How to Build a Defensible Single Family Retreat, by M.S.


My parents were part of the “Back-To-The-Land” movement in the 1970’s, so I am no stranger to the principles and techniques underlying today’s prepper movement. Cutting ten cords of wood to heat our northern Minnesota home, by hand with an axe and a crosscut saw, was part of my formative years. Raising chickens; living in the deep woods, which were especially deep during the year that my father moved us to a camp in northern Ontario that could only be reached by float plane with the nearest neighbor 60 miles away and only accessible to us by snowmobile in the winter; and no indoor plumbing were the experiences of my childhood.

In the late 1990’s I came across a book called The Fourth Turning. While I have known all my life that the society around me was slowly committing suicide, for the first time I had an accurate blueprint for not only WHAT was coming but more importantly WHEN it all was going to come to a head. In a nutshell, the authors note that societies go through psycho-social cycles, primarily based on the collective life experiences and life expectancies of its oldest members, with 80 years being the length of the cycle, corresponding nearly exactly with the length of a long, human lifespan. In essence, when the old-timers die, all their combined wisdom goes with them to the grave. Thus, human society tends to make the same sorts of mistakes again and again.

Whatever is, has already been, and what will be, has been before;

The proof of the pudding for me was the fact that the most devastating wars in this country have all come on schedule nearly as strict as the Swiss National Railway, all of them almost 80 years apart.

In 1780, we had the Revolution War, in 1860 the Civil War, and in 1940 World War II. What does 2020 hold?

So now that I had a time frame for what was to come, I needed to make a plan. I spent many years on various prepping/survival websites studying all that I could. There were as many opinions and viewpoints as there were posters. The conventional wisdom said, put a group together, get a retreat, and defend yourself. There were problems with that. The biggest being that, after years of searching, I had never seen a successful pulling together of prepper types into a cohesive, functioning whole. You’ve heard of herding cats and all that. I also spent many years corresponding along those lines with various good folks, with nothing really to show for it.

My second problem was that, while I have extended family, they are geographically, politically, and culturally separate. That cat herding problem arises again. So, in the end, with the crisis drawing nearer, I had to act; as Arthur Ashe once said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

So I had a standard nuclear family, some decent skills, reasonably good health, and some money in the bank. After decades of reading and study, the basics of prepping didn’t really present a lot of issues; you need your food, your water, your heat, et cetera. By far the biggest issue I faced was how to protect my family from the bad guys; if we spent a great deal of time preparing ourselves for the hard times to come, it would mean very little if the first unprepared thug through our doorway could take it all away from us through force of arms.

I spent a great deal of time reading various posts and scenarios outlining methods of defending a homestead. For the most part, they made for quite exciting reading; the besieged defenders always seemed to have just the right circumstances or luck, or a singular hero to save them all in the end. They were great fantasies, but in the end that is all they were. In the real world, it is quite clear that the bad guys win quite often. All you have to do is do a cursory read of history to see how that usually plays out. Most importantly, running through these scenarios showed me clearly that the math would never work. Take an “average homestead”– 40 acres of small farm, for example, with a barn, outbuildings, and a farmhouse. The crisis comes, things go pear-shaped, and our resident good guys step up to defend themselves. How could they do it? Their farmhouse and outbuildings are made of thin, flammable wood. They need to check on their stock, gather food from the gardens and water from the well and serve as lookouts in all four cardinal directions, 24/7/365. It would clearly take a small army just to minimally defend even the simplest of homesteads. You can forget about defending any type of suburban or urban home or business altogether.

The famous Chinese general Sun Tzu once said: “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.” So taking that advice to heart, I started to think like a bad guy. How would I “take” a typical homestead, if I was head of a desperate group of bandits (or just hungry neighbors). The answer was pretty clear. I wouldn’t play fair. I wouldn’t play nice, and I’d use every trick in the book to get what I wanted. I’d hit at night. I’d hit at random. I’d hit whatever targets I had at hand. I’d burn down buildings. I’d snipe. I’d kill animals, burn crops, and, in short, I’d cheat like crazy.

With a little thought, it was very clear that even if I had a small army at my disposal in this type of situation, I would always, ALWAYS, lose some of my family. Which one could I “afford” to lose? My wife? One of my daughters? Clearly fighting bandits and protecting a homestead in a crisis situation did not lend itself very well to conventional prepper/survivalist thought on the subject.

So what could I do to stack the odds in my favor?

Well, first of all, it was quickly clear to me that 99.99 percent of modern American homes (and farmsteads) were essentially indefensible, so I needed to start from scratch. I needed a homestead relatively impervious to small arms fire, one that was inflammable seemed important, and of course not having to spend a lot of money I did not have would be good. There really is only one building technique that meets all three of these requirements: poured, reinforced concrete. However, all building materials have weak points and poured concrete is no exception. One of the biggest issues is that standard poured concrete has relatively poor insulative properties. After a great deal of reading on the subject, I did find a solution. While “standard” concrete has a very low R value, there exists a variation of poured concrete called air-entrained concrete with an R-value of 3.9 per inch. Best of all, specifying it during construction added almost nothing to the overall cost. Concrete is, of course, non-flammable, and a few inches will stop single hits of up to 50 BMG, while 8 inches of concrete in poured walls will stop multiple hits of most any type of weapon a group of bandits is likely to have on hand during an attack. Eight inches of 3.9 R value adds up to almost 32 R in the walls. Gluing rigid insulation on the outside of the walls with something, like HardiBoard or stucco, to cover it would keep the walls non-flammable and add even more insulation to the house for a colder climate than ours.

The poured concrete walls I had installed for my homestead ran from $300 to $400 a yard from the contractor. This included all materials and labor. As an example, a 50×50 house, with four 8-inch poured concrete outside walls and one interior wall would run about $15k to $20k, plus the cost of the footing and any shelter you decided to add on. Of course, this is just a shell, but it is not as expensive as you might have thought, and it is certainly in line with standard stick-built houses.

Next, I looked at location. Realtors have a mantra– “location, location, location”. As preppers, it is something that should be tattooed on our foreheads when considering homestead defense. For defense, you need as much flat, open ground as you can afford around your homestead. Most importantly, there should not be any land within at least ¼ mile that would provide an opportunity for sniping from adequate cover. While it would be lovely to be on a large, empty plateau or mountain, most such places are out of consideration for various reasons, including availability of water or cost, for example. You also need a large, flat, open space around you because, in a PAW situation, there are not going to be forest fighters or smoke jumpers coming to your rescue when the fires come, and they WILL come without an organized government to spend large amounts of money to choke them off. Also, with more than a hundred years of “forest management”, there exists large pockets of forest that is primed for ignition. Having large trees anywhere within 400 yards of your homestead provides great cover/concealment for bandits and lots of fuel for fires (or both). We ended up with a large, open field, that was mostly flat and less than a mile from a small lake, with a small stream and a well already on the property. This gives us a great deal of water security, especially with the roof design we ended up choosing.

So we have our 8-inch, small-arms-impervious, non-flammable concrete walls situated at the center of an open field, where bandits would have to cross a fair amount of open ground just to get to us. Next, we sunk the concrete structure of the homestead several feet into the earth. We did this for several reasons– earth sheltering gave us a much more steady temperature state (cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter), and being lowered into the soil gives us even more protection against small arms fire. A fully underground house is an alternative we considered, but it posed a greater number of additional engineering challenges, including drainage, span considerations, and cost. For most situations, fully berming the north side of a partially underground house, and partial berming of the east and west sides should provide the maximum benefit, with the least negatives overall. This is what we went with. An additional option, one that I also chose, was to attach a small, fully underground shelter on the north side of the main house as a nuclear shelter, and as a temperature-controlled storage room. The cost of adding the small shelter was much less than sinking the entire house underground, and we got the best of both worlds with such an arrangement.

The next feature we added was “The Great Wall”. Delivered concrete costs about $100 a cubic yard around the USA, at present. A continuous poured concrete wall, six inches thick, and six feet high conforms with all of the current standard building code limitations in most parts of the USA, so you should not need a permit to pour such a wall (as a fence) on any property, as long as it meets setback regulations. Such a wall cost us roughly $10 to $15 per linear foot in materials, and any reasonably handy person should be able to build the forms for such an undertaking with a little study and work. We built our own forms, poured the walls in sections, used a site-mix concrete supplier (no extra charges for wasted concrete or small batches), and ended up with another layer of sturdy, small arms impervious defense at a relatively small cost. We also embedded sockets for placing an additional chain link fence (the type with the opaque green plastic covering) on the top of the concrete wall making it now a 12-foot high wall. This gives us a fully enclosed, safety area that allows us access to the outdoors. Inside the Great Wall rests things like underground water and fuel tanks, chicken coops, a small garden, and generator sheds, as well as my complete septic system (in case of need for repairs). For now, the chain link fence remains “uninstalled” for aesthetic reasons, with the idea that we can erect it fairly quickly if push comes to shove.

For defensive purposes, not much can beat a metal roof. It’s inexpensive, long lasting, not difficult to install, and most importantly it’s NON-FLAMMABLE. For our purposes we went with a near flat metal roof, snow load of 140+ pounds per square foot, with both rigid and fiberglass insulation to bring the R value up near 40. The flatness of the roof makes sniping much more difficult, especially with it being a sunken, single level house. Also, the very slight slope to the roof and the full north berm allows us to collect water from the roof when it rains. A single inch of rain collected from a 2500 square foot roof provides more than 1600 gallons of rainwater for storage.

Now you have a safe, defensible place to protect your family, but it won’t do you much good if it can be easily overrun because you don’t have the manpower for multiple LP/OP’s. We don’t have have an army of well-trained fighters at our disposal. None of us are superheroes, and most certainly none of us are “expendable”.

We cannot stay awake, alert, and ready to fight 24/7/365, but luckily, we don’t have to. At this point in the technological revolution, there are a multitude of tools available to the prepping community that can do all this work for us. Low-voltage electricity can run a large number of cameras and sensors to keep us apprised of any activity on all sides of our homestead, at all times, day and night. CCTV day/night cams are inexpensive, reliable, available everywhere, and use about three watts each. Mounted on both the inside and outside of the Great Wall, in combination with CCTV multiplexers inside the house (we bought dozens of used ones on Ebay for about $20 each), this system gives us triggered contact alarms for both loss of signal (bad guys cutting your wires or shooting your cameras) and motion detection. IR sensors are found on virtually every automatic garage door in America, sound sensors are bought or easily made. Solar, hydro, wind, or even propane, gasoline, or diesel generators are for sale in any big box hardware store for a reasonable cost and batteries to match. We went with ex-mil diesel gensets for their longevity, and solar panels for the nine months of the year we get decent sun. Yes, such a system may not last forever, but as preppers we all know how to “adjust” for that contingency– two is one, one is none– or as I like to say “have backups of backups of backups”. With a larger budget, FLIR cameras and things, like the SpotterRF Ground Surveillance Radar are in our plans. Low voltage tech can run a myriad of defensive devices, in addition to just sensors; the windows of your car roll up and your car doors all lock on 12 volts. Unlock your imagination and there are a lot of things that can be done with such simple, robust motion systems. This aspect is, and always will be, under continual improvement as more money and new ideas and technology become available to us.

By choosing the right building materials, the right location, along with appropriate, imaginative use of low voltage technology, plus some prayers and luck, it IS possible for a single homestead family to put up a staunch defense in the face of the chaos that is undoubtedly coming our way.

Think outside the box, and live.

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