Letter Re: Tradeoffs of Various Retreat Designs

Hi Jim
What are your thoughts on the advantages of basements for cool storage, elevated construction for flood protection, sod roof/earth contact for insulation versus steel roofs for water collection?
Perhaps some of the SurvivalBlog readers may wish to submit hypothetical retreat layouts with advantages and disadvantages and why they would choose a particular layout design. Regards,- JG

JWR Replies: A sod roof or earth-berming creates some contradictions in retreat design goals, most notably that they typically block the defender’s view of one entire flank. This can be partially mitigated by properly placing supplementary defensive positions. Sod roofs are also contradictory with the goal of rainwater catchment. My general advice is: Unless you also expect your roof to provide gamma (fallout) shielding, then use metal roofs in dry climates.

There are several distinct approaches to retreat architecture. These should all be modified depending on your local climate and the particular threats that you anticipate.

In an area with a high water table, earth-sheltered houses can only be considered if you start out by building above the existing grade, and build up embankments from there. Details on underground house architecture and design are fairly well described at the Davis Caves web site.

In a dry climates with deep wells, water catchment is a paramount concern. In those areas, I generally recommend one story house designs (to maximize roof surface area), and metal roofs for the house and all outbuildings, with rainwater catchment systems for all of them. Even small sheds should be equipped with gutters and rain barrels.

Anyone living in a high population density area or that is along a potential refugee line of drift should make the need to repel looters one of their primary design considerations. This means large cleared areas in all directions (“clear fields of fire”), ballistic hardening (most easily accomplished by sand or gravel-filled bags–see my comments later in this post), infrared floodlights (for use in conjunction with Starlight scopes and NVGs), and plenty of defensive concertina wire or razor wire. In essence, you want to make your house a “tough nut to crack”, so that looters will quickly decide go find easier pickings.

A completely different approach is to make your house blend in with the terrain and go un-noticed. Outside of heavily-wooded areas, this is very difficult to achieve. Furthermore, the goal of self-sufficiency brings along with it the need for barns, greenhouses, wood sheds, photovoltaic panels, and various outbuildings such as hen houses. It is not realistic to expect that you can make all that magically disappear. But at least if you live on acreage in wooded country, you can make the entrance to your property look nondescript. If you have one of those fancy driveway entranceways, then recognize the fact that they scream: “Here is the home of someone wealthy.” My advice is to tear it down. If anything, you want your entrance road to look as much like a disused logging road as possible. Plant additional screening trees. Plant native shrubbery to make the entrance narrow and uninviting. If you have a perimeter fence, you might want to make your entrance gate look as much as possible like nothing more than a continuation of the perimeter fencing.

Regardless of where you live, it is important to black out all visible light. Odds are that in a grid-down collapse, you will be one of the few people in your area that still have electricity. Any visible lights at night will thus attract looters. So bes sure to lay in the supplies that you’ll need to completely black out your windows and make a light-proof “airlock” for any frequently-used exterior doors. (A wooden framework that is a bit bigger than a phone booth, covered with blankets, works fine.)

As recently mentioned in the blog, extra thick masonry construction is the best choice for ballistic protection. Another great option is an Earthship tire house. But even well-reinforced masonry and Earthships are problematic in earthquake country. There, wood frame construction is ideal, given its inherent flexibility. But what if you live in earthquake country and you want ballistic protection? What a quandary. Unless you are a multimillionaire that can afford hundreds of yards of Kevlar, then the only viable solution is to be ready to build small sandbag-reinforced fighting positions inside of your house, set back several feet from the exteriors windows. This will not earn you any Martha Stewart style bonus points from your spouse, so don’t consider doing this before the balloon goes up. Just keep all of the requisite materials handy. That big pile of 3/4″-minus gravel can be explained as “some extra rock for maintaining our driveway.” OBTW, unless your house is built on a slab, you will probably have to heavily reinforce the floors beneath your planned sandbagged positions, to allow them take the extra weight. If you aren’t a do-it-yourselfer, then have a story ready for any workmen that come to do the job. For example, you might tell them that you have a bad back and are planning to buy a king size waterbed.

Regardless of your design approach, give it some serious thought and prayer. Life is full of trade-offs. If you can’t afford to build a retreat that is way out in lightly-populated country, then recognize the fact that there will be lots of hungry, dispossessed people wandering by (or through) your property in the event of a “worst case.” Plan accordingly. Defensive architecture by itself will not be enough. Defending a retreat will take 24/7/365 manpower, and that of course necessitates teaming up with other families.

The possibility of a worst case situation complete with “mutant zombie bikers” is of course very small. Rather, the odds are that in the next Great Depression the lights will stay on, crime will be relatively under control, and most of your attention will be focused on your garden and orchard output rather than perimeter security. But if and when things ever do get truly Schumeresque, then the best words of guidance that I can give in a nutshell are: to think: “medieval castle.”