Retreat Design Considerations – How Many Levels Should it Have?

We recommend you should build up not out when designing your retreat dwelling.
We recommend you should build up not out when designing your retreat dwelling.

When it comes to choosing a retreat, you will find that there are no suitably constructed dwellings already built and in place.

If you want to have a long-lasting retreat structure (and of course you do!) you’ll have to design it to very different criteria than how a typical spec-builder does.  He of course wishes to create the ‘most’ structure for the lowest cost, and only needs it to remain fully functional until its new-home warranty expires.

We discuss the limitations of normal home design and construction techniques in this linked article specifically, and in the retreat design topic in general.

Let’s consider the implications of one major choice you need to make.  Should your retreat be a sprawling rambler type dwelling or should it have a smaller ground footprint and be two or more stories high?

We recommend you build a multi-level dwelling, and would suggest three levels to be a good compromise to adopt.  Here is a review of the various issues that are associated with choosing how many levels to design into your retreat structure.

Note that the local zoning and building codes may have restrictions on how high your dwelling structure can be.

1.  Less External Wall Perimeter

Your external walls are your most important walls and most expensive to construct.

Any attacks will almost invariably be directed against your external walls.  The only other notable point of attack would be to your roof, and with a multi-level structure, not only will your exterior walls be shorter, but your roof area will be less too.

Keeping your perimeter as short as possible allows you to concentrate your defenses along a shorter perimeter line, and simultaneously slightly funnels your attackers into a narrower line of attack.

Going from one level to two levels will reduce your building perimeter by 30% – 40%.  But (and perhaps counter-intuitively), it will also increase the total area in square feet of exterior wall by anything from 10% – 35%.

Going from one to three levels will reduce your building perimeter by 40% – 45%, but will increase the total square feet of exterior wall by anything from 25% – 60%.

As you can see, as you add extra levels (while keeping total internal square footage the same) the reduction in perimeter becomes successively less, while the increase in total wall square footage becomes successively more.  If this were the only consideration, you’d probably want to keep your retreat one or two levels.  However, there are other issues to consider which we feel argue convincingly in favor of going to three levels.

2. No Need for Heavier Construction Materials

One downside to multi-level construction of typical dwellings is that you need to build your supporting structures to a higher loading capacity to support multiple levels of dwelling.  That becomes an appreciable offsetting extra cost.

But you’re building your retreat dwelling ‘over-spec’ anyway.  You already have stronger than necessary external walls and load bearing supports, so all that this means is that the extra strength you have designed into the structure is now being put to some actual purpose.

Remember when people start to talk to you about the extra costs of constructing multi-level structures that these extra costs are not extra in your case; they only apply in the case of people seeking to build the least robust structure they can get approved by local building codes.

3.  Roof Impacts

Going from one to two levels will reduce your roof area by half.  Going to three levels reduces the roof area to one-third of its original size.

The reduced amount of roof probably goes a long way to compensating for the cost of extra exterior walls.

But there might be two situations where less roof is not a good thing.  The first might be to do with water collection.  If you are in an arid area with little rainfall and few convenient other sources of water, you’ll surely be using every square foot of roof area for rainwater collection, and reducing your rainwater collection area by 50% (or 67% for three-level construction) might be an undesirable outcome.

The other circumstance relates to solar energy sourcing (either through photo-voltaic solar cells for electricity or through solar heating installations).  You certainly should have those parts of your roof with appropriate southerly facing aspects close to completely lined with either solar cells or solar heating devices.  Even if you have abundant other energy sources, prudence dictates that you want to have multiple sources, each sufficient in and of itself, so if something happens to one source, you still have at least one other energy source to fall back on while the other source is (hopefully) being returned to service.

Energy, more than anything else, is life in a post-TEOTWAWKI situation.

If the loss of roof area for solar energy collectors is a problem, there’s no reason why you can’t create another structure that is primarily a support/protective structure on which to mount additional solar energy collectors.  The same structure could of course do double duty as a water collector too, and could be constructed very inexpensively.

4.  Energy Losses

Continuing on the energy theme, not only is energy your most vital resource in a Level 3 situation (and lesserly so in Levels 1 and 2) it will become very expensive and precious.  Anything to reduce your energy needs becomes of paramount importance, and this is a factor that needs to figure into your building design much more than at the present where energy is abundant, affordable, and assured.

A building loses energy (ie heating/cooling) through its exterior – its outside walls, its roof, and also its flooring.  A rambler has more external surface (ie wall area plus roof area) than a two level building, and about the same as a three level building.

Adding in an allowance for floor heat losses too and it is clear that both two and three level structures are more energy-efficient than single level structures, although when you move on to a fourth level, the energy saving becomes neutral, tending negative.

This is another reason why three level structures are an ideal compromise.

5.  Functional Convenience

We’ve lived in ramblers, two-level, and three level dwellings – perhaps you have, too.  We love the convenience of no stairs in a rambler, but in reality, in a well designed multi-level structure, there are not a huge number of occasions during the day when you need to go all the way up or down from the top to the bottom level.

We would suggest a general design strategy that has storage on the lowest level, living areas on the middle level, and bedrooms on the top level.  That means that during the day, you are mainly in the middle level, occasionally going down to the lowest level and to the outside, and rarely going up to the top level, and almost never needing to go all the way from top to bottom and back again (or vice versa).

This strategy would also allow you to have the lowest amount of heating/cooling on the bottom level, cutting down the effective heating/cooling volume of your structure.

Some countries have traditional multi-level buildings in which livestock are kept in the lowest (ground) level.  This is a great idea too, but if you choose to do this, be aware that animals and their excrement can be smelly.  You’d have to think carefully about the implications of this!

6. Defensive Issues

There are several benefits offered by a multi-level building compared to a single level building.

As mentioned in passing above, a multi-level building has a shorter perimeter to defend, and by implication, people inside the structure can more quickly travel from one place to another – if you are being attacked on several fronts,  it can be easier to shift people from one side to another and to generally keep in contact with each other.

A multi-level structure with primarily storage on the bottom level can forego most of the windows on that level that would otherwise commonly be found, making it much more secure against physical intrusion.  If you have windows on the upper half of the second level, then the distance from the ground to the bottom of a window will be in the order of about 14 ft, making it difficult for intruders to quickly scale up and gain access through a window.

So by having living spaces on the second and third levels, you have the security of no windows at ground level while still having the lifestyle benefits of windows in the living areas.

A person on the third level will be close on twenty feet higher up than he would be on the first level, giving him a better view down to the surrounding ground around the retreat structure and making it harder for attackers to find cover.  Even better still would be a rampart or parapet at the roof level, giving still more height advantage.

7.  Communications

If you have a taller retreat, it is easier for you to maintain visual contact with people in your group who might be working on the land surrounding the retreat.  You can see them and they can see you, making for better security, and if necessary, some type of sound alarm (bell, whistle, siren, whatever) could be sounded at the retreat to call people back.

Lower level trees, bushes, shrubs and other things that would block your view if you were at ground level become less obstructive if you are another 20 ft up from the ground.

Being higher up can also greatly improve your radio communications.  If you have a three level structure, then your roof will be almost 20 ft higher than a one level structure.  This will extend your radio line of sight coverage (and also visual horizon) from about 4 miles to 7 miles.

Yes, of course you can mount an antenna on a mast above your rambler to get extra height, but you can do the same thing from a tri-level dwelling too.  No matter what you do, you have an extra almost 20 ft of height advantage.

8.  Land Saving

If we are considering the difference between a 3000 sq ft rambler, or a two-level equivalent structure (with a 1500 sq ft footprint) or a three-level equivalent structure (with a 1000 sq ft footprint) it might seem that the saving of either 1500 sq ft or 2000 sq ft of land is negligible, particularly if your total lot size is maybe 500,000 sq ft (ie about 11.5 acres).  You’re looking at a saving of less than 0.5%.

But the saving is actually more substantial than this simplistic calculation would appear.  Your residence will have a low productivity zone around it – an area which is kept reasonably undeveloped for security and convenience/access/maintenance reasons.  Maybe that zone extends out 25 ft, and if that is the case, the smaller footprint is magnified into a smaller overall surrounding zone, and you’re maybe saving not just 1500 sq ft of land, but 4500 – 6000 sq ft of land.  That’s becoming appreciable (0.1 or more acres).

Another Perspective – Multi-Family Dwellings or Multiple Retreat Buildings

All the preceding analysis has been based on the assumption of a single retreat structure, with the same number of square feet, but split over one, two, three or more levels.  In such a case, there is some benefit in going to two levels, less benefit in going to three, and probably no benefit in going to a fourth or more level.

But let’s consider not just your retreat structure, but also other buildings and structures at your retreat, and/or a second retreat structure for a second family.

If the choice is between two or three separate free-standing buildings, or one two or three level structure with the three separate structures in effect stacked on top of each other, the math changes completely.  Instead of getting reducing benefits, you now get increasing benefits.  There is no offsetting increase into total external wall square footage, but there are instead increasing savings in total roof area, total perimeter, total land footprint and energy efficiency each time you stack another formerly separate building on top of the others you have already combined.

When does the benefit of building up rather than building out cease to apply?  There comes a point when climbing stairs just becomes too much of a hassle.  Conceivably you could grow to four levels, by concentrating your living on levels two and three and using levels one and four for supplies and other infrequently needed/accessed items.

If you went to five levels, with levels two, three and four for main living, you could attempt to have younger and fitter people in level four, but clearly you are now starting to compromise general livability issues.  We know people who live on the fifth floor of apartment buildings, in apartment blocks with no elevators, and it isn’t much fun going up and down the stairs – not just alone, but having to schlep all one’s food (and often, all one’s water, too) up the stairs.

So we continue to feel that three or at the most four levels is the best compromise point.

If your consolidated building represents a number of otherwise freestanding dwellings, that is the best scenario.  But if you’re simply consolidating barns and sheds, that is not quite as cost-effective, because you are switching from a presumably low-cost construction method for a barn or shed to a ballistically resilient construction method as part of your main structure.  So there are less likely to be appreciable cost savings, but there are still other advantages.

Security Benefits of Building Consolidation

Consolidating multiple buildings into one tall building also offers an improvement in security for three reasons.  The first is that the easiest structure to defend is the one you are already in.  You don’t need to be patrolling other buildings.

The second reason is that if your property has, for example, a main retreat dwelling, together with a nearby barn, workshop and vehicle garage, then attackers could use these other buildings as cover and concealment; they could shelter behind them when attacking you in your retreat.

But if you have just one structure, you have no obstructions preventing you from having a clear field of fire (especially from your upper levels) to anywhere around you.

The third advantage is if you have consolidated two or more households into one structure.  You have a larger stronger group of people, all equally invested in protecting the one structure.  We touch on this in our article ‘Designing and Building a Retreat – The Bigger, the Better‘.

There’s another part of having a larger group of people in the one structure.  In our article ‘Community Mutual Defense Pacts‘ we point out that while it is all great in theory to have an agreement with your neighbors, a mile or two away, to support each other in the case of attack, the reality is that your neighbors are probably too far away to come to your aid quickly enough if needed, and the even uglier reality is that if you’re under attack, there’s a better than 50/50 chance that rather than risk their lives by coming to your aid, they’ll instead simply hunker down in their own retreat.

Clearly, if the other family is living in the same structure, neither of these constraints apply.

There a downside to putting all your structures into the one building, and that is the concept of putting all your eggs in one basket.  If something were to happen to your main structure, then you would have lost everything, whereas if you had two or three structures, you could lose any one of them and still have one or more remaining structures – that would not be a good thing, but it wouldn’t be a total disaster, either.


There are compelling reasons to switch from a rambler to a two level design of retreat building.  Going from two to three levels is not quite so clear-cut a decision, but probably makes sense for many preppers.

It also makes sense to build up rather than out when it comes to consolidating additional structures on your property.  It is generally more convenient and secure to integrate them all in the one multi-level building.

One Reply to “Retreat Design Considerations – How Many Levels Should it Have?”

  1. Julie

    Hi Dave, thanks for the nice list of things to take into consideration when planning one’s retreat residence &/or other buildings!

    Having decided it would be eminently impractical for us to try to head 1000 miles or more across country to Montana or some such in the event of an emergency – as well as impossible for us to keep up on building or maintaining such a retreat on a regular basis, while tied to jobs, etc. in another part of the country – we’ve been scouring the land listings in our chosen area: 35-40 miles from the (smallish) city I work in [so, close enough to hike to in the event we are deprived of vehicles, but far enough off the beaten track to discourage all but the most determined unwanted ex-city dwellers.] We found a place that looks promising, about 10.6 acres, bordered by national forest and a few miles from a semi-isolated fishing lake, but below the snow line to allow for more usable months of growing season, about 50/50 wooded areas vs. more or less level, “meadow” type areas.

    Anyway, regarding the topic here, we are thinking of digging into the side of a sloping piece of ground & lining it with concrete block (or possibly poured concrete, significant other has many years of construction experience in the latter), maybe using this lower level for temporary living space, but ultimately using it mainly for storage, & building a 2nd level above it for the “main” residential area. We haven’t quite decided if that part will be concrete block also, but maybe so. I don’t know if I would build a large 3rd floor, but I like your ideas of having better observation and a radio tower up there, so maybe we’ll plan to add at least 1 room (say 10×10) up there. I also like the idea of having more than one “stash” hidden around one’s property, so that if one or more of the main buildings are attacked or torched, there are other options to fall back on (maybe, after the attackers leave.)

    One thing I would like to suggest to take into consideration, as we have, is what kind of “profile” your building will have, in the view of others, both now & in the hypothetical future. Perhaps if, as you suggest elsewhere on your site, you build a large, well-armed community that is more or less self-sufficient, with vast acreage around it, you might reasonably expect to hold off concerted attacks even up to small governmental operations. For the rest of us though, I think the best we can hope for is that our preparations will be the equivalent of a current-day alarm system: not enough to stop a concerted, well-planned attack by those who know what they are doing, but hopefully enough to deter the casual thief or random small group of thugs, who would rather move on to easier pickings. As such, part of our strategy is to keep as low a profile as possible; “nobody up here but us chickens, and a few vicious guard dogs.”

    As we were scoping out prospective land sites, we were both delighted and dismayed to see that we could clearly see each fence and shed in the area, and the square footage of any buildings unless they are completely overshadowed by trees, simply by using “Google Earth” to zoom in on the property. Delighted, in that it helped us to clearly see the local terrain, how close other people’s houses are, etc., but dismayed in that it was pretty obvious that, as long as the powers that be are still in operation and still have a usable satellite network, they will also be able to “see” anything we construct. So, “smaller footprint” has some advantages; but I am wondering if an unusual 3-4 story building will stick out like a sore thumb, especially if it clearly appears to be built like a fort? I’m thinking, one possible solution to that might be to build a concrete block “barn” or such, fairly close at hand, which could look utilitarian for everyday purposes but be more defensible than one’s “house” in a pinch. Another might be to build a house that is concrete (or block) but covered with some type of decorative siding so that it looks like a “normal” house; and have normal-size windows, but some type of armored shutters which can be closed over them when needed.

    I also read recently that there are new laws afoot, if not already passed, that will require every single domestic animal to be registered, probably microchipped, etc. So, people will have to decide between complying with the law and having the government know exactly how many animals you have that can perhaps be confiscated to feed the starving city-dwellers in the event of a declared emergency…or, breaking the law by having unregistered animals, and thus also subject to confiscation on the grounds of being “illegal” livestock. This seems even more sinister, to me, than the “gun control” legislation that is being talked about; maybe more so, simply because no one is paying any attention to it.

    My point is simply, that there is a trade-off for everything. Distance to your retreat is “good” if it keeps invaders away, “bad” if it keeps you from getting there yourself (or being able to check on/maintain it regularly.) A building that is clearly defensible and looks like a fort is “good” if it discourages some attackers, “bad” if it draws the attention of those who start wondering, “just what are they hiding/defending up there, anyway?” Also, a solid “fort” of a building with small or no windows might be great if and when the ultimate firefight happens…but might be pretty miserable to live in on a daily basis, while waiting for TEOTWAWKI which may or may not happen within our lifetimes. I guess each person/family has to decide for themselves, not only what they are able to afford, and how much time they are likely to have to complete their preparations (2 years? 5 years? 10?), but also what they are willing to give up in terms of comfort, vs. what they are willing to live with, to achieve their goals.

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