Why Normal Building Design Should Not be Used When Constructing a Retreat

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.

4 Replies to “Why Normal Building Design Should Not be Used When Constructing a Retreat”

  1. Julie

    Hmm, good points; though still looking in the same overall area, I will go back and reconsider whether I want to buy a smaller property with a home already on it (but which would need to be modified, which as you say might be too expensive and/or unsuccessful), or a larger, slightly more expensive property with no home on it.

    Biggest drawback I see would be getting my partner to agree to all the work and expense necessary to build a new home from scratch – not to mention that this would be expense on top of the original cost of the property, which kind of blows the budget I was aiming at. On the good side, my significant other does have a lot of past experience in pouring and working with concrete, and we are both pretty handy at home construction projects in general; so it is not completely out of the question. (Not to mention, it would somewhat solve the problem you mention elsewhere, of being vulnerable to forest fires!)

    Can you recommend a good source of suitable building plans for the type of concrete building such as you describe?

    • David Spero

      It is very difficult to find resource materials for concrete construction methodologies, although in truth, there’s nothing particularly unique about concrete and presumably you’d use concrete primarily for your external walls, and build out the interior with more common construction methods.

      As for the cost thing, we all (or, at least, most of us) have to struggle with too many things to spend our funds on, and too little funds to spend! But what is the use of building a structure that will not be resilient to the future stresses and demands you place on it? That’s like building with the classic ‘foundations of sand’ – it is like being the pig who built his house from straw rather than bricks.

      One possible approach might be to build a regular house from regular materials, and then as time and money allows, build an additional exterior layer around the outside with more resilient materials. That way you quickly get some sort of retreat capability, and can then strengthen it and make it more robust into the future.

  2. Julie

    Yes, I think that is the direction we are leaning towards: find a property which is the most suitable we can find in terms of location and amenities, while still within out (fairly small!) budget; and then modify the house by adding an outer wall of concrete, and/or building an outer wall of concrete, kind of like a mini version of the old castle/keep type fortresses.

    As you have pointed out elsewhere, our best protection will lie in ties with our near neighbors and community (which we plan to try to slowly organize, and get as many people as possible in on the prepping idea); so the “fortress” walls would mainly be for protection against random small groups or individuals, not an all-out assault by an army of marauders. If it gets to that point, there is not a whole lot we could do besides go the way of the Alamo, given that neither we nor all our neighbors put together would have enough money to build a serious fortress against modern assault weapons.

    We can only hope to keep a low profile, and try to reason with would-be attackers that it would be to their benefit to leave our (hopefully productive) community the way it is, in order to have someplace to trade with.

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