Mike Oehler, The $50 and Up Underground House Book (Mole Publishing, 1981)
First off: not to put too fine a point on it, Mike Oehler is a sexist asshole. Well, there is a possibility that Mike Oehler was a sexist asshole in the seventies and that leopard has changed his spots; however, we’ll note in passing that the edition I read was a sixth, from 1997, with a number of updates, and he chose to leave the bit in the introduction about how much he hates liberated women, some nasty comments on a drawing, and a lovely aside about how he cooks “the way women used to before they lost every shred of intelligence.” I’ll say it again: these were still there in an edition newly revised and updated sixteen years after the book’s original publication. It has been another sixteen since, so perhaps we should at least attempt to give him the benefit of the doubt—and if he has revised that stuff out, you, of course, may not see it at all, and more power to you. It left one hell of a bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps all the more so because Oehler claims, somewhat self-importantly, in one of the updates that The $50 and Up Underground House Book is the book on the subject of underground housing. That self-importance is justified; every other tome on the subject I have perused refers back to this one. Every single one, even those that then go on to construct what Oehler refers to as “first-thought houses”. (The riff I had in my head on this as I was reading was measure-once houses, referring to the old carpenters’ saw of “measure twice, cut once”.) Specifically, I kept going back in my head to my favorite underground-housing book, Rob Roy’s Earth-Sheltered Houses, which is first-thought to its very core, and wondering over and over again what Oehler must have thought, if he ever read the thing.
I can’t say The $50 and Up Underground House Book has displaced Earth-Sheltered Houses as my favorite of the bunch. Part of it’s Oehler’s crotchety style; the anti-equality stuff mentioned above is only the tip of the iceberg. But the much bigger part of it is that while almost every page of this book is chock full of wonderful ideas, the amount of material in this slim (115-page) volume that covers putting theory into practice is small indeed. I’m by no means an accomplished carpenter—truth be told, I can barely drive a nail straight, and that’s usually only if I have three guides helping me out—but I got the impression, looking at the drawings here, that they would make a great deal more sense if I were. (On the other hand, it could just be something as simple as my utter lack of depth perception causing me not to be able to visualize stuff everyone else can, so YMMV.) But the notions that Oehler is throwing around here, especially towards the end when the houses he’s talking about start looking a little less like open-air bomb shelters and more like underground houses, are pretty amazing, by and large. If you’re capable of taking a rough (at best) drawing of those notions and transforming it into a dwelling place, have at it. The rest of us would be better served starting off with a book that delves far more into the practical than the theoretical, like the above-mentioned Earth-Sheltered Houses, and come back to this one after having internalized that, and maybe a few others, to see where the ideas originally came from. ** ½
A video tour, conducted by Oehler, of the $500 house from this book.