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Living Underground

Imagine this: 

You have moved somewhere far away from any cities or roads. You don’t have any bricks or lumber for a house, and winter is coming. What would you do?

drawing of a hill with a hole in it and a ladder going into the hole

A pithouse from the outside would look kind of like this.

You might decide to use the ground for your house—like people have done for centuries. You could dig a square hole in the ground, maybe four feet deep, then build a slanted roof over it using poles, brush, and dirt. This pithouse would keep you cool in the summer and fairly warm in the winter. (But it could be leaky or smoky, and it would be dark inside.)

The oldest known pithouses, found in Europe, are 25,000 years old! Only 100 years ago, some people in Utah were still living in similar houses called dugouts.

Pithouses in Utah

At least 5,000 years ago, people in Utah used pithouses. Ancestral Pueblo, Fremont, and Archaic people all built pithouses. If you could cut one in half, it would look something like this:

drawing of a pithouse showing poles holding up a roof of poles, brush, and mud plaster








Dugouts in Utah

150 years ago, Anglo American settlers in Utah began building dugouts. They looked like this: 

drawing of dugout showing rock walls and roof of poles, straw, and dirt














Families only lived here until they could build a more permanent house. Read one family's story about living in a dugout.

drawing of a dugout dug into the side of a hill.









Hope Houses

house photo

A Hope House in Highland, Utah (it's no longer there).

Guess what? People built another kind of underground house in the 1930s to the 1960s. They’re called Hope Houses. A Hope House is basically a basement with a flat or almost-flat roof on it. People who built these hoped they would have money sometime to build up the rest of the house. Utah still has a few Hope Houses around, but many of them did get that second story built.


How are these houses the same?  How are they different?

What are the advantages of a pithouse or dugout? What are the disadvantages?

How are these houses like your house? How are they different?

One family’s story

Charles Nibley’s family moved to Cache Valley in 1860. They built a dugout. Charles said:

We dug a square hole in the ground three feet deep and then built logs around that hole three logs high. We built up to the gables with logs then put a center roof log and one on each side of that, halfway down the wall. On top of these logs we laid small quaking aspen poles not larger than my wrist. On top of these we put straw and then covered that with a thick coat of dirt.

My father built a cobblestone chimney in the opposite end from the entrance…. The chimney never knew enough to draw the smoke up but spewed it out and filled the room. There was not a window of any kind whatever in our house. Neither was there a door. My mother hung up a quilt…which served as a door for the first winter. This was our bedroom, our parlor, our sitting room, our kitchen, everything in the room of about 12 x 16.

Drawings by Rebekah Smith.