A Life Lived Under The Earth

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Nearly five years ago (in 2009) a reader named Dave sent Tiny House Blog information regarding the Shorpy Historic Archive. One of those images is shown above and is a dugout house built by homesteaders Faro and Doris Caudill with Mount Allegro in the background in Pie Town, New Mexico. (titled: The Caudills at dinner. 35mm Kodachrome transparency by Russell Lee.)

At the time it was classified as a Tiny House In A Landscape. But as the history of tiny houses continues to be written it seems that these underground homes share a number of qualities with modern tiny houses.

Pithouse illustration

Imagine this. You have moved out to a destination unchartered. There are no cities or roads in your view. The closest Wal-Mart is anyone’s guess. You subsequently have no bricks for foundation, no lumber for framing, and no vinyl for siding. What do you do? Without being able to take refuge in a cave you may turn to the very ground you are standing on. And why not? People have been doing it for centuries. And while many in the tiny house community may not be using the earth for their homes they are using the materials most readily available to them; pallet wood, reclaimed lumber, reglazed windows, and the like. 

The dugout or pit house, with sod roof, log walls and earthen floor, is among the most ancient of human dwellings dating back at least 5,000 years. 

The process is rather simple (if by definition and not actual labor). Dig a square hole in the ground between four and five feet deep. Construct a slanted roof above it using poles, brush, and even dirt. This collection of materials would not only keep you cool and out of direct sun in the summer but also relatively warm in the winter.  The secret was that our ancestors took advantage of the earths temperature which we now call earth sheltering. It is a practice of building walls for external thermal mass; to reduce heat loss, and to easily maintain a steady indoor air temperature.

A cut-in of an early pithouse courtesy of ilovehistory.utah.gov.

A cut-in of an early pithouse courtesy of ilovehistory.utah.gov.

As time progressed dugouts or pit houses looked less like ground burrows and more like shelter entrances to unimaginable, earthen comfort.

James Barton came to Republic County, Kansas, in 1871, from Marshall County, Iowa, as a young child. His parents homesteaded near modern-day Cuba, Kansas. Looking back on the family’s trip by covered wagon, Mr. Barton remembered that it “was a mighty long and hard walk from Iowa to Kansas for a seven year old, barefoot boy!”

The following paragraphs are excerpted from an account of homestead days that Mr. Barton wrote in 1936.

In the spring [of 1872] father built our dug-out. Now you young folks, who think your pretty homes are not comfortable enough, you should have seen our first Kansas home — one underground room, dirt floor, dirt roof, and fleas and snakes for company. You never saw so many fleas– we always blamed the buffalo and buffalo grass for these fleas, for all sod-house and dug-out families had them.

Our first crop was cut by father and a Mr. Zavodsky with a “cradle” scythe, — a hard beginning for our parents, but how we children enjoyed the pretty country– miles and miles of “Blue-Stem” in places three and four feet high, and just a lot of fun to play and hide in! There were no roads — no towns — no churches — no schools — no doctors — and no railroads… When father went for provisions, it took him about a week to drive it with oxen, where you young folks now could motor it in an hour and a half…1

Or perhaps not so comfortable!

An Oklahoma dugout photographed c. 1909. The family is probably sitting in the only available shade.  Source:http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004665280/ From a picture postcard series by J. V. Dedrick

An Oklahoma dugout photographed c. 1909.
The family is probably sitting in the only available shade.
Source:http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004665280/
From a picture postcard series by J. V. Dedrick

prairiebluestem.blogspot.com/2013/02/memories-of-homesteaders-dugout.html

To continue down yet another tiny house history rabbit trail consider starting here!

To view a video tour of the dugout home made famous by Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie click here.

By Andrew M. Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]

St. Helens Oregon High School Tiny House Project

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It started out a neat enough idea. Apply for a Lowes grant for $4000, build a couple (very) tiny homes for the student’s education and experience, and then sell them on Craigslist. I’m smiling (ruefully) thinking about the “if I’d only known then” concept. You see, when you manage a class of 20-30 2nd year high school woodworking students, neatness never really enters the equation? I teach a woodworking/building construction program at St Helens High School in Oregon. The student’s introduction to the tiny house building class is a one semester (half year) class consisting of learning the basics of machine and tool use, measuring, and basic wood vocabulary as they work through 5-6 projects. It is a regimented class and if you fall behind, usually you stay that way unless you have the with-it-ness to come in during lunch or after school. ?So it is only with a half year of introductory woodworking that I launched into building a couple tiny houses. And unlike some really good high school programs building complete houses every year or two, we were going to do everything ourselves instead of subbing out the majority of it.

My dad has this saying “Two people can live just as cheaply as one, for half as long” and it sure played out on this project. Instead of half the class working on each house, my 4 or 5 best students did all the work on both houses, which meant twice as long to complete anything. You see, I was excited about the project, but convincing a 15 year old to take his or her time and do something right translates to them not doing it at all. It was a rough go.

So, after three years of watching the majority of the work be completed by 2-3 students each year, we have two tiny houses up for sale!

Blue Floor Plan

To start with, all of my students were required to bring in at least three pictures of tiny homes that they actually liked the looks of and after throwing those all out the door because of budget we ended up just drawing our own in Google Sketchup. The houses are both 6’x 8’ and roughly 12’ to the peak. Since the houses vary quite a bit I’ll just give you the rundown in a list format.
The blue house: $5000?35 year roofing?Hardiplank Siding – Stucco board and bat finish?Hardwood flooring?Sheep wool insulation!?Custom high density mattress with cover?Custom lockable door with Brink’s Home Security™ Push Pull Rotate™ Door Knob?Sink with venting and 1 ½” drain line to the exterior (hose bib hook up)?Electrical consisting of one GFCI outlet, 4 standard, two 3-way light switches, and 3 lights?Hinged loft that swings down for more room?Custom modifiable table/workbench/2nd bed/bench seat lets you decide what is important to you!?5 Windows and custom trimwork

The Brown house: $3500 ?35 year roofing?Hardiplank Siding – Stucco board and bat finish?Hardwood flooring?Fiberglass insulation?Custom lockable door with Brink’s Home Security™ Push Pull Rotate™ Door Knob?Custom trimwork?Electrical consisting of 3 outlets, 2 interior lights and dual exterior lighting?Open floor plan
No Street of Dreams here, these are high school 2nd year students building homes for experience, so understand that character and education is featured throughout! Gaps, scratches, and bowed sheetrock come free with no extra charge! We guarantee our work until it leaves the school property. =)

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Oregon Shepard donated the sheep wool insulation for the blue house which proved to be a good experience for the students. The sheetrock mudding and taping turned out to be my biggest disaster as is evident by the finished product. Since the majority of my students wanted to work on their own products (end tables, step stools, cutting boards, gun racks, etc.) I had considerable less time overseeing the actual work on the houses and it was fairly depressing for a couple specific students to have me come in at the end of the period and cringe. It wasn’t their fault, at that time they just didn’t know enough to know enough.
We ended up spending quite a bit more money than we intended with student “experiences,” but that is what we do here.

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My hope for the future is that somebody is planning on building a tiny house, but wants to do the finish work themselves. That way our class can do all the basics of framing, siding, electrical, plumbing, insulation, and whatever wall covering material they want, but let the customer detail it out themselves. It is probably a long shot, but we have plenty of good building construction projects lined up until we make that decision.

If anyone is interested in watching the initial building process, we made a short video about it, complete with thoughts from Dee Williams! Enjoy!

http://vimeo.com/67363004
Joe Mauck
St. Helen’s High School
Building Construction Department
2375 Gable Road, St. Helens OR 97051
Office: 503-366-7416
Cell: 503-490-6350
http://www.sthelens.k12.or.us//Domain/140

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Finding Freedom: a return to Usonia

“Tiny House History” is not so much an actual academic topic as it is a supposed idea of how we got to the place of sustainable homesteading, as it were. While it may come with some argument or even disdain I propose that tiny house history did not begin in the late 1990′s with a man, his 100 sq.ft. house on wheels, and a discipline in beautiful, functional, little dwellings. I propose rather that tiny house history began in the “old world” with caves, huts, squats, and other primitive but very natural dwellings. I also propose that tiny house history is not just an exploration into the architectural aspects of a dwelling but also the philosophical, academic, spiritual, and relational aspects of a housing movement. Because of this definition I find myself more and more curious about the homes built in the last 2,000 years. And so it is because of this curiosity that I have come across the Usonian Houses developed by Frank Lloyd Wright beginning in 1936.

Pratt HouseUsonia was a word used by Wright to refer to his vision for the American landscape including urban planning and building architecture. Wright proposed the use of the adjective Usonian in place of American to describe the landscape as being distinct and free of preceding architectural conventions. The homes would be smallish, single-story dwellings without a garage or even storage options. The majority of the designs were L-shaped so as to compliment a garden terrace on unusually shaped lots. They incorporated passive solar heating and natural cooling by way of flat roofs and large, cantilevered overhangs, natural lighting with high windows near the ceiling line, and radiant-floor heating. Even at this point it is easy to see how the influences of Usonian houses work into tiny houses, small houses, and sustainable homes.

Usonian is the term used in reference to 60, middle-class, homes designed by FLW. The first home was the Jacobs House built in 1937 in Madison, Wisconsin.

As history has it Madison newspaperman Herbert Jacobs – a friend of FLW’s – challenged the architect to design and build a home for $5,000. (with current inflation that equates to $80084.70 in today’s currency.) Wright went about designing and L-shaped house with an open floorplan and just two bedroom. To make the build more economical Wright developed a 2-1/4″ thick plywood sandwich wall for the house. (think SIP in today’s building world).

Jacobs House

Jacobs House courtesy of Florida Southern College.

Declared a National Historic Landmark in 2003 the Herbert Jacobs house has undergone some renovation, modification, and ultimately restoration since the mid-1950′s.

Wright continue to explore his Usonian idea even after the Jacobs challenge. Wright saw this as an opportunity to redefine architecture and economy just as the nation was in the throws of the Great Depression. FLW knew his homes could control costs on a number of levels while still providing style and substance to American homeowners.

Besides being small, one-story structures on concrete slabs, Usonian homes also had kitchens incorporated into the living areas. They had open car ports rather than garages. In short, they eliminated ornamentation in favor of function. In the 1950′s as FLW got older he continued to explore the notion of affordable housing by expanding into Usonian Automatic homes which were – in short - Usonian style houses made of inexpensive concrete blocks. The three-inch-thick modular blocks could be assembled in a variety of ways and secured with steel rods and grout. Wright hoped that home buyers would save money by building their own Usonian Automatic houses. Unfortunately assemblage proved to be a bit more difficult than intended and most buyers ended up hiring pros to construct their homes.

Pope-Leighey House

Photo of the Pope-Leighey House in Falls Church, VA courtesy of Library of Congress.

While Usonian homes actually built was limited to just 47 and while the costs to build often exceeded Wrights own projections causing them to overshoot the middle-class, they had great influence on what we now know as ranch style homes (complete with open floor plans, flat roofs, and connections to nature through glass and natural materials) that have helped define the American suburb experience.

Even today a number of Wright’s Usonian houses are still lived in by the families of their original owners. A couple have recently come on to the real estate market commanding millions of dollars. While this price point may be a long shot from FLW’s initial intention of affordability they are a great testament to his design ability and commitment to homes for the masses.

The Pope-Leighey house in Woodlawn, Virginia as photographed by Rebecca Robertson.

The Pope-Leighey house in Woodlawn, Virginia as photographed by Rebecca Robertson.

By Andrew M. Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]