What to Expect When Planning A Hardened Shelter With A Professional Team of Engineers and Architects, by D.C.

I’m writing this article to persons considering developing their retreat with a fortified shelter. Here, I will thoroughly explain the expected preparation and process we went through on our shelter design and construction phases with our design professionals (engineers and architects) and other building industry professionals (general contractors, subcontractors, and product vendors).

I am a licensed architect, with licenses in more than eight states and over 25 years of experience. Much of my career has been spent in highly technical commercial work (MRI suites, computer data centers, pharmaceutical labs, and so forth). For a mid-career alternative, in 2001, I also launched my own residential practice, which performed a design/build enterprise. In other words, my team functioned as both architects and general contractors. Presently, for select clients, we have designed hardened shelters, using my knowledge and experience in the principals of infantry combat as a former U.S. Army Reserve Infantry Lieutenant.

First of all, in most of the American Redoubt rural areas, you are not required to have a licensed architect or professional engineer to design your home; you can design it yourself. Often your local contractor can provide you with a drafting service to plan homes; alternatively, you can also reference plan books, which abound at magazine racks and online, and go over them with your contractor.

That may work, if you only need to build a modern, code-compliant home that is up to about 3,000 square feet with very modest improvements to perimeter security. You really would be well served to select a plan from one of the many books available and select the best contractor, who has both the most competence and impeccable references.

If your home requires something above the local contractor’s skill set and/or plan books’ capacity or is simply “different” from those. Some “different” requirements might include a high level of physical and/or environmental protection/security, design planning for extended family members, or accommodations for those with disabilities. In any of these cases, you would need to consider hiring a professional architect and engineering services. Please understand first and foremost that your project type will then cost more than the standard level of construction.

In general, the costs associated with a custom project, both in terms of the professional design fees and the resultant construction costs, are much higher. For example, if the cost of new construction in your region is typically $140 per square foot for a nicely upgraded home of about 2,000 square feet, a custom home that is fortified or an especially hardened structure, may cost you in excess of $250 per square foot.

The reasons for this are myriad, but it all stems from the multiple aspects of life support/life protection which must be achieved for a hardened shelter to be truly sustainable. For example, if one wishes to ride out a nuclear or biological event, that person is often seeking to be interred in the shelter for a period of a month or longer. A system MUST be in place to provide a continuous supply of clean air and keep contaminated air from entering. This is one of the key lifesaving technologies needed to be employed in any shelter and is often referred to as CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear). However, this system requires engineering, planning, and a source for continuous energy. How are we providing power? If it is by generator, how are protecting the generator from sabotage or routine failure? Engineers have proven solutions for this, but they come at a cost.

Another cost consideration to balance is HEMP. In the event we are protecting against a nuclear blast, what are we doing about HEMP? HEMP often coincides with a nuclear event. HEMP events disrupt and/or disable many electronics, and, therefore, the shelter’s energy source. So, the air pressure/filtration CBRN system must also be HEMP protected. Possibly other living spaces need HEMP protection, but this should be kept to a minimum, if budget is a constraint.

The two technologies– fields of CBRN (air filtration and overpressure) and HEMP-shielded enclosures– must be planned in unison. Any unplanned utility penetration in an HEMP shielding solution will cause the HEMP shield to fail. However, these engineering specialties are each the work of separate professional engineers, which must be coordinated by an experienced project manager.

Additionally, the logistics of calculating and planning an ample source of energy, with fuel, is a very costly undertaking. While you are in this shelter, you will need to prepare food, access drinking water, maintain human sanitation, and live in an environment that does not drive you or your group members into emotional issues. You are essentially taking 21st century first world civilians and placing them in harsher conditions than we place highly-trained and rigorously-screened candidates for the U.S. Navy submarine fleet. This is not to be underestimated! FEMA guidelines for disaster shelters are rumored to have been developed with an acceptance of a 10% suicide rate. What is the acceptable suicide rate for your sheltering group? If it is less than 10%, then we would like to plan your shelter with more comfortable amenities than you would have in a FEMA- specification quality of shelter.

So, the bottom line is…no, you simply cannot have a nuclear blast protected bunker which can sustain your family through an apocalyptic event for months and months with air filtration, generators, water, food, storage, and hardening against small arms up to .50 BMG for the same price a standard home.

Generally this is the point at which some potential clients depart from engaging our services. The projects we work on are generally over a half million dollars. This is not to say a lesser cost project is impossible, but the challenges increase, and it does cause the design and engineering fees to become disproportionate to the project cost. For a project over $500k, the complete design and engineering package is roughly 10-12% of construction costs. For projects of $250k and less construction budget, the engineering costs do not come down in equal proportion to construction costs, and can exceed 15% of construction budget.

Well, what about those entire metal bunker structures you can find on YouTube and all over the Internet for $39,990? These may offer some utility for some types of scenario for a very limited duration; you can do your own research on the depth of soil cover required for plate steel to be enough to stop gamma waves (nuclear fallout). Be sure to confirm that the weight of fully water-saturated soil at the adequate soil depth does not exceed the strength of the steel box. Is the price advertised inclusive of shipping, excavation, and utility infrastructure? If you need a place to go hide during the next LA riots and can be very sure no one will find and disable your source of electricity and/or water, you could be okay in a metal box shelter. Also, these types of structures are acceptable, if you are looking truly for just a tornado shelter. The FEMA guidelines on how to construct one are perfectly acceptable, as well, for potentially even greater cost savings.

Beyond the hardened structure, every client also needs a longevity plan. That being a plan for what to do after the major event subsides and how to maintain an ongoing posture of security and to transition forward into a new lifestyle. This includes everything from considerations for permaculture, child-rearing, or mounting an active defense against numerically superior forces. A sophisticated team for fortified shelter design will include security consultants and be able to help plan the steps to take to set up life post event, and it also includes provisions in the design for life afterwards.

So, this brings us back to the article title: What To Expect When Planning a Hardened Shelter.

There are several pre-design steps one can take to begin conceptualizing what will be needed to meet your goals in a hardened structure, including those below:

  1. You need to list the threats you are preparing to survive and then rank these in priority. These can be natural disasters, man-made events, or others. This is your own list. A design team will begin designing to achieve protection for the most major event. By doing so, most often we find that we cover most needs presented by the threats further down the priority list, and we can make inclusion for those events in addition to the overall major planning criteria.
  2. Given the identification of the most major event to protect against, we ask what is the longest you want to remain interred in the shelter without coming out?
  3. You need to list the assets you are protecting– human assets and material assets. Who is to be included? What things need to be preserved for after the event to get your life back to a “new normal”, following the major event? Discovering how many people is just part of the equation. Who are these people? What are their individual special needs? What is their relationship to one another?
  4. What is your site? The aspects of regional demographics, site topography, terrain analysis, soil type, the adjacency relationships of your site to its neighboring properties, roads, towns, military installations, power stations, waterways, and seismic faults all contribute to a complex site development analysis process to help determine how to best protect our clients.
  5. What are your group’s abilities and limitations? This is an important criterion to really look hard at your entire group dynamics at the present and into the foreseeable future, and not based on the past. Maybe a member of your group has special medical skills. Remember all that training is most useful when provided with a facility and equipment/instruments to perform those life-saving skills. Maybe someone in the group was a very accomplished athlete, but that was 20-plus years ago or the person is most busy presently with small children who are also part of the group.

Once these criteria are identified, they can be translated into performance goals for the Hardened Shelter, such as size, engineering, and technology needed, plus a list of spaces and special features. Once this is determined, then a team leader, architect, or project manager can assemble the team of engineers needed to develop your Hardened Shelter. Also, this set of goals becomes a program statement, which you should receive from your design team and review carefully. You should make sure all your needs are met in this program statement; otherwise, it is likely some of your goals for the shelter might not make it into the design. At this point your designer may be able to communicate a rough conceptual budget for the project, based upon the program statement and his past experience with other projects. This early conceptual pricing statement has a +/-20% accuracy, because so much is not yet know with the design, and how the actual site impacts costs of the project. However, it is very important at this early phase in the planning process that you check your goals versus the possible budget for the project. This is the easiest time to readjust goals to align with your budget.

The adjustment of goals to match budget is a very difficult mental process for many clients, and here is another place where clients fall out of design services. Many folks just cannot get past the idea that if they cannot have everything they wanted for the budget that had in mind, then the project is not worth doing at all.

This is not realistic thinking. We all make value choices in products everyday based on cost versus performance or quality. We do not always buy the top-of-the-line vehicle or household appliance. We do the best we can within our own priorities and resources.

The important thing is to really look hard at your priorities from an aspect of most-likely threat to protect against and a worst case threat you must protect against with the minimum acceptable outcome of these two scenarios. With these goals as the guiding principles, often we can help clients focus on realistic budgeted projects.

One example of this is duration of sheltering. Often clients come to us with a perception of a need to shelter continuously for many months. This criteria is very expensive to achieve, both in terms of space required and also in logistics and energy provisions. However, there are alternatives to multiple months of sheltering, which can be considered and still have high expectations of survivability.

Once the design program aligns with your budget, your design team is able to move forward with planning your project.

This is an interactive process, and you as the owner have tremendous impact in the outcome. One temptation to resist is over designing. There are infinite possibilities in design– far more than there are choices in the marketplace when researching a new vehicle or appliance. However, exploring all of them is not realistic, and it is important to remain focused on the goals of the project and accept standard construction practices as much as possible.

With these concepts in mind, it is highly possible for you to be able to plan a Hardened Shelter, with the help of professional engineers, which meets an adequate level of survivability metrics to ride-out many foreseeable SHTF scenarios and allow you and your loved ones to emerge ready to take on the real challenges of life in the world after TEOTWAWKI.