A woman on TikTok has gained notoriety for an unusual home improvement project: digging a tunnel that is 30 feet long and 20 feet deep under her suburban home in the Northeast.
Kala, 37, became known as TikTok’s “tunnel girl” after she started documenting her journey of excavating below her house in October 2022. The underground tunnel is intended to be a storm shelter, though she said she primarily took on the project to challenge herself. She enjoys working on ambitious home improvement projects and previously constructed a four-story addition to the back of her house.
Kala, who requested that her full name and location not be used due to safety concerns, said she started to think last year about adding an additional secure space to her home, which she owns, underneath the existing basement.
“I wouldn’t say doomsday bunker, because I’m not really a prepper or concerned about that kind of thing at all, but I just thought it would be neat to have like a little protective shelter area,” Kala said in an interview. “And so I started working on that. And also it’s a challenge and I live for challenges. It keeps me preoccupied and keeps me entertained.”
In documenting her excavations, she has gained over 330,000 followers on her TikTok account, @engineer.everything. Her journey has prompted a flurry of video responses, as well as a subreddit thread, titled “Can anyone explain what’s going on with tunnel girl (Kala) to me?”
She’s become the latest person to captivate the internet for documenting an obscure hobby, following the likes of “eel pit guy” in 2022, who went viral for turning an unused rainwater cistern under his garage into a pond for eels.
As Kala’s following has grown, so have the questions around her motivations and methods. New followers have wondered why she’s building the tunnel, what qualifications she has, what safety measures she takes and what permits she has to excavate.
“Are we… are we allowed to build tunnels,” one commenter asked under Kala’s one-year anniversary recap video.
“I love how clearly skilled you are in engineering and fabrication but this still scares me for your safety,” one viewer wrote under the video.
Despite what her TikTok username suggests, Kala does not have a formal background in engineering. She said she studied business and finance in school and has spent most of her professional life working in information technology — but that her passions lie in civil and mechanical engineering. She has done most of the tunnel work herself, occasionally tapping friends to assist.
“It doesn’t take much for me to pick up a skill,” Kala said. “I can often learn skills just by doing it with minimal instruction.”
In the past, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has published guidelines for people looking to build shelters, issuing a manual in May 2006 called FEMA 453, “Design Guidance for Shelters and Safe Rooms: Providing Protection to People and Buildings Against Terrorist Attacks” and another in April 2021 titled “Safe Rooms for Tornadoes and Hurricanes: Guidance for Community and Residential Safe Rooms.” The latter document outlines criteria for structural design, occupant density, access, accessibility and fire safety. Neither document mentions guidance for building tunnels.
Insurers like State Farm also provide guidance on building a storm shelter space. Though in its guide, State Farm notes that “shelters are most often seen in Southeastern and Midwest areas of the United States where tornadoes are frequent, and a low water table allows underground structures.”
Kala researched the project by studying the FEMA 453 guidelines, as well as a civil engineering handbook called “Rock Mass Classification — A Practical Approach in Civil Engineering.”
Her TikToks show her learning process including accidents and crowdsourced engineering suggestions. While her following has grown to encompass a more general audience, she said her core audience was initially “mining engineers, electricians and civil engineers.”
“I sometimes consider it almost like a community project because I have had so many valuable and interesting inputs from a whole lot of experts,” she said.
She described safety as her “No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3” priority with the project.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m concerned about safety or structural stability,” she said. “For the most part, 99.9%, everything has gone according to plan and according to my engineering. There have been a few very, very minor mishaps.”
In regard to the legality of her project, Kala declined to get into specific detail about any permits she may have obtained. She said she is following the rules for building emergency shelters in her local jurisdiction, which she said are different from the regulations around other habitable spaces inside a house. NBC News reviewed the local jurisdiction’s code, which states certain emergency shelters on residential properties must follow FEMA-approved shelter types or designs.
Kala said she is only building under her property and is not digging under her neighbors’ homes. She described her relationship with her neighbors as respectful and said they are “well aware of my crazy antics.” She said she takes steps to mitigate any nuisances to avoid complaints, such as minimizing any surface vibrations while digging.
While the storm shelter is the primary focus of the tunnel, Kala said she has also discovered building stones under her home, which she has been mining to use in later projects. Kala said she has spent about $50,000 on her project so far. She anticipates that it will take at least another six months to complete the tunnel.
“I don’t have a strong deadline that it needs to be completed,” she said. “I enjoy the process very much and I like to keep busy. It’s a hobby for me.”
In the future, she said she hopes to also build a castle.