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Building a Safe Room at Home or in the Community

Building a Safe Room at Home or in the Community

We often think of safe rooms as shelters we can go to during attacks or home invasions, but they can also protect us from extreme weather.

According to FEMA, “a safe room is a hardened structure [that meets specific design and safety criteria] and provides ‘near-absolute protection’ in extreme weather events, including tornadoes and hurricanes.” Since safe rooms serve a dual purpose, they’re a great investment for those interested in emergency preparedness or home safety in general.

So, how would you build one? What types of materials would you need? And how much would it cost? Here are some pointers to get you started:


The first thing you need to determine before designing or building a safe room is what its purpose will be (is it for home invasions, natural disasters, or both?). You’re purpose for building the safe room will influence the materials you use and the way it’s built. The following questions will help you determine your needs:

1. Is my home in an at-risk area where natural disasters are frequent or probable?

  • This map of the United States can help you to identify your risk factors for tornadoes and hurricanes.
  • This worksheet can help you determine what kind of shelter you need based on your risk from the map above.

2. What is the crime rate in your area? How frequently do home invasions occur where you live?

3. Who will be sheltered in the safe room?

  • Do you have any family or community members with special needs? Do they need special medical equipment, beds, or ramps to access the room?
  • How many people do you expect to house here?

4. What kind of supplies will you store in your safe room?

  • Do you need cabinets and/or specialized compartments (like a gun safe) to house your supplies?

5. Do you want any “extras”?

  • Extras include: key pad door lock (automatic lock), surveillance equipment, land line phone, ham radio

Now that you have some basic questions answered, it’s time to look at designing and building your safe room!


After answering the questions above, you should have a pretty good idea about how many people your safe room will house. If you have a lot of “extras,” special equipment, or supplies, you should make your room larger than the minimum size for a given number of people. There are specific sizes based on the event you are preparing for, but here are some general numbers to give you an idea. FEMA recommends the following (largest minimum requirements):

  • For residential one- and two-family dwellings: seven square feet per person
  • For other residential: ten square feet per person
  • For community safe rooms: 20  square feet per person; 40 square feet per bedridden person


Once you determine an appropriate size, determine whether you’re going to install your safe room in an existing building, or build a totally separate building. Typically, installing a safe room in an existing home or building is more expensive and challenging than installing one in a new building by about 20 percent (see more about cost below).

If you decide to build a safe room into an existing building, the most convenient location in many homes is the basement (unless you’re in a flood zone). Another possibility is an in-ground safe room installed beneath a concrete slab-on-grade foundation or a concrete garage floor. These two locations provide the most protection from airborne objects (like missiles) or falling debris, but above-ground designs can also offer more-than-adequate protection. In fact, placing a safe room on the first floor interior of a building will also work as long as it’s supported by interior walls.

One major benefit of building a safe room within a home or garage is that it allows those inside the home to get to safety without venturing outside into the weather or possibly facing an intruder. But the added safety measure that comes with building a safe room in an existing building must be weighed against the challenges of retrofitting the building.

For more information about selecting a location for your safe room, FEMA has a free downloadable pdf that goes into extensive detail on the topic.


According to FEMA, the cost of a 64-square-foot safe room (of their design) ranges from $6,600-$9,000 while a 200-square-foot room can be anywhere from $12,000 to $14,500. Costs will obviously vary depending on a number of factors, including:

  • Size
  • Location
  • Number of existing walls/Number of walls to be built
  • Type of door used
  • Foundation of location
  • Geographic area

As you can see, building a safe room can be an expensive proposition, but here are six smaller, less-expensive things you can do now to create a makeshift safe room in your home, if $10,000 is more than you can (or want to) spend:

1. Replace the door to your “safer” room with a solid wood or metal door with at least one good dead bolt lock on it.

2. Install a home alarm system.

3. Get a gun safe if you have weapons, and a regular fire and waterproof safe bolted to the ground for valuables and important papers.

4. Install a hard-wired phone for the room.

5. Place a 72-hour emergency kit for each person in the safe room.

6. Reinforce your windows. You can install bullet-proof glass, reinforce your existing glass with shatterproof laminate, or install plexiglass windows.

For more tips on building a safe room from an existing room check out our article “Stocking a Safe Room: Crucial Supplies to Have on Hand.”

Once you have these smaller items completed, look into saving money for retrofitting or building a full-blown safe room.


If you don’t feel confident in your construction and design skills, you can hire a professional contractor. Or you can check out some pre-fabricated safe rooms that require less skill to install. To ensure your future safety, you should obtain documentation from your contractors showing that the safe room is built to specified design and protection criteria (FEMA requirements, for example).

Important Design Aspects to Consider

There are a lot of things to consider in your design.

  • Walls: A safe room must have walls that will be sturdy and resist high-velocity projectiles as well as resistant to both positive and negative wind pressures. Walls should be made of concrete or reinforced with steel. Walls should also be anchored, and the room should be windowless if possible (Plexiglass windows are safer than glass).
  • Doors: Typically a weak point for safe rooms. Door construction (particularly the exterior layer) is often a limiting element in the door’s ability to withstand impact. Doors and frames should be made of solid wood or metal and the door frame should be reinforced if possible. For more tips on reinforcing an existing door frame, check out this article from No Nonsense Self Defense.
  • Power: In the event that the electricity is disrupted, you should have a back-up power source like a Goal Zero solar powered generator to provide lighting.
  • Ventilation: There are independent systems that can be installed for ventilation, especially if the room may be used for longer than 24 hours. To prevent air leakage, the safe room should not have lay-in ceilings (suspended ceiling tiles) unless there is a hard ceiling above.
  • Sleeping Area and Storage: If the room may be used for more than 24 hours, you may consider additional floor area to accommodate sleeping. Also, if you determined the need for cabinets or special lockers, you must remember to include that as additional needed area in your design.

This helpful PDF from FEMA goes more in-depth about safe room design.


Taking steps to create a safe room, or at least a “safer” room, in your home can be a great investment and asset for you and your family, especially in times of emergency or danger. If building a safe room right away isn’t viable for you, make a plan to get one over the course of a number of years and do little things to make your home safer and better prepared for emergencies.

For information on stocking a Safe Room with supplies, check out our article, Stocking a Safe Room: Crucial Supplies to Have on Hand.


Have you built a safe room? Did you have a contractor do it? Any pointers or tips for those wanting to build a safe room? Any other items you consider must-haves in a safe room?








12 thoughts on “Building a Safe Room at Home or in the Community”

  • Bob Owens

    Most people have a safe room they don't know about and cost is minimal. Their garage! Install a hurricane proof garage door, prexiglass any window and you have it. Just lock the doors and hop in your car and you are as safe as any safe room.

    • beprepared

      Thanks for the tip. It's true that many rooms in your home could become safe rooms and we don't even realize it! Did you personally convert your garage into a safe room? What prompted you to do so? Frequent storms in your area? Home invasions? Just to be prepared for whatever comes?

  • Bob Owens

    I live in Tampa, Florida, Lightning and Hurricane Capitol of the World. I had my garage door re-enforced to Hurricane standards about 10 years ago. The garage is concrete block and only has 1 window so it is pretty sturdy already. And if you are in your car in the garage you have added protection and can listen to the radio or take a nap when things so South. Add a bit of food and water, a couple of pillows and you are all set. No need to go to any great expense for something you might only use once in a lifetime.

    • beprepared

      That's great. I think your example will help a lot of people who may be concerned with the cost of building a full out safe room to know that you can make a couple of modifications to help you to stay safe. Thanks for sharing!

  • Ole Grandpa

    Didn't get to read all of the above but what I did it was interesting. The problem I see is that this sort of safe room wouldn't work very well here in OKla. Too many twisters running around here and anything above ground is fair game unless it has 2 foot thick concrete walls and roof. Sorry but you wouldn't catch me inside a garage with a F1 coming my way let alone a F5. Did you folks see what happen to Moore, OK, do you really think an above ground safe room would have lasted? So if you're going to build something to be safe in just be sure it will cover any and all problems. Just my thoughts. O_G

    • beprepared

      Ole Grandpa,
      Thanks for sharing. Your comment does present an interesting twist on the comments made before. Your comment and Bob's also suggests and reinforce the idea that you have to consider and ask yourself specific questions about the area you live in and types of storms you might face. These questions go a long way in helping you to determine what type of safe room would be best for you to build for your particular situation. What do you do or where do you go to stay safe when twisters blow through Oklahoma?

  • lee

    Just a question. What do you do if there is as tornado and you take shelter in the basement. The window wells fill up with water and the basement begins to flood. We ended up sitting on the stairs till the weather passed but would prefer not to go through that again. Anyone want to share ideas?

  • Denise

    I live within 2 long blocks of the Pacific Ocean in earthquake southern California. The area under my garage is sandy. How can I build a safe house?

    • beprepared

      Hi, Denise. Great question!
      For specific suggestions for your area, I would suggest speaking with a licensed contractor. They can give you ideas that will meet specific needs for the soil type and the building codes in your city.

    • Judy Mimranek
      Judy Mimranek May 12, 2016 at 6:00 am

      I would suggest you spend your money looking for a safer place to live. 2 blocks from the ocean may have seemed like a great place at the time you moved there, but times change and you should look for a safer place.

  • Bob Owens

    Just a few more thoughts on a garage safe room. Yes, it probably won't survive a direct hit by an F5 tornado but only a specialized safe house or re-enforced basement will do that. Where I live we only have Hurricanes and F0 tornadoes so a beefed up garage will do quite well against all but the strongest Hurricanes. Cost wise I have to consider just what sort of protection I want to have vs what I can afford. A safe room that I might never use and that I can't take with me if I move can be an expensive option. If I were building an new home I would have the builder add rebar to the garage walls and pour the walls solid. It would make it almost indestructable and only cost 1 or 2 thousand dollars. My last thought is that you can use your car's seatbelt to keep you from being tossed around should the worst happen. Also, if it looked like the worst was going to happen I would head to the nearest Red Cross shelter that could take the storm, if I had the time to evacuate. With all this said, I hope people remember, if they don't have anywhere to go, their garage just might save them.

  • dasixgunner

    For those interested in a garage safe-room set up, i have recently read there are companies now building in-ground structures in your existitng garage floor. Seems like a pretty decent option if you are considering the garage. They dig a spot in your existing garage floor and build the shelter. Best part is, it is below grade so you arent sacrificing garage space!

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