What is a house to you? This is not a rhetorical question, but
possibly a cultural one. Our preferences reflect our experiences. If you grew up in a grass hut, adobe cottage or a
teepee or bamboo hut or dome or underground home or log cabin, your concept of a house being a home has probably
undergone change. You may have to live in your Survival Retreat for a long time, possibly for years. If you only
think about survival and basic necessities when planning, designing and building your house, you may later reget
that you overlooked additions and features that transform a house where you survive into a home where you
Priority must be given to designing features which require no
electricity, gas or any outside energy source to operate. By making the house independent of 'imported' or
even generated power, basic necessities will not suffer in case of a power failure. Consider this independence from
external power a design requirement, so that all decisions which follow support it. This idea has been
repeated from the Home Page, because I feel it must be the guiding principle of not only the design of the house
but of the entire retreat.
What features do you need? That depends on what you need to thrive. Here are some of my
additions to the usual stock of food and clothes, etc.: My library of at least 200 books, my Yamaha PSR 740
electronic keyboard and music recording, mixing and CD-burning gear, watercolors and lots of paper, clay and
woodcarving tools, sewing machine and bolts of material, movies on DVD and a player or two... you get the idea. If
I have to stay at my Survival Retreat for a long time, I want to have enough 'cool' stuff in it to make the stay as
enjoyable as possible, under the circumstances. Yes, some of them require electricity, so I am designing solar
power into my house. I just found National Geographics at a thrift shop: 15 for $1. I'm stocking up. You might
consider a separate room in your house just for these inspirational, creative and productive activities that you
need not neglect simply because society has collapsed or it's taking a long time for 'life' to return to
Plan your house carefully. Get help if you're not experienced or courageous enough. Consider
the terrain, local materials, climate, drainage, slope, other integrated sytems (water, greywater, electricity,
heating and cooling), /visibility/security, accessibility and so on.
I cannot tell you what kind of house to build. Climate, your skills, your needs, local
materials, you have to consider these and more. However, consider also this: as a survival retreat, your house must
fulfill that role - to be a safe place where you retreat and survive, even thrive. So what demands
may eventually be placed on your humble dwelling? Let's come to the point: Will your house be asked to
stop bullets? It's a fair question, given the predictable scenarios that play out after major disasters and a
possible collapse of society's law and order.
If there is any possibility that your house will be attacked by looters, gangs,
thieves, lawless refugees desperate for food, etc., then assume that guns, probably rifles, will be involved.
Did you ever see what a .30-06 rifle bullet can do? Impressive. Even the much less powerful AK round
(7.62 x 39) will go completely through the trunk of a 10 inch diameter pine tree.
So "think medieval castle" is the advice James Wesley Rawls gives in his book 'How to Survive
the End of the World as We Know it, regarding survival retreat design and construction. I agree. Imagine your
surprise and regretful if your house does one day come under fire, and the bullets come right through the
walls! Really bad news. It's impossible to predict what your retreat house may one day have to repel, so my
suggestion is to overbuild. The walls of my house are 4 inches of concrete, plus 5 inches installation plus another
2 inches of concrete on the outside. The insulation will stop a bullet, but 6 inches of concrete will.
Another of Mr. Rawles' books, Patriots, touches on retreat security, defense, offense, militias, training,
battles and the running of a several-family retreat in Idaho. Fiction, but full of useful, nonfiction information.
Here's how I arrived at my house design and materials:
It's concrete. I wanted to build with earth (adobe, earthbag, rammed earth), but
there is not enough soil at the site, or anywhere else, to build with. I decided to reserve the existing soil for
the raised bed veggie garden. An underground or partially burried house would be ideal in this desert, but it was
also not an option.
However, the dry wash that divides my property has lots of sand, gravel and stones - perfect raw materials for
making a concrete or a stone house. I only had to bring in Portland cement.
So I first decided to do a slip-form hexagon stone house, but the thought of lugging all of the stones up a
slope to the site, 50 feet higher and 200 feet away was what finally motivated me to build it with concrete. In the
end, I would have to carry the same amount of aggregate as stone from the wash, because I rejected the stones and
gravel at the site as too weak - mostly decomposing quartz-rich granite.
The downside to using concrete is the Portland cement - it's a fossil-fuel-gobbling process to
make it. The good news is that, once cured, dry and protected, concrete homes can last a hundred years and longer.
The Romans, who invented concrete, built structures so well that some of them are still standing thousands of years
later. Concrete requires little or no maintenance, saving money, fuel and materials often required to maintain
other structures, like wood.
I wanted the house to be made from local materials, as much as possible. With no trees, little
soil, no clay, no bamboo or straw, and having an abundance of sand and gravel, concrete became the obvious choice.
This requirement was also dictated by the fact that my property has no access road. No vehicle can reach closer
than one mile, so that last mile must be on foot. All building materials, tools - everything - must be carried in,
either over a 200-foot ridge or up my wash, one mile either way.
After carrying a lot of supplies for the first rain catchment and an 80-lb generator over the ridge, I scouted
for an alternate route and followed my wash to it's exit, now my entry point.
Back to the house... I opted to do it using slip-forms, long panels of plywood-on-frames which,
when placed and tied together parallel a few inches apart, become a mold or form into which concrete can
be poured. When the concrete is cured, the ties are removed and the form sides are moved (slipped) up and attached
to the top of the fresh wall section and the process is repeated, around the house and upwards until all walls are
the designed height.
Whichever material you use for your walls, and whichever method you use to build them, be sure you can build
them alone or with the help you expect to have.
Your design should reflect the purposes for which you want the house, so have a plan for every
room and for every wall of the room. As an example, here is the plan for my downstairs room, about 160 sq ft total
Standing in the center of my hexagonal room and facing the front door (NE), wall (1),
to its right is a wall-mounted ladder to the upstairs room (on the wall it takes up no floor space). (2) The next
wall has a wood stove/baking oven (backup heater) on its left, a large table with shelves above it on the wall, and
vents near the floor and ceiling to and from a solar heater on the right. (3) Next wall has more vents for the
second heater facing south, a desk for computer, printer, etc., far right is the left end of the kitchen counter
and sink and the entrance into the room of hot water from the heater on the wall outside. (4) Storage under the
sink as well as access to two circuit boxes, 110V and 12V and cables from the battery bank and inverter outside.
Far right begins kitchen storage shelves. (5) Kitchen storage shelves floor to ceiling, 18" deep. (6) General
storage shelves 24" deep, including built-in gun safe.
Upstairs, accessed only through a hinged hatch in the ceiling to the left as one
enters the front door, is for sleeping (bedding folded out of the way), music (keyboard on stand), observation
(tripod-mounted telescope), hobbies (table with craft tools, sewing machine, etc.) and reading (library shelves),
plus an exercise machine.
Four walls have double electrical outlets for 12 and 110V. All lighting is 12V LEDs. Four walls
have small windows of 1/2" glass cut from a coffee table, glass blocks in other walls for light. Missing: bed.
Takes too much space, especially in a small house (actually, two beds lower from the ceiling and store in the
insulation space there). Also missing: bathroom. I shower outside. Compost toilet is also outside - I prefer no
toilet odors in the house. Kitchen sink is used for washing hands, brushing teeth, etc. Also missing: stove
and oven. No cooking odors inside. I rarely cook anyway, but as some stored food requires cooking, stove and oven
I mention these things so that you might rethink what a house is to you and what features you really need, and
those you can eliminate or move outdoors.
My few windows are small, 15" square. Big windows to enjoy the view are popular with those who
work indoors and rarely see nature. I spend most of my time outside, even sleep outside most of the year. I don't
need big windows to see what I see all day. Big windows lose heat in winter and, as far as security, are the
weakest point in a wall.
I want to see outside while standing at the sink and while seated at my desk and table, because
these windows face directions from which visitors are likely to come and overlook areas where I have key support
elements: water tank, tool shed, solar array, veggie garden, battery bank. Upstairs I have 360 degree views with
windows on all sides.
Update 2014: The hexagon will be a guest cottage, because I'm now building the main house
underground, where the garden was started. I know, that sound odd. It's a story worth telling. The walls on the
hexagon are 21" high, and I was planning to continue using the slip form to make the walls higher. But the forms
had been in the weather a long time, and after the first course they warped more - the the point where I didn't
want to use them. So I got galvanized steel sheets and square pipe to make new ones. In the meantime, I got
'inspired' to excavate the garden, below the hexagon.
I removed the soil so I could put it back after building the concrete beds. I used pick and shovel and hit
granite, I kept going and reached 3.5 feet at the deep end (slight hill slope). That was deep enough for a garden,
and I was exhausted digging in stone. I kept wondering why I was working on the garden when the hexagon was waiting
to be completed. But I don't question 'inspiration', even if I don't understand it, so I kept digging.
Then it happened. It was an 'aha' moment driving back from Kansas City. I wasn't working on the garden all that
time, I was digging the hole for my underground house. I found a jackhammer on Amazon for $109 plus $50 shipping,
great reviews. I got one and started chipping into the granite floor. It was not easy, vibrating for three months,
but I eventually blasted and removed a total of 250,000 pounds of rock and soil from that huge hole, now 7' deep at
the deep end. That's where my house will be built.
I made a completely new design and love it. When I can, I will draw it here. Two main rooms, south wall facing
south, includes kitchen, bath, office, work shop, storage, and bed which stays near the ceiling until it's needed
then lowered. Solid wood roof, covered with stone and stucco. Heater and hot water on the south wall. Lots of room
and lots of storage space. Top one foot above grade with glass blocks instead of windows. Passive and active