In 2002, I was storing tools in the lower end of my North Carolina home’s crawlspace. At the door, I could stand, stooped slightly, but the grade went up, and about 12 feet in, the headroom was about 4 1/2 feet. I decided to dig out a 12-by-16-foot section near the door so I could store and retrieve my tools without stooping. At the same time, I’d beef up my underbuilt 50-year-old foundation. Then, after digging down about 2 feet, it occurred to me that by going down a mere 24 inches more, I could have a very nice space, with a concrete floor and a full 8 feet from the top of the concrete to the bottom of the floor joists. I decided to go for it.

The author in 2002 at the start of his big dig. At first, his goal was to create a little more storage at the low end of the crawlspace beneath his North Carolina home. Photo by Bill Phillips.

And so began a 20-year odyssey. At first, I planned to dig out across the lower end of the crawlspace to create a nice, 12-by-32-foot half-basement. But then, I decided to go back another 6 feet to the next main beam of the floor system above. Around this time, a friend who came over to see the progress on the big dig observed that “this thing has become bigger than you.” He was right, of course, and now I won’t stop until I reach the full 54-foot length of my crawlspace.

As he continued to excavate, he needed to avoid undermining the home's existing foundation. Here he's pouring a footing for a section of the reinforced perimeter block wall needed to prevent the soil that the brick foundation wall bears on from collapsing.

I’ve divided the basement into nine sections (based on the structure of the frame it holds up). After excavating a section with a shovel and storing the soil in 5-gallon buckets until I can haul it away, I form and pour the footing for the next section of reinforced block retaining wall I’m building around the inside perimeter.

Much of the concrete used on the project had to be mixed on site. Here the author is pouring the small slab that tops one of the sections of the reinforcing wall, using 5-gallon buckets to handle the 30 80-lb. bags of Quikrete needed to pour the slab.
Shown here is a section of the block wall that reinforces the perimeter after the topping slab has been poured. Note the weeps at the base of the wall.

This wall is spaced 4 feet in from the existing brick crawlspace wall and capped with a concrete slab to provide useful storage and seal the space from moisture in the soil. The slab floor for each 12-by-15-foot section requires about 3 yards of concrete from a ready-mix truck, while I mix up the concrete for the perimeter slabs—which require about 30 80-lb. bags of concrete each—by hand.

As the author digs out each section, he stores the hard clay in 5-gallon buckets to keep the material dry until it can be removed. So far, he's removed more than 18,000 5-gallon buckets filled with dirt from his basement.

I recently completed the block walls for Section 7 and have excavated and poured the footing for Section 8—that wall will take about two weeks to lay up. I’ve now finished digging eight of nine sections and removed 18,000 5-gallon buckets of hard clay (5). As I’ve moved farther into the crawlspace, the grade has continued to rise. Now, at the farthest point, I need to dig down 74 inches to get to grade.

Nearing the end of the project, the author is currently working on the 8th of the nine sections that he divided the basement into. He's literally over his head now...he has to dig down 74 inches to reach the grade level for his new basement floor.

So far, I’ve gotten rid of all the clay without spending a cent and spent about $8,000 on concrete, mortar, and blocks. By the time I get the final section done and pour the floor for the entire basement, I hope to have less than $20,000 in the entire job. I’ve put a lot of man-hours in this project but always when I could squeeze them in between paying jobs. And though this has been hard-earned real estate, the end of the project is in sight.

Photos by Matthew Navey except where noted.