Designing and Building a Retreat – The Bigger, the Better
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.