Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Bunkered down: Shelters, safe rooms, and designing for an age of anxiety


August 2017

Tom Gaffney has the type of client list that other contractors and designers work a lifetime to assemble. Actors and celebrities, Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, the one percent—often the one percent of the one percent—seek out his Vermont-based firm for custom jobs in their homes and offices, both in the United States and around the world. What sets Gaffney and his firm apart from the normal circuit of high-end contractors is that they entered this rarefied world not via cutting-edge architectural work or coverage in glossy shelter magazines, but by building the best bullet-resistant check-cashing stores.

Gaffco Ballistics is part of a small fraternity of firms that specialize in personal safe rooms for high-end clients—built-in, fortified shelters that have been called the next big trend in luxury real estate.

About 30 years ago, Gaffney, then a plumber and recent immigrant from Ireland living in Mount Vernon, New York, was getting by on odd jobs, bartending and truck driving, when his cousin asked him for help upgrading his check-cashing business. The former handyman, who still retains a trace of Irish brogue from growing up in County Roscommon, explains that his firm’s big innovation was creating a self-contained, protected room, one that went beyond bulletproof glass at the cashier window and enclosed the clerk in a six-sided lockbox.

“In the ’80s, when crack was king, people had been breaking into check-cashing stores,” he says. “In the South Bronx, Harlem, and New York, guys would even break in above and below the booths. We figured out that you needed to box the whole thing in ballistic glass and steel. You could only get through with a welding torch.”

Designing check-cashing spaces opened the door to designing banks, then post offices, and eventually government buildings overseas. Gaffney went from dealing with water pressure and pipes to selling clients on different types of bulletproof walls (“Level 1 can stop a 9mm, AK-47-proof would be Level 8”) when 9/11 revolutionized his business. Suddenly, some of the biggest companies in Lower Manhattan were asking him to build bulletproof and impact-resistant conference rooms. When he’d finish—”We’d rip out an existing conference room over the weekend, replace it with ballistic walls and finishes, and people would come back Monday morning and not know the difference”—CEOs started asking if he could swing by their penthouses and mansions to build safe rooms. Those Bronx boxes had gone upscale.

Ever since, business has been booming. Gaffney has seen a steady 5 to 10 percent jump over the last few years and forecasts a 30 to 40 percent increase in business in 2016 due to the election. Others in the industry have seen a similar rush by the ultrarich to build their own secret safe havens: Robert Vicino, founder of Del Mar, California-based bunker-building company Vivos, says that “for multibillionaires, a few million is nothing. It’s really just the newest form of insurance.”

“Post-9/11 was more of a knee-jerk reaction—we need security now,” Gaffney says. “Now, there’s a steady stream of information, terrorist attacks all the time, the ISIS effect. There are so many things happening in the world. People are concerned about the lack of security and feel the need to be vigilant themselves.”

Due to non-disclosure agreements, Gaffney can’t name his clients or show off his work. Even if he could, it wouldn’t often be clear where his firm’s work begins and others’ work ends. State-of-the-art safe rooms are vastly different from the isolating refuge shown in the Jodie Foster film Panic Room. Decorated in high-end finishes and materials, most panic rooms double as another space: a family movie room that can stop armed insurgents, or a child’s bedroom that can withstand a dirty bomb.

Today, shelters and bunkers are an escape from community, motivated by a belief that our society is fraying and unable to cope with coming civil unrest, terrorism, or other destabilizing attacks.

Gaffney’s work is part of a growing, and invisible, architecture of American anxiety. From the high-end safe rooms that firms such as Gaffco construct to shelters laid out in backyards and empty fields across the country, a growing number of Americans feel they need to be self-sustaining in a world of rising threats (the current situation in North Korea isn’t helping matters). Trend storieshave tracked survivalists packing up and digging shelters in the “American Redoubt,” the sparsely populated Mountain West states such as Idaho and Montana.

While there’s no hard and fast way to calculate how many shelters or safe rooms exist across the country—to preserve client confidentiality, one bunker room company owner says, records are shredded after jobs are finished—every company interviewed for this article says their business has grown over the last decade, and most say work has picked up considerably during the election year.

Self-reliance is one of the country’s foundational myths, and shelter construction is not a new phenomenon. But there’s something very different inspiring many of today’s shelter builders and safe room owners. Early Americans built shelters in response to many of the same weather issues we face today, from floods to tornadoes; cowboys and settlers on the plains would often dig storm shelters, caves sometimes called “fraidy holes,” before setting to work on aboveground homes. Built with neighbors, they were a symbol of a new settlement and an expanded community.

Today, shelters and bunkers are an escape from community, motivated by a belief that our society is fraying and unable to cope with coming civil unrest, terrorism, or other destabilizing events. Public opinion polls and studies find the country on edge: fear of an imminent terrorist attack is at its highest level since 9/11, 76 percent of Americans believe life will be worse for the next generation, and nearly two-thirds of us are greatly worried about climate change. But perhaps most damning, in the face of these issues, is that only 19 percent of Americans trust the government all or most of the time, according to a Pew Research Center study released last fall. The rate in 1958 was a staggering 77 percent.

In an age of rising anxiety, and perhaps the worst political polarization in our nation’s modern history, this type of private infrastructure is growing. Not everyone believes, say, that a nuclear attack is coming tomorrow. But studies of public pessimism, and the meteoric growth of the prepper phenomenon, suggest that many feel the worst isn’t necessarily that far away, and that when cataclysms do happen, we’re on our own.

“I think the people who don’t prepare are in a state of denial,” says Richard Duarte, an author who writes about preparedness (and, for the record, doesn’t have a shelter, bunker, or safe room, just a cache of supplies and extensive training). “They think that nothing will happen, and that’s just not the case.”

A Miami-based former investment banker whose experiences with Hurricane Andrew in 1992 led him to become an advocate for preparedness, Duarte sketches an urban doomsday scenario familiar to fans of post-apocalyptic films.

Mankind has become so dependent on electricity and the convenience of modern society that we’d be lost without our computer-reliant infrastructure, electronics, and fast Wi-Fi.

“Whether it’s a natural disaster or manmade disaster, we’ve never relied on power and electronics as much as we do now,” he says. “Now, without power, our buildings are out of order. One hundred years ago, we were all preppers because we were self-reliant. Now, we’re so much less self-reliant.”

In the American cultural imagination, shelters are associated with the big bomb. Americans became obsessed with bomb shelters amid the paranoia of the Cold War. While corrugated rooms served as the backdrops for countless science fiction and horror plots from the 1950s through the 1980s, our true obsession with shelters came to the fore in 1961.

Decorated in high-end finishes and materials, most panic rooms double as another space: a family movie room that can stop armed insurgents, or a child’s bedroom that can withstand a dirty bomb.

On July 25, 1961, President Kennedy delivered a speech about the potential fallout from a nuclear attack and asked Congress to appropriate $93 million for shelter construction. The terrifying message sank in with the American public, who immediately embarked on a massive DIY shelter-building spree. Contractors sprang up overnight, local governments stumbled about organizing community building plans, and Civil Defense officials distributed no fewer than 22 million copies of the official Family Fallout Shelter manual to anxious Americans. Mass media outlets such as Life magazine devoted articles to the big questions (surviving fallout) and the smaller issues (decorating shelters).

In a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on today’s bunker builders, the craze—further fueled by the Soviet announcements in August of 1961 that they were blockading East Berlin and resuming atomic tests—quickly died down, not due to fatalism or fear, but to a swing in public opinion. Shelter owners were nervous over the morality of “gunning,” or shooting neighbors trying to find space in their shelter. Unease about the morality of ignoring a fellow American in need boiled over when a Jesuit priest, Father L.C. McHugh, counseled Americans that it was “misguided charity” not to shoot a neighbor trying to invade a shelter already filled to capacity.

Outrage over that statement fueled a round of public doubt over both the efficacy of shelters and the desirability of surviving to face a post-apocalypse world. Even a military man as steadfast as former President Eisenhower was quoted as saying he wasn’t building a shelter, and if he was in one without his family, he “would just walk out,” since he “would not want to face that world.”

While the threat of nuclear annihilation has receded since the Cold War era, increased geopolitical tensions and fears of terrorism continue to feed the market for shelters today. According to Brad Roberson, a marketing manager for Rising S Bunkers in Texas, it’s a pretty big industry. From the “sobering reminders” that come from tornadoes to increased feelings of instability, business has been growing.

“If you asked people in the ’50s, they were concerned about Communists and the threat of war,” he says. “Today, the general populace isn’t as worried about nukes falling from the sky as they are about civil unrest. Most people are concerned about the collapse of the social system and being threatened by their neighbors.”

Lisa, an owner of a family bunker in Longview, Texas, who wished to remain anonymous and whom Curbed contacted via a bunker-owner community message board, agrees with Roberson. She and her husband built a shelter for themselves and their three children to protect against civil unrest and the threat of running out of energy.

“We’re not moving to renewables fast enough, and I think that if the grid is interrupted, within a week there will be chaos,” she wrote via email. “Even now, when there are fuel shortages and warnings, people go crazy and suddenly start stockpiling.”

At first, when Lisa’s husband suggested the shelter, she thought it was stupid. But after reading up on the topic, she came around. Their personal underground bunker, which can sleep seven and cost $80,000 (one of the most popular models at Rising S, a 10-by-50-foot shelter in the Freedom series with two additional 10-by-10-foot rooms, costs $159,000 after delivery and install, and the average customer spends $200,000 after customization), sits a five-minute run from their back door. Stocked with enough food and supplies to last a year, the space has been decorated with wallpaper, carpet, and family photos to look “cozy.”

“A house offers minimal protection,” she writes. “What would you do if an angry mob of 20 turned up outside your house and the police were not responsive? Exactly.”

Lisa is quick to explain that she didn’t come to the decision to invest in a bunker lightly. Being bombarded with bad news all the time makes it natural to want to prepare. Her family “doesn’t wear tin-foil hats,” she says. They just don’t take their safety for granted.

Roberson sees the same mindset in his customers, many of whom are not members of the prepper community. There’s an extremely affluent market interested in privacy and security. Rising S offers fully customizable protection (nuclear fallout, electromagnetic pulses, ground-penetrating radar) and plans, from smaller, no-frills spaces to vast underground bunkers with all the creature comforts of a high-end home, including pools, exercise rooms, underground shooting ranges, and media rooms with 95-inch flatscreens. Their biggest project was a 6,500-square-foot underground bunker for a Republican “political financier” that could sleep 50 people.

“People aren’t as turned off by the idea of having a Plan B,” he says. “You can deal with all the threats that come at you in one fell swoop, from severe weather to whatever else comes through the door.”

Roberson says Rising S always sees an upswing during election years; the firm installed 60 to 70 shelters in 2015 and are on track to do even more this year. And while marketing may suggest otherwise, the customer base doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of conservatives afraid of an overreaching federal government.

“I would say people from both sides of the aisle, conservative and liberal, are concerned about the stability of our political landscape and our economic status,” he says. “The people that buy this product feel like we’re rapidly approaching a tipping point. Most people aren’t choosing ignorance. They’re fairly well-informed, they’re not waiting for the evening news to deliver information. You can see fairly crazy extreme situations happening in other places, and people are concerned about that happening in our backyard without having a solution. It’s not that it’s a probability, it’s a possibility. That’s enough of a motivating factor.”

Steve Humble, who owns Creative Home Engineering, a company that specializes in safe rooms and concealed spaces, says most clients just want to feel prepared.

“These are people who can afford it,” he says. While some like to set up hidden bars or invest in Bruce Wayne-type triggers for their secret studies (Humble has a secret room in his home that opens when you play the James Bond theme song on a piano), most are dentists and doctors who want extra security for their dream house, or celebrities who face more immediate threats.

“Some people get death threats on a regular basis,” he says. “These people rely on us to protect their families.”

Humble doesn’t take that responsibility lightly. He and his crew test every door themselves, dragging them out to the desert near their warehouse in Gilbert, Arizona, and literally shooting them.

What’s the psychological toll of this kind of constant worry, of expecting the worst outcome and investing in the aftermath? Catherine Hooper, a New York-based safety consultant who founded Black Umbrella, which creates personalized escape plans and preparedness packets, says that she’s seen a consistent level of interest in this subject since starting her business in 2009. After seeing residents of New Orleans suffer through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she kept thinking to herself, “How could they not be more prepared?” She realized she couldn’t criticize them if she hadn’t prepared for a similar situation herself. After researching and finding no existing service, lots of incomplete and often contradictory information, and lots of interest from her friends, she decided to launch Black Umbrella.

Hooper has helped hundreds plan for what to do during a disaster and what comes next, and she says even the exercise of preparing can be emotional.

“Somebody who makes multimillion-dollar decisions multiple times a day”—Hooper tends to deal with very wealthy clients—”you’d think they’d be good at this, but it’s not easy,” she says.

People tend to invest in these kinds of services after a big life event, such as a wedding or the birth of a child. Hooper often sees people lose it when they start thinking about what they would do if they were separated from their children or spouse. Many quickly reach an edge while figuring out escape routes from Manhattan, or where to meet up in case certain family members can’t be located.

“If I had a product that I could put in a box and say here, for $10,000, you can have what’s in this box and it’ll keep you safe in an emergency, clients would much rather do that than do drills or create an escape plan,” she says. “We sell a lot more of the physical products than I ever anticipated, partially because people think, ‘I have a gas mask and I’m safe.’ It’s a lot harder to have that conversation with the spouse about what to do if they’re separated.”

In most cases, safe rooms and shelters are backups and precautions, structures that thankfully don’t get used often. But for at least one country, bomb shelters and safe rooms are a way of life.

Ever since the 1950s, residential construction in Israel has been required by law to include a safe room, or merkhav mugan dirati, a reinforced concrete space to shelter inhabitants from missile attacks, especially in areas near the occupied territories. More than 10,000 have been built. Ever since the threat of gas attacks became prevalent during the Gulf War, building codes favor above-ground shelters. Public buildings such as train stations are built to withstand direct hits, and in older apartment buildings, residents often share space in stairwells when sirens go off, leading to sometimes uncomfortable minutes spent huddling with neighbors who just got out of the shower.

“It’s a challenge to do good architecture with this constraint, but we do it,” says architect Ami Shinar. “We live with this. It’s not used most of the time as a shelter, but we’re used to it.”

Shinar’s firm, which has designed everything from buildings for the Navy in Haifa to residential towers, has worked on many projects shaped by these requirements. For example, a forthcoming train station in Jerusalem features a concrete slab over the tracks, as opposed to the typical glass atrium, and no windows on the east-facing walls, as a precaution against unexpected attacks. He sees the American bunker builders as being perhaps a bit naive.

“I lived in America for five years, so I know a little bit of your perspective, as a big country away from war zones,” says Shinar. “You have Americans doing shelters for doomsday, and that’s a bit crazy. Israel is tiny, like a big city, surrounded all around by war zones. Syria is falling apart, the Palestinians want their freedom. This is a country used to such unfortunate circumstances.”

An interesting thing has happened over the last decade of conflict in Israel, as social media and missile attacks have both become parts of everyday life: Shelters have been normalized. During attacks in the summer of 2014, when Hamas missile strikes reached Tel Aviv and partially shut down the city, Israelis reacted exactly as one might expect in an age of Snapchat. The Facebook group Shelter Selfies featured pictures of smiling teens, cute pets, and neighbors in towels, all caught in stairwells or safe rooms and making the best of it.

According to American photographer Adam Reynolds, who worked in Israel and the Palestinian territories as a freelancer and did a photo series documenting safe rooms in Israel, these spaces represent a part of the country’s visual vernacular. Children would have birthday parties in the unused safe room of an apartment building, and many had dual uses, including as synagogues or dance studios.

“You can see fairly crazy extreme situations happening in other places, and people are concerned about that happening in our back yard without having a solution. It’s not that it’s a probability, it’s a possibility. That’s enough of a motivating factor.”—Brad Roberson

“At first, I approached these spaces as weird bomb shelters that had other functions,” he says. “But moving forward with the project, it was more about the Israeli national psyche and character, and what these spaces represent.”

Reynolds found that Israelis had varying perspectives on the shelters. Some saw them as a necessary evil and others felt the money spent on this infrastructure should go toward peace initiatives instead. He said there was always the shadow of the Holocaust: it’s happened once and it could happen again, so people need to be ready.

Tamar Blumenfeld, a young Tel Aviv artist who drew comics about life during wartime for the Israeli daily Haaretz, will release her work as a graphic novel early next year. The situation that summer created scores of funny situations—catching a cute neighbor in their underpants in a stairwell, or being stuck at a singles bar when the sirens went off. It was incredibly stressful, but people made the most of the situation.

Her book deals with the more lasting impacts of the attacks and of life in shelters. During one raid, she headed toward shelter and recalls not thinking about, or looking for, her husband. She says moments like that made her begin to doubt their relationship.

“It had a lot to do with me and my ex-husband separating,” she says. “It makes you think about your life. Why didn’t I think about him, something is wrong, isn’t he my top priority? Even if it’s not direct, it affects you in some way.”

But not every new safety structure signifies something troubling, even subconsciously. For many, confronting the threat, and making the realization, reflection, and solution part of their home, can be empowering.

“Ignoring the threat doesn’t make me feel confident,” says Hooper. “Hoping I can withstand a real challenge, hoping alone doesn’t make me feel good. I have a skill set and have tested myself, and I know I can do it. I think that’s a more healthy and confident attitude.”

For someone in the doomsday business, Hooper can be incredibly sanguine about preparing. Americans are constantly fed the notion that we’re a few meals away from disaster, she says, and that’s wrong. She knows that, not from her research or a well-laid plan, but from being a New Yorker, living through 9/11 and the 2003 blackout, and seeing small acts of community kindness, small acts between strangers. People go to extreme lengths to help each other, one of the key lessons of a day that, in hindsight, has been overshadowed by a sense of fear.

“There’s some complexity and nuance in the way people can confront these challenges,” says Hooper. “It would be my personal preference that people confront these security issues by becoming more a part of the community, better at tribe building, and more resilient. The trend appears to be heading towards social isolation and pessimism, to build an island in my house and close the door. It’s great to have in your back pocket, but it doesn’t replace everyday situational awareness.”

“I don’t want to critique other Americans, but it’s like the difference between working out and plastic surgery. Both things will get you where you want to be, but one thing will leave you more prepared. I would love to see our country do more of the hard work.”

Shelter from the storm

Today, climate change and the more powerful storms it drives are the most immediate threats to homes, leading architects and insurance companies to continually rethink building standards. A study of NOAA data suggests that sea-level rise may cause $882 billion in property loss by 2100, and in areas like Miami and Hawaii, one in three homes will be lost. The federal government just funded its first trial program in Louisiana to relocate climate refugees. According to Tom Hurd, chair of the American Institute of Architects’ Disaster Assistance Committee, the group is increasingly seeing the need for better design to accommodate more frequent and stronger storms due to climate change.

“Storm events are getting worse and more frequent,” Hurd says. “There’s a lot we can do, and a lot that we’ve known about. Often just a small amount of money can make a big difference.”

Hurd and his colleagues have gone through postmortems in places such as Moore, Oklahoma, which was hit by a deadly string of tornadoes in 2013, and researched the damage to help devise more stringent building codes, updating government guidelines, such as FEMA P-361 and FEMA P-320, which govern construction of safe rooms in a variety of buildings.

The insurance industry also plays a role in helping to test new materials and advocate for better codes and standards. The recently opened Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety in Chester County, South Carolina, looks like the coolest movie set in the world, a six-story hangar that can recreate Category 3 hurricanes with a wall of more than 100 high-powered fans.

“A slight shift in the wind code could have prevented 75 percent of the damage in Moore,” Hurd says. “It’s not as easy to change for existing structures, but it can make a big difference for new buildings.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *