Safe Room? Or Trap? Design Considerations for Retreats.
We sometimes amuse ourselves reading properties for sale advertisements that describe themselves as being prepper properties. We particularly like looking at the dwelling structures – what they proudly term the prepper retreat – on such properties.
Nine times out of ten (maybe even 99 times out of 100), the ‘retreat’ is nothing more than a generic house with nothing at all that would enhance its role as a sturdy building, reliably protecting the people inside it from the outside elements and threats.
We see huge picture windows, insubstantial wooden construction, shake roofs, and standard architectural practices that make no sense when designing a sturdy survivable structure that could reasonably required to remain comfortable in a grid-down situation for an extended period of years. They are totally vulnerable to any type of attack, also to fire, and often show little sign of being either energy-efficient or energy independent.
Okay, so maybe it is a lovely building, maybe even a rambling rustic cabin or a classic ‘A frame’ log home, and qualifies as being in the general sense of a ‘nature retreat’ or a ‘country retreat’ or a ‘lifestyle retreat’. But these are definitely not prepper retreats in the sense that we understand.
Most recently, we saw a so-called house on one of these listings that boasted having a ‘safe room’ inside. They thought this made it a more bona fide prepper retreat. We think completely the opposite!
Let’s talk about safe rooms and whether they add to – or detract from – the prepper functionality of a retreat building.
There are two general types of safe rooms.
Weather Related Safe Rooms
The first type of safe room is a well constructed part of a structure that is designed to withstand extremes of weather. The rest of the structure may fail but the safe room will remain intact and the people inside will remain protected from the outside conditions.
A tornado cellar would be an example of a safe room under this category, for example. FEMA write about these types of safe rooms here.
We have nothing against these types of safe rooms, and agree with the value of having them, in normal houses.
But for your retreat, we would hate to think you deliberately designed your retreat so that if some sort of foreseeable extreme weather event came along, it would be destroyed, all but for the one safe room somewhere within it! Your entire retreat must be built to withstand weather extremes, because if it fails, there will be no team of builders turning up the next day to repair and rebuilt it. Even if there were builders available, there’d probably be no building materials available for them, and even if there were building materials, maybe there’d be no way to transport them to your site.
Remember – we’re planning for a Level 2 or 3 situation where all the usual services and support features of our modern-day life have failed. We only have what we have at the start of such a situation, and if something breaks or fails, we must either ‘make do or mend’, all by ourselves. Every part of our entire retreats need to in effect be a safe room and resilient to the worst that the elements can throw at them.
Defensive Safe Rooms
The other type of safe room is one where you can go and hide/shelter if your home is being attacked/invaded by intruders. The concept of this type of safe room was popularized in the Jodie Foster movie, ‘Panic Room’.
For sure, it is a sadly realistic thing to anticipate and plan for being attacked in our retreat in the future. But there are two obvious problems with this type of safe room in a retreat as a solution to this scenario.
The first problem is that if you retreat to your safe/panic room, you’ve abandoned the rest of your retreat, allowing the attacking intruders to help themselves to whatever is in all the rest of the structure. Is that really wise?
You might be protecting yourself, but when you emerge from the safe room, what will you do if all your food and other survival essentials have been taken? What will you do if the attackers damage/destroy the rest of the building? They very likely would smash windows, maybe even just set fire to the entire structure (although hopefully you’ve been careful to build your retreat out of non-combustible materials).
The second problem is that a safe room assumes either that you can summon help from within the safe room, and/or that within a reasonable period of time, the bad guys will give up trying to break into the safe room, leave and you can emerge. But what say instead, the attackers merely seal your safe room door shut and allow you to literally rot inside? How is the safe room benefitting you in that respect?
If you have a nice retreat, maybe these roving marauders will decide to stay there for a few days or weeks or indefinitely until they’ve eaten their way through all your supplies. You’re stuck inside your safe room and unable to do anything about this, with your choices being either running out of food and water in your safe room, or emerging and being taken prisoner – at which point, you really don’t want to think too carefully about what is likely to happen next.
Let’s just say that a universal consequence of civil disorder, particularly when the bad guys are already attacking and looting, extends to such other terrible things as rape, torture, and murder.
Just like your entire retreat must be weather resistant, you must also be able to defend your entire retreat from marauders. Do we need to state the obvious – after TEOTWAWKI, and with a break down in the normal rule of law and social support structures, you can’t sacrifice anything you have in the expectation that you can recreate it subsequently, or in the belief that appeasing attackers will buy you safety.
Totally different rules apply and you must defend everything that you have and need.
An Altered Safety Design Concept for Your Retreat
We urge you to protect your retreat and to repel marauders. But we will concede there may be occasions when that becomes impossible. If you have only a small group living with you, and if you are surprised by a large determined group of marauders, and if your retreat isn’t sufficiently solidly constructed as to give you physical protection, then you will surely be overwhelmed. Maybe not in the first five minutes, and maybe not the first time that marauders attack. But some time, and more likely sooner rather than later, you will be disabled and your retreat will lie open to the attackers.
Would a safe room be appropriate then? We don’t think so, at least not in the traditional sense of a temporary refuge. In part, we’re reminded of why the British were slow to adopt parachutes in their World War 1 aircraft. They were concerned that parachutes would encourage the pilots to give up the fight and simply jump out of the plane when confronted by enemy planes aggressively attacking.
It could be argued that you need to take an ‘all or nothing’ approach to defending your retreat. Without your retreat, you lose your shelter, your supplies, and your ability to survive into the future.
On the other hand, parachutes are now universally accepted, and so we see no harm in having a ‘worst case scenario’ plan for you in your retreat. But we suggest this should not be limited to just a safe room, because there’s every chance that your attackers will emulate the attackers in the Jodie Foster movie and seek to break into your safe room, believing that to be the ultimate repository of your most valuable supplies.
Some people advocate having a hidden safe room – a place where you can hide that the bad guys can’t find. That’s a good idea, but there is a problem with it. Think it through – there you were, just a few minutes ago, mounting a furious defense of your retreat. Then you all go and hide in your hidden safe room. The bad guys break down the front door, go through the house, and don’t find you.
What happens next? Do the bad guys say ‘Wow. They must have a Star Trek type transporter, and got Scottie to beam them out!’. Do they stop looking and just loot the rest of your retreat, then go on their way?
Or do they say ‘Wait a minute. They were all here just a couple of minutes ago. They must still be here somewhere; and if they have hidden themselves, I bet they also have a hidden cache of supplies and other goodies too. Let’s rip the house apart until we find them and it.’
The thing about most of the hidden safe rooms is that they rely on the house structure remaining more or less intact, and they also assume that a safe room needs only to withstand a temporary home invasion, because the bad guys will need to act moderately discreetly for fear of alerting neighbors, and will need to leave at some point for fear of the police arriving.
That’s obviously not the case after TEOTWAWKI and if the bad guys start punching holes in the dry wall, they’ll soon enough find your hiding place.
We’d much rather have a safe room with an obvious entrance that can’t be broken into than a safe room with a hidden but insecure entrance. Of course, a safe room with both attributes would be better still, but keep in mind you can never guarantee how long a safe room remains hidden. The most important consideration is to be able to keep the bad guys out. You (hopefully) have more control over that.
The Only Effective Type of Retreat Safety Strategy
The previous paragraph starts to give us a clue as to the most effective type of hiding place, should you indeed be determined to create one. Rather than creating an obscured part of your above ground retreat, how about an underground cellar. If you have a sufficiently camouflaged/hidden entry into the cellar, then the bad guys could level the entire building and never find it. And if the entry is sufficiently sturdy, even if they do find it, they won’t be able to get in for sufficiently long to give you valuable time to pursue other options.
On the other hand, if they do level the entire house, and if some heavy beams fall on top of your cellar entry/exit portal, how are you going to get out?
By having multiple entry/exit points, you might say. Yes, that’s correct, but there’s a particular thing to keep in mind here. Don’t have multiple entry/exit points within your retreat. If you do that, you’re simply increasing the chances that the bad guys will find one or more of them. The other access point should be somewhere outside your retreat, and indeed, as far outside your retreat as you can realistically tunnel.
In such a case, you’ve transformed your ‘safe’ room from a no-exit trap into an escape route, allowing you to either (or both) hide from the attackers or (the preferred response) exit out of the occupied area and regroup, either to continue your retreat, to wait out the attackers’ eventual departure, or to mount a surprise attack from outside the retreat.
We talk about prepper issues to do with tunnels here.
Needless to say, your safe room – perhaps better to say, ‘staging area’ needs to have reasonable physical security so that if you have to abandon your main dwelling structure and move to your safe room, while preparing to then exit through the tunnel, the bad guys can’t quickly follow you into the safe room. You need it to buy you enough time to make your exit safely and to vanish away, rather than having the bad guys in hot pursuit.
From this perspective, it is more important that the safe room access be secure than for it to be hidden. As long as it can keep the bad guys out for a reasonable period of time, it doesn’t matter so much if they find it or not.
Only in this case – where a ‘safe room’ has become an emergency exit path out of your retreat, has it become truly valuable and truly contributing to your safety. All other types of safe rooms bely faulty assumptions and create only a dangerous illusion of safety. Don’t be fooled by such things.