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:
QUESTIONS TO ASK
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:
- 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.
BASICS FOR BUILDING
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?