The Mortensons have spent the last 30 years living in an underground house they built themselves over an eight-year span. During the oil embargo in the 1970s, the Mortensons and the rest of the country were struggling with the high price of fuel and looking for ways to cut usage. Then Mortenson saw a magazine article that talked about underground living and the low cost of heating and cooling costs and they were intrigued.
“We told our families, and they didn’t tell us we were crazy,” he laughed. “We were young and didn’t know what we were doing.”
So the couple set out to build their house themselves. It would take eight years and would still be in “rough” shape when they finally moved in, according to Mortenson.
“By then I think the inspector just felt sorry for us so he let us move in,” he said.
The house is constructed of concrete walls poured full of concrete and heavily waterproofed.
The outside has a facade of small rocks stacked to create a more organic look than the concrete blocks.
The home is shaded and rock paths, ferns and small water features surround the home’s front and back entrances and lead to the roof, which is stacked one to two feet deep in soil.
The couple has decorated the roof area with numerous tropic plants, such as banana trees and several types of elephant ears, which Mortenson calls one of his favorite plants.
Other than a few specialty items, the couple did the work themselves and experimented a lot to see what they liked and what worked for them.
The original floors were concrete that had been grooved and stained to look like tile, which was almost unheard of at the time. Those floors have been replaced with tile or hardwood now.
The kitchen floor is a series of old ladders that Jim Mortenson sourced from the phone company where he worked.
When they upgraded their systems to computers, the ladders became obsolete and the Mortensons got the idea to use them as a unique and cheap flooring. In fact, like the house itself, virtually every piece in the home has a story behind it, many of them relating to family members.
The model ships throughout the house were built by Jim’s dad, the dining table and chairs, candleholders and many other metal items were constructed by their brother-in-law, who passed away.
“He started that table and chairs, and before he died, he taught me some of the stuff he knew. I promised to finish it once he was gone,” Mortenson said. That makes the iron table and chairs a precious keepsake, as is the blacksmith shop that Mortenson inherited and relocated to his property.
As for the original reason for the building, the Mortensons said it is easy and cheap to cool in the summer and usually the biggest issue is the high humidity.
For heat, the couple installed a furnace a few years ago but were careful to hide it to avoid destroying the view around the home. The couple also has underground power and utility lines to keep the bamboo from interfering and to protect the “blending into nature” view.
Then, over 15 years ago, Mortenson said he decided to start planting bamboo groves. He had always loved and been fascinated by plants and bamboo, in particular.
From that sprung a business that now ships approximately 1,000 bamboo plants of all heights and varieties to places all over the country. And this isn’t the “lucky bamboo” novelty item that grows in small water tubes and vases and can be purchased at many local stores.
Mortenson cautions that these plants are not bamboo at all, but are instead a species called Dracaena sanderiana.
His various bamboo types range from small, ground covering bamboo to towering giant bamboo, which is dug up and sold to be replanted in yards as shade, privacy screening or just for the appearance.
For more information on the house or the bamboo farm, visit www.jmbamboo.com or call (205) 283-5638.