Oct 082012

You can’t truly appreciate the malevolence of a fire until you’ve experienced one up close that directly threatens you and your possessions.

One of the positive features of a retreat location is proximity to timber.  Trees and their wood can be used for many things – as an energy source for heating and cooking and many other things (even as a source of wood gas or ‘producer gas’ to power vehicles).  And of course, they can also be used as a construction material for just about any type of construction project, or for outdoor fencing, and so on.

But there’s a downside to being close to a forest lands.  Forest fires.

No matter where we live, we probably have become quite used to what seems like an annual event where – particularly in California – home owners in the furthest out suburbs where suburbia ends and forest starts discover to their apparent shock and horror that their homes are at risk from forest fires.  We know this will happen, because we see it on television every year, even if we live thousands of miles away; but the home owners themselves appear to be taken by surprise.

It seems that the greatest amount of destroyed forest comes from fires started by lightning, but the greatest number of fires are started by people (interesting information here).

Now there’s not a lot that can be done to pre-emptively prevent lightning starting a forest fire (this is an understatement!).  And, alas, there’s not a lot that can be done about human stupidity, either, and most of the time, you can’t prevent everyone from accessing all forested lands.  Besides which, even if you can control access to your land, the problem and the vulnerability could be 10 or 20 miles away, and a fire that was started there could then travel to your land.

We also know that some fires are deliberately lit.  Arson is a known issue, but fortunately fairly rare.

However, there’s a new risk as well, which, it is speculated, may have interesting implications for the US.  Apparently Europe had many more than normal forest fires this year, and there is speculation (see this article) that some of them may have been deliberately started by Al Qaeda terrorists.

If there is any truth in this, there would be every reason to expect AQ to do such things in the US too.

Is the Impact of Human Started Fires as Big as it Seems?

One interesting thing to consider, and which many conservationists overlook, it that wildfires are natural and normal.  Fire is a standard part of the life cycle of forests, and it could even be argued, is essential and ‘good’.

Although conservationists begrudge every tree that is burned, no matter what the cause of the fire, there are a couple of other perspectives.  The first perspective is that if an area was not burned by a fire that was accidentally – or even deliberately – started by a person, then maybe it would have been started by lightning instead?  It is hard to know what percentage of the manmade forest fires are actually ‘extra’ forest fires, compared to merely being started by a person today rather than by a lightning bolt tomorrow.

The second perspective is that some people suggest if forest fires don’t regularly occur, there is an accumulation of more and more burnable material on the forest floor, which makes forest fires, when they inevitably do occur, more dangerous and helps them to spread further and faster.

Interfering with mother nature is seldom a good thing, and the ‘law of unintended consequences’ seems to consistently bring about unexpected (but never good) outcomes.

However, we make these comments merely to put the overall issue in broader context.  If you are potentially vulnerable to forest fires at your retreat location, you need to take active steps to minimize your vulnerability.

Implications for Preppers

Forest fires, including those started by terrorists, are not so much an ‘end of the world as we know it’ scenario, but rather an issue to keep in mind and something to anticipate/avoid if/when you find yourself in a Level 2/3 situation and needing to survive at your retreat for an extended period of time.

If your retreat is close to (or actually in) a forest, then you need to consider your fire protection strategies.  Even if your region has seldom been troubled by forest fires in the past, that’s no reliable predictor that an AQ operative with a can of petrol and a box of matches mightn’t pay your area a visit one summer soon.

It is also a possibility, in a Level 2 or 3 situation, that an ‘opposing force’ that wishes you harm (or which simply is jealous of your success and wishes to impact on it) may deliberately set fire to your forest lands, or use fire as a tool to force you out of your retreat.

You need to consider three things :

1.  Managing your forest lands to create fire-breaks so that you can localize any fires rather than risk losing every tree you have.

Because it can take 15 – 25 years to regrow a usable inventory of trees on any land, a fire that wipes out much of your inventory of trees doesn’t just give you a difficult time for the next year or two, but instead, it massively changes your resource inventory for a decade or two into the future.  You absolutely must ensure that any forest fire will not destroy your entire inventory of trees.

2.  Designing and developing your dwelling and other buildings so they are not just fire resistant but fire-proof, and landscaping around them to keep fires as far away as possible.

This should go without saying, but if I had a dollar for every retreat home I’ve seen built out of wood (and with a shake roof), I’d be a wealthy man indeed.  A true retreat needs to be designed and built for function, not for aesthetics.

3.  An air filtration system so that if the air around you gets contaminated by smoke from a fire you can still maintain a reasonably healthy atmosphere inside your main retreat.

Even a fire ten miles away can severely impact on your air quality, depending on winds and other atmospheric conditions.

This third point is perhaps the least understood of all.  We’ll write about it in greater detail in a separate article.


It is sensible to locate your retreat close to a forest.  The wood will be an invaluable resource in any level 2 or 3 situation.  But forests are vulnerable to forest fires, whether naturally caused by lightning, accidentally caused by stupid people, or deliberately started by terrorists or arsonists.

Part of planning your retreat is to be cognizant of the dangers posed to it by forest fires and to prepare as best you can so as to reduce the risk such inevitable (albeit hopefully rare) events may present to both you and your trees.

Aug 232012

Many people will want to join your retreat community. You need a strategy for how to selectively respond positively to the opportunities some of these people represent and how to absorb them at low risk.

The chances are that from time to time, you will have people approach and ask to join your community, and they will be good people who you’d like to be associated with, but the space and capacity constraints of your present retreat will be such that you simply can’t fit more people in.

Some of these people might be known to you – people who, until now, have been mildly skeptical about your prepping, and perhaps also people who have said ‘I don’t need to prepare, because if something goes wrong, I’ll simply come to you’.  Others might be members of what we term the ‘third wave’ of refugees.

There is of course a degree of risk and uncertainty at opening up your retreat to total strangers.  History is full of examples of people charitably and hospitably welcoming strangers into their homes, only to have the strangers attack them when their guard was down (see for example the Campbells massacring the McDonalds at Glencoe in Scotland, 1692).

In a previous article about accepting more people into your community after TSHTF we concluded

Of course, prior to TSHTF, you also need to exercise a modicum of discretion as to who you allow to join your community, but while you are building your community during normal times, one of the greatest considerations will probably be to simply grow your community as much as possible due to the three benefits of strength in numbers, economy of scale, and diversification of risk.  [We italicize the key part now, not in the original article.]

This is very true.  But what we did not consider in that earlier article was the best way of planning and preparing to add additional members into your community after TSHTF.

Happily, there are more ways to bring new people into your overall umbrella community than simply opening your doors wide and unreservedly welcoming them into your house and life right from the start.

Strategy One – Probationary Members

Here’s a suggestion.  Somewhere on your property, and moderately removed from your main retreat, build a fairly spartan shelter.  If you encounter people who seem to be worthy additions to your community, you can invite them to live in your guest shelter.  You can subsidize their energy and food needs for a season or so, by which time (and under your direction) they should have had ample opportunity to prove their value as hard-working and productive members of your community.  In other words, they first become probationary members of your community, and with less than full rights, and with less than full trust and risk required on your part.

If it transpires that, during the probationary period, the newcomers prove themselves to be worthy additions to your community, you can then help them build a more comfortable secondary retreat, releasing the shelter to accommodate the next group of potential community members.

This admission process also defuses some of the anger and stress of dealing with people who wish to join your community.  You no longer have just the one possible response – an apologetic or aggressive ‘No’ – you now have an impersonal process that allows people to apply for probationary status and to earn the right to become full community members.

Clearly there is a limit to the number of people you can have as probationary members at any time, both in terms of the number of extra people you can fit into your shelter and the number of extra people you can support, and also in terms of a relativity between the number of people in your main community and the number of probationers – you want to make sure that your core group remains larger in total number than your probationers so as not to tempt them with thoughts of taking over from you.

Diversity Issues

You also want some diversity in who you accept as probationers.  By this we don’t mean some sort of ‘affirmative action’ program that allows people who really don’t qualify, on their own merits otherwise, to join your community.  What we mean is that you don’t want to have a large group of people, with loyalties and affiliations among themselves, to join your community and then take it over and make it theirs.

Your initial core community may possibly be a diverse group of people from different backgrounds and places, and it could then risk being overwhelmed by a large unified block of newcomers who end up socially dominating the expanded group, or forming an alliance among themselves with a view to becoming the new power base in the larger overall community.  So you want to keep your new probationary members as small groups of people who have lesser ties to each other and who are keen to assimilate into your overall community.

There’s a historical example for that, too.  Do you really think the Indians who welcomed and helped the original US pilgrim settlers, and at that first Thanksgiving, ended up being pleased with the results of their hospitality, and benefitting from it?

Another example would be the difference between US immigrants 100+ years ago – people who came to the US and who were willing to accept the new values and language and social structure of the US, and some of the more modern groups of immigrants (many of them illegal) who strangely combine a desperate desire to live in our country with a hatred of our country and a desire to preserve their own ways.

Strategy Two – Separate Communities

These social concerns lead to the second potential response for when more people wish to join your established community.  Rather than making them probationary members of your community, with a view to their eventual integration into your community, why not designate an area of your present land and lease or tithe it to the newcomers.  You’ll help them establish a second independent community on the far corner of your land, in return for which you’ll receive a fair annual rent for your land.

You can also establish reciprocal trading relationships with this new community, reciprocal support agreements (if one of you have a bad crop, the other will help out until the next season) and of course, a mutual defense pact.  Your community will be strengthened by the presence of the other community, and it in turn will be strengthened by your community.

In this case, both communities benefit from having a healthy successful nearby second community, and you reasonably isolate yourself from any potential power struggles within the other community.  A group that might have been a troublesome faction within your community has now instead become a positive life-enhancing neighbor.

Plan Your Growth Strategy in Advance

In our earlier article, we spoke about preparing a set of guidelines and rules for who you’d add to your community well in advance, so your present community members understand the way their requests to add their friends and family will be fairly evaluated.

You also need to plan how you will be able to accept additional people into your community – whether as somewhat instant ‘full’ members as discussed in the earlier article, or on some sort of probationary or supplemental basis as suggested here.

You need to have somewhere for them to live, you need to have food for them to cover the time it will take from when they join until when they start to generate enough food to support themselves, and you need to have a plan for what you can do with such extra people, and the additional equipment and other resources needed to make best use of them.  You need to have additional land which can be cultivated or in other ways made productive, and of course, additional land for new people to build houses and settle on.

Of course, your first priority will always be ensuring the viability of the exact group you start with.  But, looking into the future, your viability is massively enhanced as your community grows, so you need a way to respond positively when people who would clearly add value to your community approach you and ask to join.

So, as you plan the initial design and scope for your retreat, be sure that it can be expanded and enhanced.

Aug 212012

Underground bunkers can be very expensive and customized, or remarkably inexpensive made from converted shipping containers as shown here.

Many people associate prepping with building a ‘Doomsday Bunker’ – some sort of reinforced concrete or steel bunker, and buried underground.  These are sometimes primarily intended as nuclear and fallout shelters, but the companies building them come up with many other reasons and benefits to their underground bunkers, including tornado and storm shelters – but probably not flood shelters.

In reality, such devices are a very small part – and often play no part at all – in most people’s prudent preparing for adverse future events.

If you are considering some type of retreat or protective structure, should you consider an underground survival bunker?  Let’s look at their pluses and minuses.

Plus – Discreet

A buried bunker with an obscured camouflaged entrance and low profile ventilation can be an excellent way to keep your retreat ‘off the radar’.  In theory, marauders might be able to get very close to your bunker and not realize it is there.

But in reality, there are some limitations to how obscure you can make your bunker.  Unless you create an elaborate filtration system (which will require substantial ongoing filter supplies) the smells from cooking and perhaps from diesel generators will permeate out through the ventilation and particularly in a post-disaster world, which will typically have fewer man-made smells, may be noticed.

And unless you never go in and out of your bunker, there will inevitably be tracks and a worn down pathway leading to the bunker entrance.

So, yes, a bunker may be discreet, but it won’t be invisible.

Plus – Low Energy Cost

A great thing about a buried bunker is that you are surrounded with earth that is probably at a little changing moderate/cool temperature, year round.  In the summer, the outside cool earth will help prevent your bunker from overheating without needing to use as much air conditioning (which is costly from an energy consumption point of view); in the winter, the earth, while still cool, may be much warmer than the outside air and ground temperature, reducing your need to heat your bunker, and again saving on energy.

On the other hand, you’ll probably have absolutely zero natural light.  Every lumen of lighting will have to be generated from electricity, you don’t get any ‘free’ daylight, unlike a regular above ground retreat.

And to get fresh air, you can’t just open a window or two.  Instead, you’ll need some type of active air circulation system which again uses energy (happily, not a lot of energy, but it is still an energy drain).  And if your power should fail, you’ll only have a limited number of hours you can survive in the bunker before you need to evacuate due to lack of oxygen and build up of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

A bunker might conceivably use less energy for most normal activities, but it is more reliant on energy being always present.

Plus – Bulletproof

Most of an underground bunker is – by definition below ground.  As little as a couple of feet of earth above the bunker will provide it with great protection against attackers.  Even if marauders knew exactly which patch of ground was above your bunker structure, they couldn’t penetrate through its protective layer of dirt and its steel or concrete walls with regular rifle rounds.

But if attackers found one of the limited entrance/exits to your bunker, they could attack that, or if not directly attacking that, they could use the location of the entrance/exit as a clue for the likely whereabouts of the bunker itself.  They presumably could then simply get a shovel and dig down until reaching your bunker’s roof.  At that point they could attack the roof with pickaxes or drills or whatever; while there’d be nothing you could do to stop them.

After they have opened up even a small hole in your ceiling/roof, you will be at a massive tactical disadvantage.  They can shoot blindly into your bunker, and the bullet ricochets will go everywhere, damaging possibly valuable and essential equipment and controls, and maybe harming you and the others in the bunker.  But if you shoot blindly up out of the hole, your bullets will just pass harmlessly into the outside world and disappear into the distance.  You might even miss the hole and create your own dangerous ricochets.

Or the attackers could pour gasoline into your bunker then drop a match.  Or simply fill your bunker full of water.  Or run a hose from a vehicle exhaust pipe and gas you out.

So while a bunker is resilient against short-term attack, it – and you all inside – are terribly vulnerable to a determined attack.

Plus – Excellent for Storms

There’s no denying that a below ground bunker is very resistant to above ground storms.  If you need to have a special type of basement/cellar/bunker to protect against extreme storms above and beyond the protection your regular dwelling can provide, a bunker is a great consideration.

Of course, storms are typically short in duration.  If your underground bunker is nearby, it might be a convenient shelter.  But if it is some hundreds of miles away, how often would you choose to go there to weather out a storm, compared to simply strengthening your main dwelling structure?

Plus – Excellent Fallout Shelters

The earth around and above your bunker provides an excellent shield against radioactivity subsequent to most types of radioactive events.  If you wish to incorporate a fallout shelter feature into your retreat, a bunker is a great way to do that.  The strength of a buried bunker can also protect against the destructive effects of nearby nuclear explosions, too – underground shelters can withstand massively greater over-pressure levels than can regular houses.

On the other hand, unless you are living 24/7 in or immediately next to an underground bunker, the bombs might detonate around you without you even realizing they were on their way.  And, if you survived that, the time it would take you to make your way, unprotected, to a remote fallout shelter location is such as to expose you to too much radiation as part of your travel to your shelter.

You’d be better advised to urgently improvise a shelter wherever you were at the time the nuclear event occurred.

Minus – Strategic Visibility

A problem is that when you’re in ‘lockdown’ mode inside your bunker, you really don’t know what is happening above ground in your general vicinity.

Fancier bunkers might have periscopes, and even fancier ones might have remote video cameras.  Top of the line bunkers sometimes even have a remotely piloted drone with wireless video feed.  But none of these are effective substitutes for the good old low tech ‘Mark 1 Human Eyeball’ and its ability to detect movement, and to combine visual and directional sound (and maybe even smell) cues to sense the presence of threats.

Plus, the higher-tech the approach to monitoring the area, the more vulnerable it is, and the more exposed you become when it either fails naturally or is destroyed by an attacker.  Remote piloted drones run out of gas and if you’re in your bunker, you can’t go out to retrieve it and refuel it.  Video cameras can be shot out or simply have the wiring cut.  Periscopes can have their lenses broken or obscured, and their mechanism jammed.

Minus – No Defensive Perimeter or Posture

Not only might you not know what is happening to and around your bunker, but even if you do know what is happening, there is very little you can do to influence what is being done.

In addition to clear 360° vision showing you everything going on around your retreat, any well constructed above ground retreat would have overlapping fields of fire from protected positions within it, allowing you to defend your entire structure from attack, no matter where it was coming from.

That’s just not possible if you’re six feet underground.

In addition, an above ground structure should have a close-in ‘killing zone’ that you have erected to make attackers as vulnerable as possible the closer they get to your structure.  But you can’t do anything like that for a bunker, because you’ve no way to direct firepower at attackers from your sealed bunker.

Some bunker manufacturers talk about remote-controlled weaponry, and that seems like a great idea and excitingly high-tech.  But the problem with any such weaponry is that it will run out of ammunition soon enough, and then how do you reload it while hunkered down in your bunker?

Plus, while the weapons might be remote-controlled or even automatically activated, they can’t get up and move to a new position, like you’d do if you were out there yourself.  Once an enemy has located the position of such devices, they can take their time and then carefully neutralize them with well placed shots.  Your weapons will become sitting ducks and vulnerable once the initial element of surprise has worn off.

There’s a more abstract issue as well.  An imposing well defended above-ground building exudes power and confidence.  An unsuccessfully obscured bunker signals weakness and retreat.  Which do you think a typical marauder would prefer to attack?  We’ll guess the bunker would be their choice, every time.

Minus – You’re Underground

This is a bigger deal than you might think.  Most preppers seek to plan to survive a long-term challenge.  Anyone can manage to exist in an underground bunker for a week or two, but what happens when the weeks become months become years?

Aren’t you going to miss the sun?  Indeed, you’ll find yourself craving not only the sun but the rain and every other type of weather, too.

Minus – Less Sustainable

We’ve seen elaborate plans for underground bunkers that include areas labeled as intended to be used for growing food, and we’ve seen pictures of plants growing inside windowless rooms under strong lighting, designed to imply that you are seeing such a facility, in a bunker, successfully growing healthy abundant crops.

The problem is that without the sun’s energy, you are having to use other scarce energy resources to replace the sun.  Sunlight represents between 50 and 100 W of energy per square foot during the day, so if you are trying to duplicate 5 – 10 hours of sunlight a day, you could be required to burn about a gallon of diesel per square foot of growing space per week.  If you have a single room measuring perhaps 40′ x 40′, that could be 1500 gallons of diesel every week to recreate the effect of the sun.  Oh – and all that light and heat is probably going to make the room way too hot, because you won’t have fresh air and wind blowing through the room, so you’ll have to spend more energy to ventilate and cool the room.

If you’re planning on a 100 day growing season, then you’re up for 21,000 gallons of diesel a year to enable you to grow food underground.  And that 40′ x 40′ room, while seemingly big by ‘indoor’ standards, is only 1/25th of an acre.  Yes, the sun really is that powerful.

Now, okay, you could say ‘We’ll grow our crops normally in the fields and simply go back to our bunker to sleep each night’, but if that is your plan, and you’re going to be in the outdoors, in the open, all day every day, what is the point of the bunker for at night?  If you’re more vulnerable while in it, and out of it as much as you would be with any other type of structure, how is the bunker actually helping your survivability?  Why not settle for a more ‘normal’ and lower cost retreat building above ground.

Minus – More ‘High Tech’ and Complex

A bunker relies on more systems and equipment and processes than a regular above ground house.  It needs 24/7 functional environmental management systems – maintaining your temperature (probably requiring cooling more than heating), maintaining the oxygen levels, the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels, and the humidity (which would otherwise soar way too high).  It needs 24/7 lighting.  Even things like sanitation require pump assists to move water and sewer in and out of the bunker.

The failure of any of these systems can quickly create a critical situation that would require you to evacuate the bunker until it was repaired/resolved.

A bunker is a bit like a live-aboard boat.  If you’ve ever owned a boat of 40′ or more in length, you know that you are always spending time and money on repairs and maintenance.  It is a never-ending and expensive process.  The same is inevitably true of a bunker, although with less salt corrosion and motion induced malfunction, a bunker would hopefully be somewhat more reliable.

The need for repairs and replacements is okay when you can simply call up the appropriate repair service and have them come out with their specialist equipment and spare parts, but what happens after a social breakdown when the specialist technical support and the essential spare parts are no longer available?

Minus – The Size of a Bunker Community

We’ll readily concede that you can build an underground bunker complex as huge as you may wish, as long as you have the funds to cover the skyrocketing costs of such a development.  But most people, when choosing to build an underground bunker, are building something small, and having built it, are more or less locked in to the size that they have contracted for.

An above ground retreat can be expanded more readily at any time, and can almost certainly be built at a lower cost per finished square foot right from the get go.

Whether it is in the form of inviting more people into your retreat structure at the start, or having nearby neighbors you can see and wave to out your windows, or adding to your retreat subsequently to fit more people in, an above ground retreat can more readily allow for a larger population of fellow preppers to share the burdens of surviving in a Level 2/3 situation.

There is safety and security and strength in numbers.  You want to create or join as large a survival community as possible.  That’s much more readily done above ground than below ground.

To Summarize :  When a Bunker Is – And Is Not – Appropriate

A bunker can be used to protect against short-term external threats, but is only useful if you can get to the bunker prior to the onset of the threat.  Many short-term threats may not have sufficient notice to enable you to get safely to your bunker prior to the threat occurring.

A bunker is not a valid option as somewhere to live and survive, in an extended Level 2 or 3 type situation.  It is very hard to defend a bunker against marauding attackers, and bunkers are likely to be greatly more maintenance intensive, something that would become increasingly a problem as your spare parts get used up.

If you are adding a bunker to your in-city dwelling, you need to have a strategy in place for when and how you will be able to exit your bunker and evacuate the city.  You’ll literally be stuck like rats in a trap in the potentially apocalyptic and lawless conditions that may prevail in a city after a massive societal collapse.  And whereas, if you were simply planning to abandon the city at the first sign of a problem, which would mean you hopefully get away from dangerous population concentrations before the situation becomes dire; your decision to stay in your bunker for the first phase of the social collapse makes your subsequent evacuation very much more hazardous and difficult.

By all means incorporate defenses against fallout into an above-ground retreat, and maybe even include a bunker as part of your overall retreat.

But we suggest, for the majority of people, your most viable and defendable solution will be a well-built above-ground retreat, ideally as part of a community of like-minded folk (such as our own Code Green community).

Building a Low Cost Underground Bunker

Many websites will sell you a very expensive (and very extensive) underground bunker – for example, here.  But there’s a much lower cost solution if you must have a bunker, but would prefer one at a more affordable price (leaving you more money to allocate towards your above ground retreat).  Get one – or more than one – used shipping container and use that as a basic space for your underground shelter.

With the US importing so much more than it exports, and it being cheaper to sell containers rather than ship them back to China, there is a glut of low-cost shipping containers.  They come in standard sizes, and are approximately 8′ wide and 8′ high, and either 20′ or 40′ long (larger sizes are also made but they are less common and not so good value).  The 20′ containers typically cost $2000 or slightly more, and the 40′ containers cost only another $500 or so extra.  They can be purchased on eBay and many other places.

A single 40′ container gives you almost 320 sq ft of space (similar to a reasonably spacious hotel room).  This would be adequate for a couple for a short-term, and cramped but acceptable for more people.

In addition to adding extra containers, end on end, or in other one level layouts, you could also take advantage of their stackability and create a two or three or more level underground retreat.

Here’s a webpage with a short video showing how one person created their own underground wine cellar from a shipping container.  The same steps would be used to repurpose the container as a shelter/bunker instead.

Aug 112012

This proof of concept modern house in Southern Montana was built using traditional style compressed earth bricks by a Colorado University team.

We all know that with clothing, it pays to keep old clothes that go out of fashion because in a decade or so, they’ll come back into fashion.  I have ties in my wardrobe that have been in and out of fashion regularly – well, with ties, there’s only so much that can change, of course – wide or thin.

However, this is not an article about fashion and clothing.  We’re writing about building materials, and over the last decade or so, some of the most ancient building materials known to man – largely overlooked and forgotten during the last 100 years or so – are being ‘rediscovered’; and sometimes even being (mis)described as revolutionary.

One of the big challenges to us in designing retreats is the choice of building materials for the exterior walls.  We need a material that is low maintenance, fire-proof, long-lasting, resilient if shot at (and easily repaired), and with large thermal mass to minimize the energy cost of heating and/or cooling the interior.  Oh – and if it could be affordable, too, that would be much appreciated!

There’s no real secret to solving these requirements, except for finding a material that meets all the requirements including the affordability.  That is the big challenge for most of us.

Increasingly it seems the answer to such requirements lies not in futuristic new materials, but by looking back to ‘old fashioned’ building techniques – techniques that are long-lasting and low tech, and which have proven over decades and centuries to meet all the requirements we might have.  In particular, rammed earth, compressed earth brick, and adobe materials are showing themselves to be prudent choices.

Some of these older building techniques are now being claimed by ‘high tech’ developers as their own.  Here’s a short article about a combination of the latest high-tech 3D ‘printer’ technology together with not the normal plastic resin that such devices normally use, but instead, a sand slurry that sets into a very solid and sufficiently load bearing form.

There’s a video at the bottom of the short article that shoes a robotic arm building tiny structures at the sea-side.  Could this be scaled up to enable automated construction of large-sized retreats?  In theory, yes, but in reality, don’t look for it today or tomorrow as a practical possibility.

The amusing thing – if you go to the FAQs on the very scanty related website, stonespray.com, you’ll see how they describe building with soil and a binder liquid as a revolutionary new process.  Not so.  It dates back to Biblical times and before.

Building codes in many counties and states stumble a bit at the concept of using such materials.  A solution for some of us might be to build a structure using accepted methods and materials, and then to provide an external cladding using one of these earth based materials.

However you approach the issue, the two most important considerations for constructing your retreat are to make it fire-proof and resistant to attack.  Any type of traditional wood construction fails miserably at both these essential requirements.

Jul 112012

London’s 2011 riots yet again demonstrated the ugly streak of evil that lurks close below the surface of modern society.

(Note – it might be helpful to refresh your understanding of what we define as Level 1, 2 and 3 events.)

The main challenge you will have in a Level 2 situation is security.  While you probably will have food and energy supplies for a year or two (or three….), most ‘normal’ unprepared people have no energy stockpiles and little food.  Within a week, most people will be increasingly forced to ‘forage’ for their food – and we use this word ‘forage’ as a euphemism for more than simple ‘stealing’, because stealing is a familiar and non-violent sounding term.

Interestingly, we see the greatest problems being in the early days of any Level 2/3 scenario.  There is probably an evolutionary process that society will shake down through – we discuss this in our article on the security/lawlessness cycle here.

In that article we lightly touch on the concept that people will be forced to choose between starvation and forcibly taking such food and shelter as they can, by any means necessary.  Let’s look into this in some more detail both in terms of the types of risks and threats you’ll face, and how you need to prepare for them.

Level 2 Risks :  (a)  Lawless Gangs

We have regularly seen, both in the US and elsewhere in the world, the propensity of some groups of society to degenerate into violent lawlessness any time society hiccups and normal law enforcement activities pause.

These people violently riot and loot (and attack and murder) for the sheer devilry and ‘fun’ of it, and because they are laboring under some bizarre view of reality that makes them feel entitled to behave that way, and also for the opportunistic chance to enrich themselves by carrying away color televisions and other home electronics from stores they are looting.

How much more aggressive will they be in a Level 2 situation?  It seems realistic to accept that normal law enforcement will be massively reduced in a Level 2 situation.  Even if all the police and other law enforcement personnel still report for duty, the same as normal, they’ll be overwhelmed by the number of problems suddenly dropping in their lap.

As we saw in, for example, the Los Angeles riots in 1992, normal law enforcement numbers can be completely inadequate for any outbreaks of mass violence, and in a Level 2 situation, not only will there be even greater disorder, there will not be regional and national reserves of manpower to call upon, because every other region will also be struggling to keep ahead of their own problems.  The inability of local law enforcement to deal with rioting is the flipside of the coin to do with the police relying on the general consent and acquiescence of the communities they police – when this starts to fail, so too does the policing, whether it be as we say in Los Angeles in 1992, or more recently in London in 2011, or anywhere else.

Add to that the fact that such roving gangs of people won’t only be looting for fun and for personal enrichment, and they won’t just be seeking things such as computers, iPhones, and suchlike.  They’ll be as threatened with starvation as anyone else, and they’ll be looting for food and survival, too – just more vigorously and violently then everyone else.

Level 2 Risks :  (b)  Organized Gangs

A much greater threat is the presence of organized gangs – bikers, drug distribution networks, street gangs, and such like.  While there aren’t as many of these people as there will be, initially, of lawless gangs, they are organized, disciplined, and totally amoral.

They are also determined.  Whereas lawless groups of people – ad hoc gangs – are opportunistic and will attack easy targets and avoid hard targets, organized gangs will be willing to attack all types of targets – weak targets because they can, and hard targets because they pose potential threats to the organized gang that will otherwise seek to become the new power structure in a region.

Even worse, many of these gangs are vaguely prepping for the future, too.  They’re poised, waiting to attack society as soon as it becomes feasible to do so.

Level 2 Risks :  (c)  Starving People

We don’t need guns if/when a person politely comes up and knocks on our door and asks if we can spare any food.  If we are unable to help out, they thank us for our time and leave again.

But do you really think that is what will happen?

Let’s say 50% of the population only has food for three days or less, another 25% for about ten days, another 20% for about twenty days.  And let’s say it becomes obvious to everyone that the Level 2 situation will take not days or weeks, but many months to be resolved.

In three days, half the population will be looking at empty pantries.  What will they do?

Within another week, 75% of the population will have no food, and there will be a growing realization by everyone, whether they still have food or not, that there is no hope of any arriving any time soon.  What will all these people do?

Over the next ten days, they’ll be joined by just about everyone else.  In less than three weeks – probably much less – more than 95% of the population will be starving.

Will these people politely knock on your door, and then just shuffle off and die quietly on the street if you refuse to share your own limited supply of food with them?  It is possible that a pacifist single person might do this, but what about a man (or woman) with a spouse and children to feed?  Will they just passively let their entire family die of starvation, while watching you and a very few others continue to eat almost normally?

Here’s the logic they face :

You can threaten to shoot me with your gun, but if I don’t take your food from you, I’ll definitely die of starvation, so it makes sense for me to risk being shot while doing anything and everything necessary to take your food from you.  If I have to choose between you dying, or me and my family dying, you will be the one I prefer to see die.

You need to understand this.  If you refuse to feed your best friend in a post Level 2/3 situation, then he, just as much as any stranger, has no choice but to use whatever means necessary to take your food from you, because it is essential tp the survival of himself and his family.

You also need to remember how people are so brilliantly good at justifying any actions to themselves.  The same people who laughed at you for stockpiling food will now be demanding it from you as their ‘right’ – ‘You have no right not to share your food with us, you can’t just leave us to die, you selfish so-and-so’.  That’s only one small step removed from ‘You are trying to kill us by withholding food from us’ and ‘You’ve more food than you could possibly need yourself, there should be a law against such selfishness’.

After they’ve demonized you in their own mind, and played up their own deserving victim status, they’ll feel totally justified to shoot you in your doorway, and then to clamber over your dead body and to loot your house of all its supplies.

We are deliberately writing this in vivid shock terms, but you need to understand and accept this.  If it sounds impossible to you, ask yourself – and answer the question – what will starving people do instead when they see you with plenty of food while they have none?

Some people might find it unlikely that their friendly next door neighbors will turn around and use any and all means up to and including lethal force to take food from them.  We agree this is unlikely, but we realistically fear that it is much more likely that your neighbors (and, of course, strangers too) will do this than it is that they’ll just peacefully and calmly resign themselves to die of starvation and lie waiting for death to occur in their own homes.


No matter where you have your retreat located, sooner or later it will be found by groups of starving marauders and/or opportunistic gangs (see our article on ‘Is it Realistic to Expect Your Retreat Will Not be Found‘).  The only three things you don’t know is how long it will be until you are first confronted by starving/looting marauders, how often such confrontations will occur into the future, and how many people you’ll encounter on each occasion.

The one thing you can be sure of is that these people mean to take your food and other supplies and resources from you, and if they have to do it by force, they won’t even pause to think twice.  Indeed, their resentment at you being well prepared is such they’ll feel you ‘deserve to die’ – this is about as warped as illogic can get, but do you want to bet your life that this is not how people will end up thinking?

You will have become the evil ‘1%’ that has recently been demonized by the ‘Occupy Wall St’ protesters.  We’ve seen, over the last year, people trying to wrap themselves in the righteous mantle of being part of a supposed 99% of the country, using this supposed ‘moral majority’ empowerment to advocate violence and sanctions against the remaining 1% of the country – even though the supposed 99% group are – quite obviously to those of us who truly are mainstream – anything but representative members of the majority.  They’re as much a 1% minority group as are the people they claim that their ‘majority status’ empowers them to act against.

We make these points not so much to criticize the Occupy Wall St people (although we definitely don’t support them) but rather to point out how people readily make completely ridiculous claims about themselves so as to give themselves a self-claimed mantle of legitimacy that then empowers them to do whatever lawless and wrong acts they wish.

The same people who are keen to live off government handouts today, and who believe that rich people should be taxed and then taxed some more so that they (the ‘99%’) don’t need to do any work themselves, will of course now resent you for doing the very thing they will have laughed at you about before the Level 2 event – preparing prudently and storing food.

They won’t now consider it to have been prudent preparation and storing of your food.  They will claim it to be immorally selfish hoarding of food that should belong to the community (and, in particular, to them).  Your refusal to give all your food to them means that you are denying them the right to live.  So, of course, they’ll feel totally morally empowered to at the very least take all your food from you, and if they have to shoot you in the process, so be it.


You need to plan your retreat not just from a perspective of weather and suitability for agricultural purposes and everything else.  You also need to plan to make it defendable against people keen to rob you by force, even by lethal force if necessary.

The most important adage is ‘safety in numbers’.  You need to become part of a community to share the burden of defending your properties, and to have the strength in numbers necessary to prevail against attacks by evildoers.

Jul 102012

It is a lovely looking country residence, but totally unsuitable as a retreat.

Modern housing is built to a reasonable standard, but embodies a number of design compromises and choices which will not be optimum in a Level 2/3 situation.

Let’s look at some of the underlying assumptions that are embodied in modern housing design, and how these assumptions – while perfectly valid for normal house construction and normal situations – do not stand up to the special needs we have for a retreat.

After understanding why normal construction is not appropriate, we’ll then look at some of the special considerations that apply to a retreat structure, and in a future article, list out the design considerations of greatest importance to retreat construction.

Modern Housing Design Limitations

Modern housing assumes many things, including a low presence of risks, and a low series of personal consequences to the structure’s dwellers if risks occur and failures eventuate.

Modern housing also assumes that energy to heat or cool the house is abundantly available.  As it happens, there is an evolving appreciation of making homes more energy-efficient, although this is more for oblique environmental concerns rather than due to any anticipated energy shortage in the future.

It further assumes that a dwelling need not be resistant to gunfire or major physical assault.  Indeed, you’d be laughed at, or thought to be very strange, if you said ‘I need 6″ solid concrete walls all around to protect my house from gunfire’ or if you said ‘the external walls have to be strong enough to withstand a vehicle deliberately crashing into it at 30 mph’.

Other assumptions exist too – for example, modern design assumes there’ll be no problem repainting the house on a regular basis, or with re-roofing the house.  It assumes that when such periodic maintenance comes due, there’ll be no problem going to a paint store to buy new paint, brushes, and anything else needed, and similarly, it assumes that roofing material and contractors will always be readily at hand.

Many of the materials that go into the house are not designed or built to last.  They have short lives – you’ll know this if you’ve had the seals on your double paned windows fail after only a few years, or fancy plumbing fixtures also fail.  Even floor coverings are not necessarily very long-lived, but this doesn’t matter so much in a case where fashion changes and where houses are sold and change hands every 6 or so years on average, with new owners wanting to make changes anyway, and with people selfishly being concerned primarily with outfitting their houses with items that will last for their own period of residence and still look good enough when it comes to sell the place on again.

These issues are especially noticeable in builder developed spec-homes where the main consideration is to create a house that looks good as cheaply as possible.

As you surely appreciate, a retreat needs to be designed and installed with much longer lived finishes and fittings.

Modern Housing Compromises

Overall, modern housing is designed to give a lot of apparent ‘bang per buck’ up front, while requiring ongoing maintenance that has become generally acceptable and expected.  Housing is constructed to a standard appropriate to meet the likely common stresses the structure may encounter in terms of wind, rain, temperature (and possibly moderate but not severe earthquake as well), but is not designed beyond that to meet unlikely and uncommon stresses.

Part of the design trade-off for normal housing is an assumption that if something goes very wrong and your house fails, it will not be a life-threatening outcome for you and any other people living in the building.  They will simply claim insurance, and buy or build a new house while living in a nearby hotel or rental house during the reconstruction process.

People would rather pay $500,000 for a house and then spend ongoing amounts on maintenance and insurance, and additional amounts on energy for heating/cooling, than to pay $1 million or (much) more for a house up front, and lesser amounts for maintenance and energy.  For example, most people would rather pay less for a house built of wood and accept the risk of fire – after all, they have house insurance – than they would to pay a great deal more for a house built of brick or stone or concrete and have a greatly reduced risk of fire.

Some people look upon their house investment exactly as that – an investment, and they calculate payback periods for optional upgrades and enhancements, and compare the rate of return they’d get to that they’d get if they simply put the extra money such things would cost into the bank and collected interest on it.

This is acceptable when there’s no real downside to maintenance requirements in the future, and when factors such as energy costs can be more or less extrapolated into the future.  But a Level 2/3 situation completely changes these assumptions and calculations.  The consequences of failure do now become dire and life-threatening; insurance companies won’t be available to pay-out on claims – and even if they could, what use would money be to you?  You need shelter, not money.

A massive increase in energy costs, and an ever-present shortage of available energy, at any cost, completely turns around the cost/benefit equation for designing an energy-efficient house.

And so on, through all sorts of other issues and considerations and current compromises.

Modifying a Current Dwelling to Make it a Retreat

Maybe you are looking at buying a lot which already has a house on it – and maybe the realtor has even described it as an ideal retreat.  The chances are it isn’t at all ideal, and we’ve sure seen plenty of structures that, while described as perfect retreats, have been anything but.  Perhaps the politest interpretation is that the realtor means ‘retreat’ in the sense of a relaxing country vacation home, rather than in the sense of a survival safety resource.

The cost of modifying a current structure to make it suitable for our sort of retreat purposes is seldom money well spent.  For starters, any existing structure probably needs a complete new exterior, and possibly to be re-roofed as well, so as to make it fireproof, gunfire resistant, and to bulk up its insulation.

For that reason, it is usually preferable to choose a lot with no structures already on it, or, if they are present, they should be of low value (so you’re not paying too much for something you don’t need).  They can provide temporary living space for you while your new retreat is being built, or overflow space for guests in normal times.  But they almost certainly aren’t something you should rely upon as your primary retreat in the future.

Jul 022012

There are many reasons to plan a multi-unit condo rather than to build a single family retreat.

In considering a retreat structure – a place to live securely, comfortably and sustainably, a place to store and protect yourselves and your resources, we encourage you to think beyond the obvious.

The obvious is to build a single family dwelling, perhaps slightly altered in design and construction to make it more resilient, but, nonetheless, a single family dwelling all the same.

You doubtless already realize and accept that your dwelling structure will be one of your greatest costs in setting up your retreat, along with the cost of the land it lies upon.  In such a case, surely one of the key things for you to consider in your planning is how to optimize your dwelling structure, and how to get the best possible structure constructed in the most effective and affordable manner.

Here’s an area where two (or three or more) can live almost as cheaply as one.

Our suggestion is simple.  Don’t build a single family dwelling.  Build – at the very least – a duplex, for two families.  Much better still, build a four-plex – two units up and two units down – and for even greater effectiveness, build a squat condo block, maybe two or three levels high, and with four units, each with two common walls, and with shared floor/ceilings as well.

The Cost Benefits of Multi-unit Construction

Why is a condo block (or any other form of multi-unit construction) almost always more cost effective than an equivalent series of single family dwellings?

First, because your construction costs will reduce, when expressed in terms of costs per square foot.  This is because you’ll be sharing some common parts of the structure – each of those common walls are doing the work of two walls, otherwise, for example.  You’ll only need one large roof rather than twelve.  And so on.

You’ll also be sharing exterior elements – the landscaping, driveway, provision of utilities, all these sorts of things will be little increased in cost if done for multiple units as they would be if done for a single residence.

And when contractors need to bring special equipment on site, in a situation where typically their setup up and clean up costs are almost as great as their actual ‘doing the job’ costs, and part of their ‘doing the job’ costs involves in learning what to do, before doing it typically only once rather than repeatedly, there’ll only be one set of these various setup costs but now split over multiple units.  The contractors will also work more efficiently by repeating their tasks over multiple units, and your costs will drop in line with these benefits.

So you’ll end up getting a lot more structure at a lot lower cost per square foot.

The second benefit will be in the ongoing occupancy of the units.  They’ll be massively more energy efficient, and in a Level 2/3 scenario, energy becomes one of the most precious resources of all.  The costs to heat (or cool) will skyrocket up compared to what they are today, so anything to make your dwelling more energy efficient is a huge plus.

A well capable of supporting a dozen residences can sometimes be only slightly more expensive than a well for one residence – a typical well has most of its costs in the digging and provisioning of it – beyond that, its capacity is seldom used anywhere close to maximum.

What goes in must come out – which is our polite way of pointing out that a larger septic system can be constructed at a lower overall cost than could a series of separate individual systems.

The units will also have less maintenance because there are fewer exterior walls exposed to the elements, and less roof too for that matter.

So your ongoing ownership costs will be lower (per unit) than they would be for private residences, too.

Benefits In a Level 2/3 Situation

Looking to a time when a scenario actually unfolds, you’ll get much better value and results from being able to share common resources such as a generator and other services and tools than you would if you had to create these resources uniquely for yourself.

A larger generator is more efficient in terms of translating gallons of diesel into kWhrs of electricity.  And with diesel at a huge premium in a Level 2+ scenario, anything to extend the value out of each precious gallon is definitely a plus.  If you’re considering wind power, you get value benefits from larger units, and reliability benefits from being able to now have two or three units erected rather than just one.  (Note that solar cells are, however, a notable exception – the costs for solar cell arrays increase close to exactly in proportion to the increased sizes of the arrays, with only relatively small economy of scale benefits).

There’s another huge benefit.  If you build a twelve unit condo complex, and get eleven other families to move in with you, then you have instantly created a community of maybe 50 people, possibly more, maybe less.

This is great when you need extra manpower to help with a special task, and it is also great for social reasons and for defense, too.  You immediately have people to turn to for help, people to sell your surplus production to, and people to buy things from that you can’t also produce yourself.  You even have people to share a meal with – there’s another thought – take turns at cooking, because a person can cook for four almost as readily as for two, and it takes almost the same energy to cook a roast and boil vegetables for four as for two.  Talking about sharing meals, you also have people to relax and socialize with.

There are many other areas and examples of how sharing duties can work enormously to everyone’s benefit, making all involved more productive and more content.  The extra people benefit will end up being more valuable to you than the lower construction costs and ongoing operating costs of your dwelling.

Zoning and Building Codes

A possible (probable) constraint could be the applicable building and zoning codes for where you choose to set up your retreat.  But if it is possible, an eight or twelve unit condo complex would be hugely better than a single family dwelling, and the potential benefits more than justify going through some hoops to get the appropriate permissions.

Although zoning may seem to discourage multi-unit condos where you’re looking at setting up, sometimes it is possible to talk your way through these challenges, especially if you have multiple parcels of land – it might be possible to persuade the county to recognize that you have six parcels of land,  each of which allow two residential units, and so you’re simply asking to build all twelve units in one single block, which would create less disruption and allow more of the land to remain in productive agricultural use.

Usually the restriction on multiple dwellings on rural land has an underlying practical desire to leave the land as farmland rather than to have it become semi-urban sprawl.  You don’t represent a semi-urban sprawl, you represent the intended use – people wishing to farm and care for the land they’ll be living on, so you just have to work out the best way to ‘sell’ this to the local authorities (and we use the word ‘sell’ advisedly, sometimes an offer to pay for some ‘offsets’ will help get your permits – offsets are other things that the county would like to do elsewhere, or enhancements to nearby areas, or something like that to increase the overall standard of the area).

Alternatively, maybe you can buy land adjacent to an incorporated city, and get your land annexed into the city, with an agreed upon zoning code from the city to allow for the construction of the units you desire.

Zoning can be a challenge, for sure, but it is not an insuperable problem, particularly if you have friendly local officials –  and you’d be crazy to consider a location where the local officials were not friendly.

Remember our advice to do everything in full compliance with all city, county, state and federal laws, so as not to create any legal vulnerabilities that could subsequently be used against you by people who ‘have not’ and who are keen to take from those who ‘have’.


A multi-family dwelling will cost less per square foot to build, will cost less to own and maintain, and in an actual Level 2/3 scenario, will provide you with an instant and essential support community of friends and fellow preppers.

If it is not practical for you to consider creating your own multi-family mini-community, consider joining someone else’s.  We’d of course encourage you to become a part of a Code Green Community, but there are various other options out there for you as well.

Jun 012012

Seen here in original construction in ~ 1960, and described as among the strongest structures ever built by man, Atlas missile silos are being repurposed as prepper retreats.

A converted former Atlas missile silo in Kansas, now revived as a series of one and two million dollar survival retreats, has quickly sold out, and the developer has taken out options on several more.

This article tells more about the concept, and the developer’s own website seems to confirm the project to be fully sold.

The good news, as the developer’s site says, is that people who buy into the project are already getting a share of the silo which, it is claimed, represents a $60 million improvement right from the get go (this is the estimated present day cost of recreating the silo).  What’s another million or two when you’re already getting a generous share of a $60 million silo ‘for free’?

We’ll observe our own suggested Code of Prepper Politeness and start off by saying that for some Level 1/2 scenarios, this would be an excellent temporary retreat.  And with the silo stocking five years of dried food supplies, it would seem that it should be capable of providing a temporary oasis of comfort and safety for a reasonable period of time – more than long enough for most Level 2 scenarios.

In addition to generator power, the silo also has an up to 150 kW wind turbine, and in addition to stored dry food, it also has a hydroponic system for growing plants/vegetables and raising fish.  Pretty cool, huh?

Maybe so.  But we’re not entirely sure we’d want to spend up to five years inside a nuclear missile silo, as far as 200 ft under the ground, without seeing sky or sun, and without breathing fresh air.  Now quite possibly the residents would be free to go to the surface whenever they liked, but at the end of the day, you’re back inside your subterranean refuge.

More to the point, while a nuclear blast resisting missile silo is a great place to store a missile prior to its launch in a doomsday Armageddon type conflict, we’re not so sure it is the best place to house a community of people during an extended Level 2 or 3 scenario.  What is good for missiles is not necessarily good for people – what we’re saying is that perhaps the $60 million cost isn’t quite the same as $60 million of actual value.

We see problems associated with three main areas of living in a silo in response to a Level 2/3 situation.

Energy Problems

The first problem is that the silo is an energy intensive retreat.  Almost everything requires energy to operate – you don’t even get any ‘free’ natural light or fresh air.

On the plus side, it probably doesn’t require a great deal of heating or cooling – its underground compact design is very thermally efficient, but it needs nonstop energy to power fans and air filtration units to keep an airflow through the silo and to regulate the temperature and humidity.  If it gets a bit stuffy in the middle of the night, you can’t just open a window to let some fresh air in.

Now let’s think about that lovely wind turbine/generator.  The problem with wind powered generators is they are somewhat maintenance intensive – if you ever drive past a wind generator farm, have a look and see how many of the windmills are actually turning, compared to how many are idle.  In our experience, usually about 20% of the units are out of service at any random time.

Maintenance is not so much a problem when you simply phone up the turbine supplier, and they courier the spare parts to you the next day.  But in a Level 2 scenario, that’s not an option.  You’d need to have a huge inventory of spares for the wind turbine.  Not that this is impossible, of course, but it is a reminder that wind power is far from free – indeed, in truth, it is one of the most expensive sources of energy there is.

Due to the propensity of a wind turbine to fail, we’d think it vastly preferable to have two 75 kW generators, or three 50 kW generators.  That way, the occasional failure of one unit doesn’t zero out the total power generation capability.  Back down in the silo, there’s a tremendous difference between being able to leave half the lights on, and being completely in the dark!  (Of course these are not the choices, due to the presence of diesel generators too, but you get our point, we’re sure.)

The other problem with wind power is that it is unpredictable, and when it does come, it is generally only during the day time (winds die down at night, other than in storm conditions).  The generators have a minimum speed necessary to get their blades turning at all, and a maximum speed above which they run the risk of damage – it is only when in the ‘sweet spot’ between these two limits that they generate power – in this case, up to a maximum of 150 kW, but often much less.

The wind turbine also looks terribly vulnerable.  Don’t they have tornadoes in Kansas?  What happens if a tornado destroys it?  Or just simply strong winds?  Or vandals.

If you’re building a worst case survival retreat, and investing millions of dollars in it, you don’t want to have a cornerstone of your survivability a ‘cross your fingers and hope’ strategy that your windmill won’t be taken out by a passing tornado.

So while the wind turbine/generator can help share the load when it is working, something else is needed for the times when it is off-line, under repair, or when there is no wind.

There are also some solar cells, but we’re not told how many, and these would not be capable of generating anything like 150 kW of power.  Kansas is mainly in the Zone 4 solar area (an average of about 4.5 effective hours of sunlight a day), and solar, just like wind power, works best in the day, and not at all at night.

We like solar cells.  No moving parts, little to maintain, and a long life. Indeed, if it were our development, we’d probably spend more on solar cell arrays and less on the wind turbine.  But even the best solar cell is useless when it is dark (or snowing).

Which brings us to the need for diesel generators, which they acknowledge.  It seems, from the information on their website, that each of the residential units uses all-electric appliances, and plenty of them.  How much power consumption should be planned for, and how many gallons of diesel a day will this require?  We don’t know the answer to that question, but our guess is the short answer is ‘a lot’ and we wonder if the complex is laying in enough diesel.  What is the use of all the other facilities they are setting up – hydroponics, aquaculture, and tons of dried food if you’ve got no electricity, rendering your silo uninhabitable?

Food Problems

Now let’s talk about the hydroponics and aquaculture.  This is a bit out of our depth, so we’ll just raise concerns rather than make definite statements.  In our experience, there’s a huge secret ingredient in any sort of hydroponics/aquaculture undertaking (and we’re not talking about water or nutrients and food).  We’re talking sunlight.  The concept of ‘getting something for nothing’ when growing any sort of vegetative life form only makes sense if you ignore the huge input into the growing process that comes from the sun’s energy.

This is what makes greenhouses effective.  But the hydroponics in this silo aren’t under the open sun.  They’re probably down in the bottom of the silo.  What replaces the sun’s energy?  Probably grow lamps, right?  And what powers the grow lamps?  Yes, electricity.  Complete the cycle – where does the electricity come from?  The windmill if you’re lucky, and the diesel generator if you’re not.

So rather than being ‘free’ and something for nothing, the food harvested from the hydroponics actually has a massive energy cost associated with it.  As a quick and fun calculation, the sun’s energy is generally about 1 kW per square meter (a bit bigger than a square yard – about 10 sq ft) on a clear day.  Considering Kansas has about 4.5 hour equivalents of sun a day, that means a need for about 4.5 kWhrs per sq m or shall we say 500 Whrs per square food of hydroponic space per day.  So in a year, each sq ft of hydroponics requires 182 kWhrs of energy.

We’re going to assume a very energy efficient grow lamp of about 10% efficiency.  So now we are up to 1.82 MWhrs of electricity per sq ft of hydroponics.  Allow for some power line transmission loss, and lets call that a nice even 2 MWhrs per sq ft of garden.

Diesel fuel generates 10 kWhrs per gallon, so to provide the necessary energy for a sq ft of hydroponics would require 200 gallons of diesel a year (worst case scenario assuming none of the energy comes from solar or wind power).

If we say each person has 50 sq ft of garden, then that represents 10,000 gallons of diesel per each person’s garden, each year.  Still think those fancy hydroponic things are something for nothing?

Okay, maybe we are overstating things.  But reduce this by ten fold, and you’re still looking at 1,000 gallons of diesel or other energy equivalent for the hydroponics just to replace the natural sunlight – energy that would be largely unnecessary for above ground agriculture.

As for the aquaculture, that sounds really neat, doesn’t it, because we all think of fish as something that just magically appears at the end of our fishing lines in rivers and lakes.

But if they are to be farmed, indoors, they need lots of food and also, again, energy for artificial sunlight of sorts.  The thing about raising any sort of animal or fish is that you get massively less net food per unit of input food and energy than you do if just growing plants.  That is okay on an outdoor river or lake, because the fish get their food from other sources in the lake/river which we don’t need to get involved with, but in a closed indoor system, aquaculture is a massively less efficient way of getting food than just growing plants.  To put it another way, there would be perhaps ten times more nutrition if the residents of the silo just ate the fish food directly than if it was fed to fish and then the fish subsequently eaten.

So hydroponics and aquaculture sounds great, but in reality, they are far from appropriate in a situation where energy is in very short supply and very expensive.

Security Problems

The third concern we have might seem counter intuitive.  It is a concern about security.  You might say ‘What’s the problem; they’re living inside a structure that can withstand a nearly direct hit from an atomic bomb!?’.  And you’d be right.  But that’s not the threat they are most likely going to need to defend against.

Their threat instead will be organized or disorganized roving hordes of looters and pillagers, and people desperate to get their next meal.

Now, sure, the residents could presumably hunker down inside their silo, and pull the massive door closed behind them and lock it.  You know that no-one is going to get in through that door.

But the bad guys don’t need to open the door.  They can simply get you to open the door for them.  What happens if they start pumping water into the air intakes.  It will take time, but in a day/week/month, the water level will have risen so far that not only are the support systems on the lowest levels all now inoperable due to water damage, but the living quarters are getting successively flooded too.  Indeed, as soon as the generators and other life support gear on the bottom level fail, the entire silo becomes a death trap rather than a haven.

If the bad guys are more impatient, they could pour gasoline into the inlets instead.  Then drop a match or two.  Or, heck, why pour anything into the inlets.  Why not just block them off and wait for the air inside the silo to run out.  Those diesel generators suck in air at an appalling rate – the silo will be out of air (or power – or both) within five minutes.

The silo is not a defendable structure against active attack.  It is a passive place to hide inside and cower within, but it is not a fighting fortress that projects power and safety over the lands around it.  The underground silo does not provide protective cover for a team of defenders to repel attackers.  As such it is vulnerable to the lowest tech sort of attack of all – a passive siege where the bad guys simply wait for you to come out – and probably speed up your decision to do so by interfering with your environment within the silo.

A Silo Protects Against An Irrelevant Risk

In reality, there is only one scenario where you need to be inside a nuclear bomb-proof refuge, and that is immediately prior to a nuclear bomb being set off close to you.

But how likely is that to be the case?  Figure on – absolute utter maximum best case scenario – having maybe 15 – 20 minutes warning of an incoming ICBM strike.  The total time from launch initiation to detonation is typically 25 – 30 minutes – by the time a launch has been detected, trajectory/target confirmed, and the chain of command has decided what/how to respond, and whether to advise the public, most of those 30 minutes will have already gone.

Will you be able to – within that shortest of times – stop what you’re doing, round up family members (some may be at school, some at the office, some at the shops) and then all of you somehow magically get from where you were to the open fields of central Kansas (not far from Salina), into the silo, and the door shut behind you (and all the other families too) prior to the bomb going off overhead?

Even if your family is on an ‘every man for himself’ system where each of you have to make your own way to the silo in an emergency, would you, yourself, with no other delays be able to get there in, say, 10 minutes?  Only if your normal residence, school, office, shopping center, etc, are all within five miles of the silo.

In other words, when responding to the one risk the silo is uniquely well qualified to protect you against – a nuclear attack – it would actually be useless, because (assuming you’re not always within five miles of the silo normally) there’s no way in the world you’ll get to the silo before the bombs go off all around you.

Level 2 But Not Level 3 Protection

Don’t get us wrong.  There is plenty to like about the silo, especially if you live close to it to start with (who lives close to Salina, Kansas, though!).

If you ignore its defensive weakness, and if you accept at face value the claims that it has enough food and water and energy for up to five years (depends, we guess, on energy consumption rates, how much energy can be provided by the solar and wind power, and the number of people who make it to the silo), then – all going well – $1 million buys three people five years of comfortable Level 2 survival, or five people get three years (there is 15 man years of food included per $1 million unit).

But what happens when the last drop of diesel is burned, when the wind turbine can’t be repaired any more, and the dried food supply is exhausted?  What happens when your Level 2 situation (ie a situation where you live off dwindling finite stored resources) becomes a Level 3 situation, requiring an ability to live indefinitely and sustainably into the future with what you can grow/create yourself.

We think it is obvious, at that point, that the silo dwellers will have to return to the surface.  The solar cells won’t supply anything like the energy needs to make sub-surface living acceptable, and without abundant energy, we have grave doubts about the viability of the hydroponics, and without massive stored fish food, we don’t see the aquaculture as being too sustainable either.

So, some years after TSHTF (and assuming your silo retreat wasn’t overwhelmed by looters prior to this point), the million dollar investment means that you’re back on the surface, with nothing and nowhere to go.  Your hole in the ground has become, sadly, just that again.  A dark, dank, lifeless hole in the ground.

A Better Alternative – The Code Green Community

Code Green is developing an alternative approach to providing shelter, safety, and survival for a Level 2 and Level 3 scenario; an open above ground community rather than an underground silo.

Sure, it will be vulnerable to nuclear attack, but our location, in rural Idaho, is not somewhere likely to experience any nuclear bombs landing, and as our comments above illustrated, if there is to be a nuclear attack, the chances are none of us would have enough time to get to a nuclear hardened shelter anyway (how quickly can you get to Salina, KS?).

Retreat units are available at a range of levels, or you can have your own built exactly as you wish.  Basic condos with a year of food, water and energy for four people, plus a generous plot of land to use as you wish, start at $250,000; free-standing units are of course more expensive.

Best of all, a Code Green retreat is a dwelling that you can spend time in and enjoy as part of your normal life.  Come spend your summers there (or your winters, for that matter, too).  Indeed, for people able to consider this, come and become part of our year-round community.  Become a small farmer or rural shop owner, enjoy a lovely lifestyle with no need to worry about needing to ‘bug out’ in an emergency.  You’ve already bugged out!

The units have windows that open and which you can see out, reasonably normal doors that when you step through take you into the outside fresh air, and if the Level 2 situation becomes a Level 3 situation, they give you the basics to start an ongoing new sustainable life, as part of a supportive community of like-minded souls.  Contact us for more details.

May 232012

The concrete block in the upper image is shown again in the lower image, totally destroyed after only two .308 rounds hit it. See below for linked article.

There are two distinctive things about your retreat that sets it aside from most normal houses.

Firstly, it is possible it may be uninhabited for months at a time when life is proceeding happily as normal.  It may also be in an out-of-the-way location.  A very tempting target for burglars.

Secondly, when things do all go to hell in a handbasket, and you are living there during a Level 2 or 3 situation, you’ll need to have a much more robust defense against attackers than just a lock and safety chain on your front door and catches on your windows.

Let’s discuss these issues.

No-one Home Security Requirements

There’s nothing a burglar or a vandal likes better than to find an empty house in an out-of-the-way location.

With no neighbors or passing cars to observe them, they can take their time breaking into the place and doing whatever they wish to do.  Indeed, the longer it obviously is since someone was last there, the more inviting the place becomes to burglars and others with evil intent – once inside, they might even decide to stay overnight or longer, feeling no pressure at all about the possible return at any moment of the owner.

Even if they can’t manage to gain entry to a locked retreat, they’ll probably smash a bunch of windows in their frustrated efforts to get in, thereby opening the interior up to the outside weather and to wildlife – creatures that might do as much damage as people.

Although you might say – and be correct to say – that in reality, there are very few structures that can’t be opened by a group of motivated determined skilled burglars with time on their hands, the chances are that uninvited visitors to your unattended retreat will be more likely to be just casual passers-by seeking easy targets of opportunity.  They won’t have safe-cracking type tools with them, and they’ll probably not have skilled locksmiths with them either.  If some work with a crowbar and axe won’t get them through the doors/windows (or exterior walls) they’ll probably give up and move on to the next tempting target instead.

Nonetheless, it would be excellent if there were a way to get a remotely monitorable alarm system at your retreat, so that if the alarm is triggered, you can then look at a real-time video feed and decide if it is a benign passing deer, or a not so benign would-be intruder.  If the latter, you can maybe call the local county sheriff and have them send someone out.

This also assumes you have not done anything to suggest your retreat is of unusual interest or has anything of value inside.  We’d suggest its exterior be nondescript and plain rather than flashy and fancy.

You need to appreciate that most normal home construction is designed to prevent honest people from mistakenly entering the wrong house, uninvited.  It won’t do any good at all to a burglar armed with an axe and a crowbar.  The fancy lock on your door can stay locked – the burglar will just remove the door from its jam!  And needless to say, any areas of glass are almost certainly liable to be destroyed by a few good blows from something heavy like an axe.

You can’t build your retreat using normal construction methods and make it truly burglar proof.  If you buy an existing dwelling, you almost have to consider tearing it down and rebuilding from scratch – or, alternatively, adding a new exterior protective layer all the way around.

Level 2/3 Scenario Defense

The other situation is WTSHTF and you need to bug out to your retreat.

Sooner or later, you will have an armed group of attackers keen to separate you from your food and other goodies.  They might ask you politely first, but if you refuse – as you certainly should – their next move will be not nearly so polite.

Figure on being found, sooner or later (see our article about the inevitability of your hidden retreat being found).  Now, what happens after you’ve refused the request/demand for you to hand over all your food (and everything else of value or use)?  It is hard to imagine these people will just walk away empty-handed.

They’ll either lay siege and try to starve you out, or in the more likely event they’re not so patient, they’ll actively try to force your surrender and/or attempt to force their way in.

Yup, there’s going to be some shooting, isn’t there.  And, for your part of the shooting, you have two requirements.  The first is to be able to be protected from incoming fire, and the second is to be able to shoot back from advantageous positions of relative safety.

Now, just as normal home construction makes it easy for bad guys to break in, you’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that normal home construction does not normally consider making a residence’s exterior walls bullet proof.

Let’s understand just how powerful rifle rounds actually are.

Penetrating Capabilities of Rifle Rounds

Although pistol and shotgun rounds can also be a problem, your real threat is from rifles.  Not so much from ‘special’ rifles and not even from special bullets either.  Just from regular standard hunting/sporting rifles, chambered in any of the very common calibers, including .30-06 and .308 and to a lesser extent, even the .223 round as well.

A regular 5.56/.223 round can penetrate through 12 sheets of pine (see this site).  Metal covered doors are so useless that even a tiny pocket pistol can shoot through them (see this report).  Rifle rounds can also go through 15″ of phone book pages (see here).  Here’s a web page that shows a 7.62/.308 round going through 8.5″ of tree trunk then on through sort of 6.5″ of phone book and still having energy after having traveled through that.  Another person reports shooting his 8mm Mauser through 16″ telephone poles.

Here is an interesting study on many different exterior wall surfaces by many different rifle rounds.  Most rifle rounds penetrated most materials, and those that didn’t would generally cause major damage to the exterior cladding to make it more susceptible to penetration if a second round landed in the same place.

Here are two excellent pages (one two) showing the results of shooting at CMU blocks (concrete masonry units) with a range of rifle and pistol rounds.  Read the descriptions and look at the linked pictures (the picture at the top of this article was formed from a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture on those pages).  These are vivid indicators of how weak filled concrete blocks will be when confronted with rifle fire.

The bottom line is simply this – Rifle rounds will go through pretty much any amount of wood and/or plenty of concrete and still be dangerous to you inside.

Bullet Resistant vs Bullet Proof

So you need to upgrade your exterior walls to make them somewhere between bullet resistant and bullet proof.

What is the difference?  There is an important difference in these terms.  A bullet resistant barrier will not allow a single round to penetrate, and neither will it allow for ‘spalling’ (ie bits flying off the inside of the barrier) to occur.  But, if you fire several rounds all in the one spot (or within a reasonably close distance of each other) the barrier will successively weaken and after sufficient hits, it will give way in that area.  The concrete block shown at the top can be considered bullet resistant.

A bullet proof barrier on the other hand can calmly accept incoming fire all day in the one position and not weaken at all.  The backstop of the gun range you train at is bullet proof.

In practical terms (because bullet proofing is impressively expensive), you’ll probably settle for some type of bullet resistant exterior wall, and ideally one that can be repaired and restored back to 100% integrity at the end of an encounter.  Maybe some of the obvious ‘bullet magnet’ points will be given extra strengthening, but for the rest, you’ll hope that the bad guys give up after some hundreds/thousands of rounds, most of which randomly distribute themselves fairly evenly around your exterior walls.

Bullet magnet points would be anything that looks vulnerable/weak/openable, and anything that you’ll be shooting from.

Your choice of materials will be influenced to an extent by your budget and just exactly how thick you want your walls to be.  We will discuss building construction materials in other articles.

Something to consider is whether you want your retreat to have a sturdy impregnable fortress look to it, or if you’d prefer it to be a ‘stealth’ secure location.  Opinions differ as to which is the better strategy.

An obviously strong resilient fortress might discourage casual looters from mounting an attack.  On the other hand, it might also signal ‘Hey, we’re well prepared here, we probably have lots of goodies inside’.  And a fortress type structure might encourage a stealth/sneak attack rather than an open/overt attack (on this point, we suspect most attacks will be semi-stealthy anyway).

There is no way of knowing what your attackers might think or how they will behave.  In fact, we suggest it would be foolish to try to come up with the exact set of thoughts and actions an attacker would have – see our article on not being able to predict how people will behave WTSHTF.  Instead, you should plan and prepare for all types of behaviors, both sensible and stupid.


We suggest your retreat have as few windows as possible.  They are a security risk and also increase your need to heat your building in winter and cool it in summer due to probably having less insulating properties than the rest of your exterior walls.

You will want some, because they will do double duty as places for you to observe the outside and to shoot from.  These should be high up and small.

Being high up means that people from the outside, shooting in, will have to angle their shots upwards.  Any rounds that penetrate will tend to go up towards the ceiling and beyond rather than travel through the house, hitting anyone in its path.

Being high up also makes it harder for someone to come along and look in, break in, and climb in.

Being small will make it harder for people to climb in the window, and it will slow them down and make them vulnerable while they are climbing in.

It is also easier to protect a small window area and to provide back-up levels of resistance so that if (when) the glass is shot out, there is something else – maybe a hardened steel plate – to protect the building interior.

The Risk of Fire

The most dangerous thing that worries a sailor?  Fire.  That might sound ridiculous when you’re on a boat surrounded by water, but it is for sure the truth.  More boats have been lost as a result of fire that from any other cause (assuming moderately competent seamanship).

The same is true of your retreat.  It goes without saying that the friendly local fire brigade will almost certainly not be functioning as normal in a Level 2/3 scenario.  If you have a fire, you’ll have to control it yourself.

Now that will be stressful enough in the normal course of events, but what if the fire was deliberately caused by people who are attacking you and laying siege to your retreat?  If they’ve set fire to your building exterior, and maybe its roof, and possibly managed to get some Molotov cocktails in through windows as well, and now they’re waiting to pick you off as you rush out of the burning building, all of a sudden your retreat is not a safety structure for you, it has become a death trap instead.

Okay, some people might design a bolt hole/cellar they can retreat to, and others might have a secret tunnel/exit from their retreat.  But that’s not really the point, is it.  Maybe you escape, but you’ve left behind everything you owned and possessed – you’re no longer one of the well prepared survivors, you’re now one of the homeless horde of desperate predators.

You need to ensure the exterior of your dwelling is impervious to fire.  An accidental fire can be started from any one of way too many causes – even natural ‘Acts of God’ like lightning strikes.

A deliberate fire might be started from one of two main sources – either as a result of someone shooting incendiary or tracer type rounds into your structure, or as a result of someone using Molotov cocktail type weapons to initiate the fire.  Both your roof and your exterior walls are vulnerable, and if your windows can’t be kept securely shut, the rooms they open into are also vulnerable.

So – no wood on the exterior of your building, right?  Brick, metal, stone – all these are good.  Concrete is moderate.

If using metal (and you probably won’t be) note that it would conduct any intense heat on the outside to the inside, so if you had wooden framing up against a steel exterior wall, the wood framing would be at risk.

Generally however, the type of Molotov cocktail type fire starting device that would likely be used won’t burn for an extended time or intensely.  If it can get something else started burning, it has done its job; if it can’t, then the pint or quart of fire starter contained within it will burn quickly and then burn out.

To protect against this type of attack, you also must make sure there is nothing that could burn close to the exterior walls on the outside, either.


The chances are that at some point, you will have burglars try to break into your retreat, and at some point, you will have people shooting at you while you are in your retreat.

The design considerations to protect you against burglary also get you half-way towards protection against violent assault.

You need a structure that is burglar proof, bullet-proof (or, at the very least, repairably bullet resistant) and also fireproof.

This is more difficult than you might think.  Normal rifle bullets will penetrate more than 12″ of wood and still be lethal the other side, and three or four rounds landing on a typical 8″ x 8″ x 16″ concrete block (even if the hollow spaces have been filled with concrete) will demolish the block completely.

Difficult – yes.  Impossible – no.  And, also, essential for the security of your retreat.