Montana Quonset Home

Dreaming With Our Eyes Open

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In the process of researching a new approach to our Culvert House, we encountered another experimenter in this design. A fascinating image of their work emerged in the following sequence of exchanges.
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Summer 1999

We too have built an underground home by using a quonset type steel building made of 18 gauge steel. It is located in south eastern Montana. I have kept a photo album of all construction to the present. I'm very pleased with the results. If you are interested, I would be happy to discuss the project with you.

Judi & Jeff

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Hi Judi, Jeff...

It´s so nice to hear from someone who´s thinking holds some resemblance to one´s own... especially when they´re reporting success..

Is your underground home a retreat for vacations or is it your fulltime home? we´ve been altering our lifestyle to try to bridge the two concepts, making the fulltime home more relaxed and casual..

Would love to hear about your experience, especially the backfilling operation and how you came through the design process... after I worked on the engineering papers to justify the gage, it was the backfilling process that seemed (to me) to be the key to our design... did you have a crew? how manual vs heavy equipment? did you have to do soil testing to confirm the required compaction? how deep did you cover the structure? Did you need any erosion control?

The source of the metal structure that I´m considering for my basic form is a place called Miracle Steel as they seem to have the best prices and support that I´ve found. Their price per sqft is about 8.50 to 9.00 per sq ft (18 ga, 25ft span).. Is that about right?

What sort of building inspection documents did you have to prepare? did you have any experience with building before?

Did you do Passive Annual Heat Storage? The fellow who invented it is from Missoula. How long ago did you build and how long did it take to get your building tucked in? Did you use a power tool to do the many bolts, I guess you´d have to.

Thank you for getting touch with us.


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Yes, it is rewarding to learn of others who attempt unconventional challenges. For your enjoyment and information, here is part of our story:

In December of 1994 I purchased 21 acres of pine-and-rock-covered hills in rural southeastern Montana, 35 miles from the nearest town. My family and I enjoyed camping on the property during the summer of 1995 and began planning my recreation/retirement home.
In the summer of 1996 the area for the building was excavated 10´ down into a scoria hill.

That fall the 30´X60´, 15´-high building "kit" with its 121 arch panels and 4755 bolts, nuts, and washers arrived and was assembled during the fall and following spring and summer. (Montana weather and difficulty in securing equipment, materials, and workers here are factors that slow construction.)

The process for assembling the arched steel building was as follows: Five panels were put up; angle iron was attached to the panels approximately 4´ up on each side and one down the middle; the angle iron was used to prevent the building from creeping; this step was repeated every five panels; every ten feet.
All the bolts were put in as the work progressed; they were not tightened down, only snugged up. All the bolts could not be tightened down until the end panels were installed to make sure the building was lined up and the end panels were in squarely. After the end panels were put in, the workers tightened all of the bolts--yes, preferably with a power wrench.

Throughout the entire bolting process, one man was on the outside and another was on the inside. Yes, the bolts had to be tightened twice. By using this process, throughout the 60´ length, the building was within 1/8 inch of being perfectly "square."

Most of the backfilling and covering of the building was done using trackhoe and front-end loader in July 1997. It was filled about 3´ on one side, then 3´ on the other side, alternating until about 5´ above ground level.
Then dirt was placed on the top to flow down both sides. The earth home is now entirely covered by dirt (1´ deep on the very top) except for most of the front end and the top 1/3 of the back end.

Two 2´X3´ windows on the front and a 3´X4´ window at the back provide some natural light and fresh air.

The building became a usable residence in August of 1997, and I moved in as a full-time resident in March 1998.

No general contractors or engineers were consulted for the project. My "cohort in this crime" and I had no building experience, but Jeff had been a heavy equipment operator so knew about the equipment and procedures needed for the excavating. In addition, we were fortunate in that Jeff made friends with some handy neighbors who needed part-time work. One neighbor had been a carpenter before retiring to the area. Therefore, our "crew" included a motley, off-and-on mix of Jeff, two sons, five neighbors, and, at one point, a neighbor´s hunting buddies!

The excavation costs have totaled about $3500, 12 yards of concrete for the footer cost about $1500, the building itself (American Steel Marketing, phone 407-852-5409) was priced at $8600. We probably have another $35,000 in plumbing, water storage, septic tank, wiring and electrical fixtures (including track lights and fifty outlets), appliances, interior walls, and travel expense. Drilling and installing the 300´ well cost $10,000.
The home is not "finished" yet. The flooring still needs to be laid over the subfloor, and interior woodwork--including cooking-area cabinets--must be installed. The interior of the home has a great room for living, dining, and cooking; a bedroom; an extra room; an office; a full bath with shower and separate whirlpool tub; a 10´X 40´ sleeping and storage loft; a 16´X16´ water-storage area with storage for 4800 gallons of water; an 8´X20´ pantry; and a 6´X 20´ laundry room.

The home is comfortably warm in winter with its wood parlor stove. (We have a 50,000 BTU propane free-standing heater for back-up.) With 50-degree-below-freezing temperatures outside, the coldest it has ever been inside has been 53 degrees--when the wood stove had stopped burning during the night and the propane back-up was not on. The water-storage area will never drop to freezing!

In summer its interior temperature has never gone above 80 degrees, even when it has been 110 degrees outside the door. No, we do not have air conditioning--though people do ask when they drop in on a hot day.

The usual interior temperature of the house is between 65 and 75 degrees. The home´s electrical system is backed up by an 8 kW China diesel generator that can maintain the house in the event of power outages.

The home is becoming more and more comfortable with each new phase of its construction and is a source of amazement for first-time visitors. Most of our 50-something visitors consider the house "interesting." However, younger or more unconventional guests say, "Wow, different!" or "Neat!" or "Awesome."
We hope your plans for your residence are progressing well. If you have any questions about any of the above or if you would like to see pictures, just e-mail me!

Judi & Jeff

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Hi Judi, Jeff...

Wow, you got a much better deal on the quonset than I had found. Great! And it´s gorgeous... it blends so well into the scenery.

Have you been monitoring your utility use? To separate the heating from the insulation performance?

It´s so encouraging to hear that you´re pleased with your home. MT probably has a good supportive attitude for practical living and experimenting is tolerated... something I wish we had more of here.

Have you considered writing or putting up a website? lots of photos would be an asset... I was hoping to do something of that nature so I was wondering if you plan to promote your experience... doing something new and creative makes the work valuable to others... if you´re in an academic program, that level of pioneering is considered the basis of PhDs... the first culvert house was featured in U of MN publications but they used 3 gage so it was nowhere near as economically significant as yours... and especially since it´s successful, I´d think the market value of publishing would be viable though it´s always good strategy to proceed with some measure of caution, like starting on the web...

I really appreciate your taking the time to answer questions... the internet is such a great place to find special interest people that are rare birds locally...

Thanks and best wishes.

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Hi Jeanette,

In answer to your questions:

The earth cover wasn´t our only insulation... Foam insulation 3/4" thick was sprayed on the inside. 6-mill black plastic and a 12-mill, one-piece pond liner cover the building under the dirt. The exterior of the exposed endwall is insulated with strawbale and stucco.

About how much propane & wood we´re using?... Last winter, 1 1/2 cords of wood were used as the primary heat source. Auxiliary heat was provided by 400-500 gallons of propane

The angle iron does sound like your description of buttresses...

Proud of the workmanship? Jeff is! That´s the reason we bragged to you about it

*Slowness* better have its own rewards... otherwise, Montana life can be terribly frustrating!
We don´t have the moisture here that you have so we didn´t have any erosion control netting or mix anything with the soil.... In your area erosion control might be a very good idea! We put the "clayey" on top.

We even had 50 people inside for our annual picnic here Saturday, which we had scheduled weeks ago. Sadly, the day was 50 degrees with rain expected, but everyone said they enjoyed being in our home!

We don´t yet have the time or hardware for such a website project. Eventually, we would like to write a book or at least a magazine article about our experiences. I write and edit--for other individuals and companies, thus far. You may link us, if you wish. We will try to reply to e-mail sent. I am copying selected shots of the phases we have mentioned to you and will send them via snail mail next week.

We´re enjoying learning of your project. It´s fun to share what some people consider "impossible dreams." Jeff says, "Research is essential, but it´s more fun to learn by DOING!"

Keep us informed at

Jeff and Judi Fahrnow

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