Keeping Secrets in Suburbia--Constructing Our Hidden Basement Room, by A.

Wednesday, Oct 20, 2010

A year ago our preparations had grown to a point where it was becoming noticeable to the guests who visited our home. Our ability to keep our tin foil hat craziness under raps was becoming increasingly difficult. Aside from the fact that we have teenage boys and a daughter and all of their friends regularly tromping through our house, for security reasons alone, all of our assets were virtually displayed in our basement and needed to be hidden. Yes, our guns are in safes, but the last thing we need is some parent freaking about ammo cans, reloading equipment or even food storage. It is none of their business and keeping our prepping secrets was nearly impossible and privacy was becoming a high priority.

So the discussion became focused on hiding all of our stuff. Our house is of a modest size for a family of five. There is only so many places you can put things. The one thing we do have though is a sort of mish mashed house. The original house was built in 1949. It has a partial basement and a crawl space under one room. Then an addition was added during the 1970s. The addition has a large crawl space. So, we have a basement and two crawl spaces. We thought about simply putting our storage in the larger, newer crawl space, but rotating food would be extremely difficult and the door to the crawl space is obvious and ultimately we want our stuff hidden.

However, the other crawl space had an entrance from under the clothes dryer. Nobody would ever know or suspect that another crawl space was there. We are unsure why this space was never dug out during the original construction and made part of the basement. The only problem with this space was access - under the dryer is a fine entrance to a hiding place we never need access too, but that was not what we were looking for.

So, I basically resolved myself to organizing our existing small spaces and freaking out when the kids had friends over. My husband, Dan, would just have to deal with reloading in a tiny area and our guests would just magically not notice all the tactical gear, and TEOTWAWKI supplies, etc.

Then one day last September my husband said “Lets just dig out the older crawl space and make a hidden room of it.”

“Yeah, whatever” I thought.

But not long after that I came home to a 1’ x 3’ hole in the cinder block which was at chest level, right through the basement wall and just above the poured concrete foundation wall. I peaked in the dark hole with a flashlight to find a creepy, cobwebby, cold crawl space. The earth was about chest high and there was maybe 3 feet of space between the dirt and the ceiling.

Dan and I have taken on many projects together. We enjoy working side by side and since I am young and able I never like to see him do a project alone. But this time I looked at him and said “I want nothing to do with this!”

Over the next month he peeked daily into the hole, trying to figure out the best way of tackling this. He estimated there to be about 42 cubic yards of packed dirt. But, he figured with our boys’ help, they could fill up the other crawl space and that would just about empty the room.

He found a concrete guy on Craigslist to open up a small doorway. Dan first had to make his hole a little bigger, climb in and dig out the area behind the foundation wall where the door would be cut. The concrete guy needed space on both sides of the wall to get his cutter in so he could cut all the way to the ground level.

This gave my husband a taste of what the project would be like. The dirt was packed. Packed hard like concrete. You couldn’t just shovel it into a bucket. No, no. The top foot and a half was like hardened cement and below that was densely packed clay. He had to use his air chisel to break apart the top 18” of dirt. It was unbelievably difficult to dig out - especially while crawling and lying on his stomach - just trying to make space behind where the door would be. But he managed to get it done and the concrete guy was happy to work efficiently for cash. No questions asked.

Once the doorway was cleared of the neatly cut concrete wall, the real digging could begin. Dan and our boys set up an assembly line with Christmas lights for light and sleds to pull the buckets to dump in the far reaches of the large crawl space. My boys, crawling, could empty about 20 buckets in 3 hours working together. They could barely walk afterward from being so contorted in such a small space maneuvering extremely heavy buckets. 20 buckets doesn’t make a dent in the amount of earth needed to be moved. Not a dent! And my husband could only dig for 2 to 3 hours before being completely exhausted. They did this maybe four times before we had to rethink the whole project. Besides, it became clear that there was no way that e other crawl space could hold even a quarter of the dirt from the space he was digging. Not a chance. We didn’t consider how packed dirt takes up so much more area when dug and loosened.

So, a couple of months passed and the potential hidden room sat neglected. The kids were all very busy with school and our business was still in its’ busy season, so the secret room went on the back burner.

But, then the New Year came. Our business comes to a screeching halt in January for about three months. So it was decided that the room must be completed.

Because we were wanting to keep this whole thing obscure - we had a major dilemma now with what to do with 42 cubic yards of packed earth. We are friendly and chatty with everyone on our block, so there was absolutely no way we could have an ever growing pile of dirt in our yard without every neighbor wanting to know and see what we were doing. Not to mention that we were not getting the proper permission (permits) from our local government, so we had to keep this covert. Thankfully, the block tends to somewhat hibernate during the winter. The neighbors aren’t out in their yards as much, so we thought a small pile might go unnoticed. But, we would need to get rid of it frequently and discreetly.

Dan dug, filled buckets and carried them out and made a small pile of maybe 2 cubic yards of dirt. We put an ad on Craigslist for free dirt. Within a few days a couple people had come by and shoveled a few buckets worth full of dirt - but not even enough was taken to remove our small pile. At this rate we would never get rid of it. It took people too long to shovel it up into their truck beds and anyone needing a large amount would never come and remove our small piles one at a time. This process would take forever.

But then Dan had the genius idea of putting an ad on Craigslist saying “Free dirt, you bring your trailer, we’ll fill it, you haul it away.” Within a couple of days we received a call from a lady not too far away who needed fill dirt to raise up an area around her garage because her home was in a flood plain. She would take as much as she could get. So we got started - she brought a small trailer over, never asked us what we were doing and we told her we would call her when it was full.

I decided I couldn’t watch my husband dig alone, so during the days while our children were in school we dedicated two hours to digging, each and every day. At first we could only handle doing 40 buckets in about two hours time. The work area was so small at this point we would have to take turns axing the big chunks off the hard top and then I would fill the buckets and he would haul them through the basement, up the stairs, out of the garage where he would dump them into the trailer. Yes, the dust and dirt was excessive which helped motivate us to get the job done. On snowy days, there would be a mud trail through the basement to the trailer. Thankfully our basement has hard floors and not carpet. What a mess.

At first we were completely exhausted after 40 buckets, sweating profusely and totally worn out. But within a couple of weeks we were marveling at how our stamina had increased. At the start I was having trouble heaving the buckets out of the doorway for Dan to take, and his legs were exhausted from going up the stairs with a minimum of 50 lbs in each bucket, a bucket in each hand. But, our strength was growing by leaps and bounds and by dedicating two hours a day we were making incredible progress. It wasn’t long and we could do 60 buckets in two hours and that filled the small trailer. The trailer lady was great at first about coming daily and getting the trailer emptied and back the same day. But, soon we could do 60 buckets in 1 hour 15 minutes and we wanted to keep going. Her daily pickup slowly became every other day, then every 3rd day. This was not moving fast enough for us. We were starting to see a room emerge which made us want to dig all the more.

We also were getting really good at digging. We joked about how we should be miners since we had been digging in near darkness by the light of two corded mechanics trouble lights in what became known as “The Cave“. Soon I could wield the big mattock and fill buckets faster than any girl and Dan was virtually running up the stairs with buckets in each hand. We were having fun.

One day we decided after filling the trailer to go ahead and start making a pile behind a hedge in the rocks next to the driveway. That day we moved 120 buckets. We spent every day after that doing as much as we could - both filling her trailer and adding to the pile. When the pile was around 8 cubic yards big, we decided we had to get rid of it immediately. We found a guy offering Bobcat services on Craigslist for removal of dirt, concrete, rock and such. Due to the economy and his willingness to work, he gave us a very fair deal on the removal of the dirt. And because he could dump it on the Trailer Lady’s land he didn’t have to pay for disposal of the dirt. We were all happy.

We had our Bobcat guy come two more times all the while continuing to fill the trailer again and again. The last day of digging we squared the 2’ thick earthen ledges and leveled the floor. That day we moved more than 200 buckets.

Due to the fact the two most outer walls did not go down to the floor level, we had to leave an earthen ledge. In researching, we found a 2’ thick earth ledge could keep the walls from shifting, especially since the earth was so hard. So, now we had a level dirt floor, squared ledges and it looked like a room.

The digging was complete! Now it was time for real lighting so we put in 10 recessed can lights between the floor joists above our heads and electrical outlets on the walls. Ahhh, let there be light!

Okay, now we had to decide how to get concrete into this room. We have a lean to structure designed to house our trash cans. This sits on the exterior wall of The Cave. We opened up the trash house, pulled out the cans and cut a 2’ x 2’ hole in the outer wall at ground level. Because we have a raised ranch home, he was able to do this. Dan installed a fire-rated panel access door for commercial buildings he found on Craigslist for $20. The hole, not only was a secondary egress, but also a way to bring in the concrete.

The hole was just big enough to get the concrete chute through it. We called back the same concrete guy who cut the door through the foundation wall. We set up the concrete delivery, and he and his son poured and leveled 6” of concrete on the floor and up and over the earthen ledges. The room - for our purposes - was done.

After the concrete dried we spent several days moving all of our preparations into our new 12’ x 24’ room. One half of the room is dedicated to food storage, canning supplies, distilling equipment, barterable items, etc. The other half is for firearms and tactical equipment, including a reloading area, large safe and ammo storage. The temperature remains almost constant because there is no heat coming in and it is mostly underground. It is cool, dry and perfect for storage.

The room is concealed in the following ways. The opening under the clothes dryer has been sealed off. The exterior hatch in the trash house cannot be opened from the outside and is concealed behind a door and trash cans. The interior opening (the main door going into The Cave) has a heavy 5’ x 3’ steel door with a commercial non electric push code lock. Right now we have a large wardrobe/armoire in front of it which has been discretely bolted into place to conceal The Cave entrance. The armoire houses various jackets and coats which hides the false back which can be slid over easily to reveal the steel door entrance. Just picture The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe, from The Chronicles of Narnia.

The room is perfectly hidden. Nobody would suspect it is even there. Our assets and preparations are finally out of sight. We go “shopping” in our Cave about once a week to bring up food that needs to rotate and Dan spends quite a bit of time in there reloading ammunition. It is spacious and organized. We have built shelves and it is the perfect way to keep this stuff secret while living in the crowded suburbs. Ironically, our neighbors never inquired about the dirt pile or the concrete truck and I imagine they have long forgotten.

We wanted this project to be as minimal in cost as possible. It was a large undertaking for us in terms of labor, but to add almost 300 square feet, the $2,000 we spent (for concrete work and lighting, etc.) was really quite worth it. We are not engineers, but due to common sense and research [and concrete], we knew what we needed to do to keep our house from falling in on us. We were confident in our abilities and judgment to not need to involve the local building authorities to give us permission to do this. But, this is a decision that needs to be taken seriously because one can destroy the foundation of their home if they dig improperly, not to mention get themselves in a lot of trouble, both with the law and financially.

But, you never know, you might have lurking in your suburban home quite a few extra square feet to hide the things you want out of sight. Think creatively, and don’t be scared of hard work. It gets easier every day. And ladies, don’t make your husbands do all the physical work. We can do far more than just the food-related preps. Build the chicken coop with him, learn to shoot, dig out a cellar with him. It will build your marriage and you’ll get stuff done twice as fast.


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