Sunday, 27 February 2011

Review: Oehler, M: The Underground House Book


Mike Oehler is an autodidact, and a man - he admits it, nay, proclaims it - of strong and idiosyncratic opinions. He has a recipe for building small dwellings cheaply in Pacific Northwest USA - which is to say it's as wet as western Scotland, warmer in summer and considerably colder in winter. He designs houses that I could afford to build using materials which are - with the exception of the polyethylene membranes which are key to his system - considerably more ecologically sound than most modern building materials. He makes substantial use of roundwood poles - which I have in abundance for the cost of cutting and seasoning them.

All these are reasons I should take him seriously. And yet, I'm wary. He's built - or claims to have built - remarkably few dwellings (two, as far as I can see, although people using his method have built many more). He doesn't seem to use any moisture barriers in his floors - in fact, he extols the virtues of earth floors. I simply don't see that working in Scottish conditions (In fact in the 'Update' section at the end of the book, Oehler now has a membrane under the floor of his house - which is now carpeted).

The other thing is that I strongly suspect that if you showed one of his houses to any self respecting British Building Control Officer you'd get something between a hearty guffaw and a shriek of horror. Indeed, Oehler's own response to building standards is clearly expressed on page 100 of his book: 'will a home built with the PSP system pass the code? The answer is, sadly, no... you may move to an area which has no codes...'

Well, you may. But I want to build my home on my land in my home valley, so I can't. I could adopt Oehler's alternative suggestion, of evasion... but the less said about that the better.

Finally, a note of caution about the title. Oehler's quoted prices relate to the 1970s; and even then I think a certain amount of creative (or merely forgetful) accounting was involved.

Nevertheless Oehler's book is both thoughtful and thought provoking. I'm glad I read it, and will continue to mull over it.
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