Coober Pedy News
      No. 74                                                          4 February  2004

Letters to Editor

Greetings! I have had the pleasure of visiting Coober Pedy, and as a children's writer, I have written an article about the town for an American children's magazine. My editors have asked me to verify a fact contained in my story. I wrote:

The cost for digging an underground home is about twenty-five percent less expensive than building above-ground houses. A 4,000 square-foot home costs about $50,000."

I need to verify that the $50,000 figure is correct, and that the sum quoted is in Australian dollars, not U.S. dollars.

Could someone please email me with a verification or correction to the statement above? At the very least, I would welcome the email address of someone who could help me. I would appreciate any assistance you could give me.

Thank you very much.

Claudia Cangilla McAdam

Highlands Ranch, Colorado, USA


Reply by Geoff Sykes, Coober Pedy

Re Cost of Constructing a Dugout (Underground home).

Your email of … February 2005 to Coober Pedy News refers.

I am afraid you appear to have been given some misleading information on a number of aspects about dugouts and the construction of them. Allow me to explain.

First of all I’ll give you a little bit of background information.

As you are probably aware, the original white people who settled in Coober Pedy did so for a number of reasons (the Aboriginals never lived here, although they did travel through the area – there was insufficient rainfall – we average about 150mm (6") per annum). The primary lure was the possibility of finding opal and becoming a instant millionaire – a possibility, but not a probability. A secondary reason was to escape. The original occupants were primarily people (men, very few women) escaping Europe (we have 48 nationalities living here – all fiercely independent) after the wars (WW1 & WW2). They wanted to escape communism, the lack of work, the law, the military, ex-wives, etc. A lot of criminals, both international and domestic made Coober Pedy their home. The local police accepted these people and as long as they didn’t cause trouble here, left them alone. If they did cause trouble it tended to be settled between themselves – a beating, machinery blown-up, gang raped/sodomised, even shoved down a shaft (murdered).

Life was pretty tough in these days. They had little or no money. The proprietor of the local store would often give them stake money and be repaid when they eventually found opal – a very trusting proprietor. Water had to be carried in by camel, no electricity, no phone, food delivery once a week (which is what we still get), if the carrier could make it through – terrible roads, floods (either side of us, say 40 mile, they get lots of rain, but we’ll get none), etc.

Their homes (which is part of your question) were basic. Often just a sheet of canvas/material to provide shade, some would eventually upgrade to a tent and occasionally to a rustic "house". They worked with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow. The hole they dug, in the search for opal, often became their home – they could guard any opal they found and get shelter from the elements (near zero in winter to 125/130 degrees Fahrenheit in summer) at the same time. It would be just one room, say 8’ wide and 12’ long. It’d have a dirt floor, no power, no water. They would buy water in 44 gallon drum lots and this would last them for several weeks – no daily showers. They would have some sort of lantern to provide light – the same lantern would be used for their mining. Toilet facilities were also basic. Dig a hole in the ground, build a dunny (little room – 4 walls, one with a door and a roof) with a "thunderbox" in it. They were, and still are, called "longdrops". Go to the toilet; throw half a shovel of lime down the hole (to kill the smell and flies) and the job’s done. When it became full, they would (and still do) simply dig another shaft and repeat the process. Today we don’t have dunnies, we have conventional toilet pan and cistern inside the home, but when you flush the toilet the waste is carried to the longdrop and down it goes.

If they married, then they would simply dig another room (Bedroom). If they had kids, they would dig more rooms. If they found opal in the process, they would dig more/bigger rooms. By this stage the dugout could have a possible floor area of say 400/450 square feet (kitchen/dining say 100/150 sq.ft., bedrooms say 3 @ 100 sq.ft each), toilet and laundry would be outside. The cost of "building" these old dugouts would be minimal – no power, little plumbing, no floor (only dirt), no labour (their own time didn’t count), no Council rules (no Council until 1982), no building regulations.

Now a days we have Council rules, we have Building regulations, we have town power and water. We still have longdrops, although in the near future (next 12/18 months) we will have to have a septic tank and distribution trench or shaft for our toilet, laundry, bathroom & kitchen waste. There is a sewage system, but it only services the main street businesses, the school, the hospital and several government buildings. No private houses are connected to the system. The wastewater is processed at the sewer farm and the recovered water is used to water the town and school ovals. Our drinking water comes from a bore some 15 miles from town. It is processed through a reverse osmosis system and stored in large water tanks. From there it is pumped to our households &/or businesses. This water is very expensive, it costs us $3-50 per 1000 litres (220 gallons). Our electricity is generated by diesel powered stationary engines and therefore is also expensive, $0-21 per kilowatt. Our personal electricity bill is around $125-00 per month (we live in a dugout, therefore we don’t have an air-conditioner) and our water around $60-00 per month.

That’s enough background information for now, if you would like more details, perhaps you can ring me and we can discuss together.

On to your question, but first…….. In Australia, the average size suburban home is about 1,800 to 2,000 sq.ft. Thirty years ago it was more like 1,000 to 1,200 sq.ft. Carports (roof, no walls) are additional to this. Upmarket homes, either single storey or 2 storey, would go up to 3,000 sq.ft, maybe 3,500 sq.ft. There would be very few houses over this size – you are entering the realm of the rich and very well-to-do. The cost of building a "basic, no frills" 1,800 to 2,000 sq.ft house, with double carport, would be from $125,000 upwards. Add a few extras like ducted air-conditioning, carpet, up-market light fittings, sloping ground, connection to services (electricity, water, telephone, sewer) and you soon come to $150,000. One of your 4,000 sq.ft houses (it simply would not be "basic") could cost from $300,000 to say $400,000. These figures are for the building only, land is extra, and as you realise, land (say a 10,000 sq.ft. site) could costs as little as $5,000 (in Coober Pedy), up to $500,000 in Melbourne or Sydney.

Finally, the answer to your question – you simply cannot get a 4,000 sq.ft home (above-ground or dugout) for $50,000 (unless it is a disaster area/uninhabitable!). There maybe be some 4,000 sq.ft dugouts in Coober Pedy, but they certainly would not be sold for $50,000. A "typical" dugout, if you can have such a thing in dugouts, would fall into the 1,800 to 2,000 sq.ft category and would be worth around $100,000, maybe $120,000. A 4,000 sq.ft one would be worth upwards of $300,000. I have just recently finished building 2 up-market semi-dugouts (1,000 sq.ft underground (lounge and 3 bedrooms), with 1,000 sq.ft above-ground (family/dining, kitchen, study, bathroom, laundry & toilet), plus a further 1,000 sq.ft of verandah, storage shed and double carport – total area of each one 3,000 sq.ft - 6,000 sq.ft total construction) and they cost me over $300,000 to build. On top of this there is my labour, say $1,000 per week ("mates rates") for 18 months, so you would be looking at $450,000 grand total. Admittedly these are up-market units (probably the best rental properties in Coober Pedy) and they have been built properly (I won a State wide building competition with them – Master Builders Association of SA "Excellence in Building" award in 2003).

By comparison, a pair of 3,000 sq.ft aboveground Units of similar/identical quality would have been cheaper to build. So why did I build 2 semi-dugouts, when I could have built 2 aboveground units cheaper. Simple, they are more comfortable and cheaper to live in. If you thought my power bill of $125-00 per month was high, consider my neighbour, she paid $350-00 per month last summer !!

I hope this answers your question. If you would like more information, please feel free to ring me to discuss.

Regards and good luck with your article,

Geoff Sykes.

P.O.Box 936, Coober Pedy, SA 5723

Phone/Fax 08 8672 5822

Mobile 0419 301 559


PS. Your Editor seems to know his stuff, stick with him.


Editor's Note

Actually the earliest Coober Pedy residents occupying 'town leases' were mostly of Anglo-Saxon origin. The European influx came about 20 to 30 years later.