Survival Architecture: Building a Retreat that is Defensible, Sustainable and Affordable, by Phil M.

Have you designed and built your own survival retreat yet?  If not, read on.  Designing and building a survival retreat that can provide protection can be affordable and also provide more than adequate shelter and warmth to not only keep its inhabitants alive, but comfortable.

To understand how this is achievable we must first understand what sort of materials are available and how each of them apply to defensibility, sustainability and affordability.  Secondly, we must understand how the arrangement of these materials into form, or design, can lend themselves  to defensibility, sustainability and affordability.

A major problem with conventional building materials is that they are easily penetrated by small arms fire.  As seen in this video (credit to YankeePrepper on Youtube for posting it), tests were conducted  on conventional residential building materials to see how they stood up against typical rounds from small arms fire (9mm, 5.56, .30 cal., etc.).  These conventional residential materials  could not withstand rounds that could be owned and fired by any citizen.  Additionally, conventional building materials are not always the most efficient material to consider when looking to build a structure that requires a high degree of self-sustainability.

Rammed Earth

The demonstrations see at The Box ‘o Truth web site show that the small arms rounds fired at simple boxes of sand don’t penetrate more that 6″ when fired from about 25 yards.  This report  further illustrates that a 5.56 round fired from 200 yards cannot penetrate more than 2 layers of sand bags (about 18″ deep).  But remember, we aren’t talking about loosely packed sand, we are talking about rammed earth construction or CEB (compressed earth block which is similar to adobe).  This study shows that rammed adobe construction can withstand rounds of 7.62×39 ammunition from 20 meters and sustain penetration of only 1-1/2″ to 2″.  Repairs can be made simply by slapping on more mud. Additionally, earth is fireproof making it safe against incendiary attacks.

Earth has one of the highest R-values because of its high thermal mass.  When built at least 12″-18″ thick, not only does it provide excellent ballistic protection it has the ability to retain almost all of the heat generated inside of it in the winter and keeps almost all of the heat out in the summer.  In fact, temperatures of 70 degrees can be maintained in the winter and 80 degrees in the summer with little to no air tempering (conditioning) needed.  By combining earth with a good wood burning stove and passive solar radiance for the winter and adequate ventilation in the summer even more bearable temperatures can be achieved (more on design later).

Rammed earth can be very labor intensive.  Formwork must be erected and layers of earth are either hand or hydraulically compressed into place.  CEB on the other hand has a variety of options for machines that compress earth into blocks that are easy to manage and set into place by hand.

Salvaged Shipping Containers
The  USA annually imports more goods and materials than it exports from countries overseas.  These goods are transported in steel shipping containers which are currently stored in shipping yards.  The expense to ship these containers back empty is sometimes more costly than to sell them at scrap prices.  For the container itself and shipping,  8′ wide by 40′ long by 9’6″ high shipping container can be delivered for about $2,000-$3,000.

These containers are rated to hold tons (literally) of equipment while listing and bobbing on huge freight liners.  So for approx. $6.25 per square foot you have a structurally sound, fireproof and storm proof shell delivered to a location of your choosing.  Get some buddies who know how to weld and you can have a quick structure that you can either bury underground [with sufficient reinforcement, as previously discussed at length in SurvivalBlog], stack in multiple levels for a multi-storied structure, or build at surface grade and berm up earth alongside it.

Shipping containers come in a variety of sizes, even down to 8’x20’x8′.  These small modules could be pre-fabricated at a convenient location and could include bare necessities for living such as a sink, small oven, a commode, or even a  few bed racks.  Furthermore, something as small as 8’x20′ could be loaded onto a trailer for a bug-out type situation.  This module could be set down anywhere and act as a temporary retreat.  The best thing about shipping containers is their modularity.  As you built your survival retreat and as funds become available, you can simply add on to it and expand it by simply adding more containers.

Tire Bale Survival Retreats
This is a relatively new concept in creating wall structure for a survival retreat.  By compacting as much as 20 tires and wiring them together, very large building blocks can be made to create structure for exterior walls.  Tires can be found by going  to any recycling facility to see if they have some.  You might even be able to get them for free.  The big advantage to this type of material is that it can be very quick to erect and all one would have to do is finish it with stucco.  The tires could also be filled with sand creating a higher heat mass and better ballistic protection.

More Exotic Materials
There are variety of materials that one can use to construct a survival retreat when considering sustainability.  In a TEOTWAWKI environment there will be an abundance of materials that are no longer of use to the average person.  These materials can be scavenged and reused for the purposes of creating shelter.  For example, bottle structures have been constructed for quite a long time.  Not a very defensible material, but it does posses strong R-value.  Recycled 15″x15″ carpet tiles were use to create the walls of this survival retreat.  Discarded car windshields scavenged from a local landfill compose in a shingled manner form the roof of this community center.

Design Considerations
The arrangement of materials in a fashion that takes advantage of the natural laws of physics and the local environment is just as crucial as picking the correct materials.  By utilizing the surrounding context of the property the structure is placed on to the greatest effect you will reap many benefits.

Passive Solar Heating
Keeping warm in the winter is a life threatening challenge if there is no way to burn fuel for energy.  If there is fuel for burning it will most likely be in short supply.  One way to mitigate the amount of fuel used is to take advantage of passive solar heating.  Put simply, using the sun to generate heat and putting that heat where it needs to go. The most design way is to have as many south facing windows as possible that allow the sun in the winter to shine directly onto a thick slab floor and walls with high thermal masses.  In the summer, awnings should be placed to keep the sun from shining in through the windows.

Air Circulation
Utilizing natural air circulation to cool structures in the summer is crucial for survival as well.  The most common way to address this is by taking advantage of convection currents.  In short, heat rises,  so by allowing the heat to vent through a high point in the survival retreat allows it to escape.  But you must also allow for an air intake at a low portion of the survival retreat as well in order for cool air to be drawn in by the vacuum created from the escaping heat.  By orienting the air intakes in the direction where breezes commonly come from in the summer, air is forced into the structure causing more ventilation.

Going Underground
Building your survival retreat underground could be one of the best options if you have the time and money.  Digging big holes in the ground isn’t necessarily expensive in itself, but installing the proper system to prevent flooding in your retreat can get very costly.  However, going underground is the best way to ensure a consistent temperature in your structure.  At a point of 6′ below the surface of  the earth, temperatures stays constant at around 60°F.  Not to mention the fact that you have protection against hurricanes, tornadoes, nuclear fallout, and gunfire.

Take the High Ground
If you have land with a high point overlooking a large area of land, build there.  Throughout history forts, castles and defensive positions have always take advantage of building on the high ground for the simple reason that it is harder for an opposing force to attack uphill than it is downhill, and it is easier for a defending force to defend the high ground.  When faced with a potential threat, having the high ground could prove an invaluable advantage.

The purpose of this essay was to enlighten readers to building survival structures in the spirit of our ancestors.  They built with what they had and what did the most effective job.  Although there are many modern technologies that can augments these structures such as solar, wind power, and geothermal heat recycling, these are expensive technologies to add.  If the reader does not have sufficient funds for these technologies it is the hope of the writer that the materials and building techniques mentioned above will provide an edge of survivability in his or her endeavor to build a survival retreat.

Online Resources:

Firearms Penetration:
Box o’ Truth
FM 3-06.11
Yankee Prepper YouTube Clip on Rifle Terminal Ballistics

Rammed Earth and Adobe Construction:
DIY Rammed Earth
Rammed Earth Engineering
Adobe, pressed-earth, and rammed-earth industries in New Mexico

CEB Construction:
UDC Inc. CEB Page
Fernco CEB Machines
AECT Compressed Earth Block

Underground Homes:
Wikipedia’s Underground Living Page

Exotic/Alternative Materials:
Bottle Houses
The Rural Studio
Tire Bale Houses

Passive Solar Heating:
Wikipedia’s Passive Solar page
Solar Space Heating

Air Circulation:
Natural Ventilation

Shipping Container Architecture:
Zack Smith’s Shipping Container Architecture reference page
Wikipedia’s Shipping Container Architecture Page