhouse public school program in SE Pennsylvania.
    The panic of the Leftitards likely comes from knowledge of The Law of Armed Conflict, different animal compared to Criminal Law, Lindsey Grahme had judge K explain prior applications of this Law, exactly how it will apply to Uranium 1 playas.
    Also see Roman (political prisoners=gladiators) and how they got treated on the “pitch”.First they come out as a thief, the crowd wants an Arm, Ceasar oblidges..thumb down.Next time gets rolled out he is also a rapist..loses a another body part = thumb down. Finally he will be brought to fight/defend a last grand gladiatorial battle, he is revealed to be a Murderer..=final thumbs down. Now look what “they” are doing Rod Rosenstien..He who Approved and kept Approving fraudulent FISA warrant (s).
    I keep hearing a still, small, voice in head saying…”Buy GOLD, Buy Puts, Buy Protection and keep your frigging head down”.
    Long,Short, Buy,Hold or just run for the doors first thing as the bell rings at 9:30 AM ?

  3. You know there is some pretty extensive literature on the subject of ‘underground (or partially underground) dwellings’ written since the 1970s – alternative houses. (But I also remember my husband talking about 8 foot thick walls in an old house in Utah that was in his family that was VERY fancy – filled with sawdust as insulation! Obviously not current code!)

    So do some exploring, George!

  4. The Quonset hut can serve as one big rain catcher and then have the 5 10000 gallon tanks buried so in case there is a shift and weather toward a deep deep freeze your water will be Underground and at the same time you’ll have solar panels or either a hand pump of some kind to create pressure in one of the tanks which will deliver the water through your interior system

  5. With 50 to 90% of the population dying in one year because of lack of water ,weather because of weather conditions or weather because of grid down or War or any other imaginable catastrophe

  6. Real shelter-check out monolithic domes

    George, I have visited the monolithic facility in Italy, TX
    and other large school domes in AZ
    Concrete domes are like above ground bomb shelters and they can be
    covered underground
    Monolithic did have some prefab units for sale or you can build
    They are having open house Oct 20-about 100 mi from your place

    Check out the basalt rebar products
    How about a concrete boat using basalt reinforcement?

    Monolithic Dome Institute

    177 Dome Park Place
    Italy, Texas 76651

    • There is one ginormous error that nearly 100% of the surviving & prepping internet web sites make (present company included): To overlook the primary kill mechanism in a true SHTF scenario. LoL – prove me wrong!

      Likewise, the most capable builders and fabricators have a fatal flaw in their logic, in that they begin to build a shelter or bunker based upon their existing construction skills. The fatal flaw is that they haven’t taken the time to characterize or understand the most likely SHTF scenario, and build a structure to handle the known future threats headed our way. Consequently, they will build an outstanding and perhaps beautiful shelter, and then perish when the tough times get here.

      There have been 5 major SHTF events in the past 5,000 years of history, so to gather the necessary intelligence (in advance!) to characterize a SHTF scenario is rather straight forward. The most recent cataclysmic period was in 1054 AD, in an easily researched event that reveals the various cataclysms that resulted in extinction level events. Another equally intelligent approach if you wish to avoid researching the once in a millennium cycle is to simply look at the geophysical and extreme weather events that are accelerating in an exponential fashion now, and project out a few years to see what is headed our way, and when. The important point is that there are a number of intelligent approaches to characterize the SHTF without having to get into fear porn or conspiracy theories.

      Using both research methods and being quite the optimist, my multidiscipline research indicates that we are about 2 ½ years from a period of peak intensity (ie collapse). The weather events, earthquakes, volcanoes, magma flows, etc., are manifesting now and of course increasing exponentially – which seems to parallel the economic, political, and social (etc) degradation you’ll find on your nearest media outlet. Exactly like previous SHTF cycles! George, what is it that your economic model is predicting, a reply of 1929 events? Indeed.

      The elephant in the room that everyone overlooks in a SHTF scenario is simply Air Quality. We’ll define Survivors as anyone who makes it through an initial catastrophic event (ie earthquake, volcano, tsunami, meteor strike, explosion, etc). The majority of the population (historically) will. The threat to most survivors will then become be Air Quality. Why? Look at what’s going to be in the air for years during the SHTF cycle: lethal and highly toxic fumes from geophysical events, volcanic ash, radioactive clouds and radiological debris, methane gas, dust storms, pathogens, etc., up to and including triple digit wind speeds and temps from various types of fire storms and extreme weather events. Again using history as a guide, you will not be able to survive above ground, and when you are below ground in your shelter/bunker/basement/cave/etc, you’ll need a robust filtration & cooling system to maintain your Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).

      Every structure will absolutely require an ability to cool and filter the air. Probably about a 5 stage filtration system to bring the air down from about 300 degrees F and upwards of 100 mph winds, then remove the toxic chemicals, remove the biological pathogens, remove the radiological particles, and of course handle as much as about 3 feet of volcanic ash in a short period of time. Let us know if you find such a filter at your nearby big box hardware store or on Amazon/E-Bay . Gas masks with an 8 hour filter life and $60 price tag won’t do for a multi- year scenario. LoL – I saw on a discussion on another prepping site that someone thought a $2.00 N-95 mask would be sufficient!

      If you want to save your life, not to mention tends of thousands of dollars in construction re-do’s and modifications, then design and build your Air Filtration system first. Then go in search of a structure to support human life. As Windskier mentioned, it will most likely resemble some sort of monolithic dome, buried bunker, or deep cave. For certain it will be underground or covered with several feet of dirt. Air Quality is the do or die game changer, and I can’t find a single one on the market. Nor can I even find an intelligent discussion on ANY of the top hundred prepping sites! Some of the high end Bunker dealers like Terravivos and Rising Bunkers have hundred thousand dollar solutions with built in systems, but even then you’ll be hard pressed to get anyone to give you the specs on what it can handle in terms of Air Filtration.

      Finally, since I practice what I preach here’s some thoughts to consider. First, if you are intelligent and enterprising enough to design and build a SHTF Air Quality system, there’s probably a 10 or 11 digit revenue stream for you ($Billions). Likewise, it would be smart to build a scalable system or series of products that could be employed in a small basement up through a bunker of several thousand square feet. Best guess from research is the high end Air Filtration system should cost (retail) for about $4,000-$8,000. Second, the cost of building a monolithic dome and covering it with dirt is about ½ the cost of conventional home building. That includes excavation & landscaping (etc) costs. Thinking through those parameters, it would be in the neighborhood of about $5,000 per person to team up with 2-3 dozen people and built a several thousand square foot facility. Maybe twice that for a really glamorous facility with all the bells and whistles. In other words, the price of SHTF survival is way less than a good used car, and easily within range of most people or their credit cards.

      Notes: Construction and excavation will probably take at least 5 months, and easily twice that if you don’t have a dedicated and knowledgeable construction crew. Also, the vendors such as Monolithic Dome are primarily in the business of building above ground facilities for schools, gyms, coastal luxury homes, etc., and have mostly lost the corporate knowledge from decades ago on how to construct underground Domes. You’ll need engage your brain (due diligence) and get an engineering corporation to weigh in on structural integrity of your Dome. In round numbers, simply double the thickness of the Shot-Crete formed Dome, and use two layers of Rebar. Most companies (like Monolithic Dome) have a week long class twice per year to teach how to build a Dome. Send your construction foreman to the class, and it will save you a lot of cost, time, and headaches. Lastly, the costs mentioned above are only to build & bury the dome and stub it out. It does not include furnishing or equipping the dome with all your supplies, gear, utilities, and so on.

      • The first thing to do is recognize the difference between a SHTF event and an ELE. Nobody & nuthin’ is going to survive a direct comet strike or gamma burst from a supernova, so it’s merely an exercise in mental masturbation to attempt to prepare otherwise.

        Most physical SHTF events are easily survivable by proper selection of location. Those which aren’t, like a caldera explosion or unlimited war, will usher in generations or centuries of no growing seasons or surface food production anywhere, and no means of utilizing solar energy. While an airborne pathogen is always an issue, it is also a local issue. For other near-ELEs, asphyxiation may simply proffer a less-unpleasant way to die.

        Trust your choices, do what you can, don’t throw stupid money after bad, and quit worrying about that which you can’t control…

      • “Air Quality”

        So true.. During the dirty thirties people died right and left from inhaling the dirt in the air.
        Now after the twin towers falling and all the dust in the air and toxic materials cancers and other diseases all from inhaling the dust in the air.

      • Aside from extinction level events, the need to filter air from nuclear weapons use, non-super volcanoes, burning cities or simply wildfires is a valid concern if you’re nearby.

        But in those less than ELE events one is looking at a need to filter for days, to at most, weeks.

        Do some search on HEPA filters and also on particle size for radionuclides, fine dust and virii.

  7. We built a straw bale house. You use clay slip as a plaster finish inside and out.It stays quite cool in summer and easy to heat with little fire wood in our rocket stove in the winter months….. Also think of the collapse counter plan which is to run to the cave. We have many of those in Ky. though. You can connect to pictures of our tiny straw bale house on our web page.

    • Aren’t they cool.. On my wife’s uncles farm they turned it into a winery.. Anyway the shed which is strawbale with a clay plaster is awesome..I’m not sure who owns it now but its a favorite spot for us..they have bands come play food trucks and wine to wander in the summer Sun and reminisce..
      At the college a few years ago there was a strawbale house raising the whole house up in a day. The frame was the only part that took time stacking the bails in a few short hours.
      A professor I know just after graduating was going to drop a house on a basement..winter was coming fast so he plopped a roof on it and bermed it.. He never did put a house on it..its absolutely beautiful complete with a winter courtyard and pool.

  8. my great great grandma lived in her Soddy till the day she died.. our state I think still has it as a museum. there use to be a picture of my grandpa playing in the front yard that was used to advertise the museum.. my brother is still looking for a copy of that photo..
    this past summer the project of a storm shelter was born. I had planned on using the old formula found in books from Hieroglyphics on the building of the pyramids.. I even have a team of college kids ready to come build it.. a pit has been dug ( and full of water I might add) so we could get the materials that were needed for the mix.. it has rained about every other day.. it takes two weeks to cure the mix.. so this project has been put on hold till next year..
    I think it is wonderful that you are going to do this.. a professor acquaintance of mine took kids out to study this.. used several mixes and built a few buildings.. the results were remarkable..

  9. Re; Earth Sheltered..
    1. I always wondered why build basements by digging when it would be so much easier, less work, and better drainage to build on grade and the berm… this also satisfies the modern building code requirements for grading away from structure.
    2. Shipping Containers are very attractive re: security, price, availability, and perhaps portability, and quick!
    3. But the subsurface moisture conditions must be considered. A friend buried a school bus once, it was a wonderful constant cool temperature, but always damp w/ some mold because it was just set on gravel and blocks, no provision for underfloor ventilation!
    4. Perhaps a vapor barrier and ventilation would solve the serious #3 problem, easier to do the ventilation by placing at grade as in #1. So then at least a minimum crawl space underneath makes some sense for access?
    5. The steel box or other structure need not be directly earth bermed, rather just set in between retaining walls and the whole roofed over. Then the container could be pulled out and moved. This also would solve much of the moisture/ventilation issues.
    6. A neighbor is N.Dak. built an ‘underground’ shop/barn and just used plastic over log ceiling/roof, no sheathing,
    in 6 months the plastic was tearing and dropping soil down inside.
    7. There is some good corrugated steel floor form, like deep V roofing, lightweight concrete is then poured over to finish. For a roof a Tar formulated Sealant is applied.
    8. Concrete directly over wood subjects the wood to potential moisture damage.
    9. For small structures to start with, the is a newish technology of a cement impregnated fiber(glass, hemp, etc.) that is received on site and suspended in the desired shape, then moistened and allowed to cure in place. Sometimes then inverted. The 3D shapes developed are naturally structurally ideal.
    10. One last thought, most do not really get how insulation really works, what it does is Stop Air Circulation in the enclosed space, air is almost always less conductive of heat than the material the insulation is manufactured from. A 1 inch space in brick walls used to be a masonry standard in construction, at 1 inch or less the air would not convect-(circulate) to carry the heat, it was a good insulator in the wall construction. Weeps were provided at the base of the brick.
    Just a bit of information for your consideration,
    Have Fun!

    • Regarding point 7, I believe the material you mentioned is called Q-deck. I think it still requires proper rebar and serious support during the pour and the month following for 90% cure. I’m no concrete expert, but have poured some in my time and probably will again. I’ve never done structural overhead concrete though – and that one is a bit specialized. You want to be right first time.

      George’s idea of four feet of overhead dirt is great, but there was no mention of how to support such a load. A reinforced concrete arch structure should work, and the idea of a buried school bus could provide a form. Waterproofing is obviously required, as well as a thick coat of mastic or something to protect the steel roof. Again, with tons overhead, you want to be right first time.

  10. Another interesting concept George. But you must not forget to “forward look” this project. What you describe is the current configuration of the south side of Mom’s house here at El Rancho de Chaos. It was built by hand by Dad and myself 40 years ago. Much thought and process was given throughout construction but there was one major miscalculation made. There was not enough consideration given for the amount of erosion that has occurred over the years and drainage from the north. This was accelerated by the sandy soil, if you can call it that, laying upon limestone. The design is sound and the rooms are quite comfortable during the blazing Missouri summers and sometimes arctic like winters only for the past few years it is a constant battle to keep the lower side of one wall the original 48 inches below what has become the main grade level. I won’t mention the damn stairs.

    Not something that I was expecting knocking on the door of 70 as you put it so eloquently. No luck getting 90 year old Mom to move so the Big Orange K front loader gets a workout each spring grading the slope and a touch up again in the fall.

    Just something I thought I would share with you.


  11. We’ve been seriously researching the earth/partial earth/dome homes, along with aquaponics to help out, as a retirement strategy. Solid structures, interesting activities that puts food on the table, an interesting combination of hobbies, etc. I’ve been able to sell the partial buried dome as a “hobbit home” to the wife, and it sounds awesome to me too, especially along about August in Texas. :) I’ve wish-listed your new book, can’t wait to read it!

    • I did aquaponics for a few years as a project.. Tilapia,fresh water prawns, crawdads and red claw breeders. The problem I had was they sort of became pets.. I couldn’t eat them..the biggest tilapia was about six pounds and close to two foot long..had to put a net up so it wouldn’t jump out.
      Easy to do and a lot of fun..
      Speaking of my projects.. I am a little down today..a few years ago I built the solar beer chiller.. The chest was three foot by four foot super insulated and 32 inches high in the form of an old coke bottle machine..(but hand made) this was big enough to handle the coils etc. Really nice and a good conversation piece. Well someone made the comment that they would sure like I gave it to them.the LOOB house is now minus one Sun cooled beer was just a proof of concept project and I needed the space for the second freeze dryer..I will miss it dearly. A fun project..easy and better to teach the kids to cool with the sun than burn the house down with it..

  12. Given the discussion of possible cooling trends, if I was building anything new, I would go for more insulation rather than less.

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