Safe Rooms: Protection From More Than Just Intruders
When you’re looking for the perfect home plan, what features are on your must-have list? Do you want a certain number of bedrooms and baths? How about an open plan with a great room concept? Maybe you want a design that blends outdoor with inside living? There are so many home plan options, but there’s one thing you should strongly consider — house plans with a safe room. No doubt you’ve heard about floor plans with safe rooms. If you saw the Jodie Foster film Panic Room — where a family retreats to their safe room during a terrifying home invasion — you probably think of the stereotypical wealthy family who are highly at risk for being targeted by robbers and need that extra level of personal protection. But any family can benefit from having a safe room.
Why Have a Safe Room?Threats by thieves or even terrorist attacks are remote occurrences compared to the real risks your family can face. It’s much more likely you’ll be struck by a natural disaster like a tornado or hurricane, where wind forces can devastate a wood-frame house and expose your loved ones to flying debris. Narrowing your search to home plans with safe rooms will minimize your risk, especially if your safe room house plans are designed to comply with standards prescribed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).Safe room floor plans can easily accommodate a specially dedicated and constructed space that can withstand extreme events. Those can be natural storms or human-caused situations. FEMA standards particularly address high-wind conditions. FEMA defines a safe room as “a hardened structure specifically designed to meet FEMA criteria and provide near-absolute protection in extreme weather events, including tornadoes and hurricanes. Near-absolute protection means that, based on our current knowledge of hurricanes and tornadoes, the occupants of a safe room built according to FEMA guidance have a very high probability of being protected from injury or death." That’s not much to ask on your must-have list. Selecting house plans with safe rooms fulfills this need and is barely noticeable in your overall building budget. Safe house plans dedicate one small interior area of your home to high-risk protection. Designing an entire home to be completely hurricane- or tornado-proof would be nearly impossible. Certainly, it would be impractical and cost-prohibitive, not to mention being unattractive due to window, door and roof requirements.
Safe Room Design PrinciplesSafe rooms are insurance against violent acts, including natural disasters. They’re simply reinforced rooms that provide safe shelter. Safe room design principles are straightforward and time-tested in both laboratory and actual field conditions. FEMA has worked with the National Wind Institute at the University of Texas to construct safe room shelters that survive wind forces of more than 250 miles per hour for extended periods and . To assist homeowners, builders and designers to create house plans with tornado and hurricane safe rooms, FEMA publishes two excellent guides.International Code Council 500 Standard called the Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters. General principles for safe room design include:
- Preferably an interior location. Garages are great and main floors are preferred for easy access, especially for mobility-restricted people. Basements provide excellent wall protection, but are vulnerable to flooding and restricted egress from collapsed structures. Second-story positions are highly discouraged.
- Surrounding walls need to be solid and sturdy. Corners must be continuous or mechanically attached to prevent separation. You shouldn’t ever use windows due to limited resistance and strength.
- Roofs must be constructed as part of the safe room structure. Upper floor joists or ceilings are not adequate. Concrete slab roofs are ideal, provided they’re reinforced with steel rebar.
- Floors must be anchored directly to the home’s foundation. Relying on existing slab-on-grade construction or wood beams is not adequate. The entire safe room structure must be mechanically anchored to the foundation to prevent turning over or dislodging during a weather event.
- Doors must be 14-gauge steel, including the jamb and stop. Three-point locks are mandatory. Egress must be easy for anyone inside and cannot require an interior key or unfamiliar opening apparatus. Experts suggest commercial panic hardware.
Concrete Construction for Safe RoomsThe key to safe room protection is its structural integrity. That can hardly be achieved with wood-frame technology. Some projects use steel in safe room construction projects, but metal work is a specialty most homeowners and house builders are unfamiliar with. That makes wood and steel impractical for building safe rooms. The ideal choice is concrete construction.Concrete is nature’s wonder material when it comes to building products. Concrete is easy to work with, readily available and relatively inexpensive. It’s exceptionally strong when combined with the right design. Concrete is also fireproof, waterproof and wind resistant. It controls sound well, which is calming in high wind conditions. There likely isn’t any better building product available for safe rooms than concrete.Buildblock Saferooms are an excellent choice when you’re designing safe room house plans. Nelson Home Design is proud to say we’ve partnered with Buildblock Saferooms to incorporate their ingenious safe room system into our Ninja House Plans. One of the appealing features Buildblock offers is its creative use of insulated concrete forms (ICF) into the wall design. ICFs are marvelous inventions. They act as formworks for concrete pours, then permanently remain in place as part of the safe room wall system. Concrete cast inside the ICFs is webbed with rebar, including overlapped steel at the corners. This makes a continuous molded cage surrounding the safe room. Buildblock Saferooms are more than just impenetrable exterior walls. They design the entire safe room as an integrated system that incorporates both a concrete room and a concrete floor. The BuildDeck System has a roof cast as a flat slab, again strengthened by a rebar grid and high-tensile concrete. Their safe room floors are cast the same way, but they’re firmly anchored right to the home’s footing with steel anchors and straps. Think of Buildblock Saferooms as a bunker within your home. They’re nearly indestructible, but they don’t have to look like a bomb shelter. These clever kits can be used as any other interior room in your house, such as a closet, bathroom, study or pantry. Many people use their Buildblock Saferoom as a music, home theater or hobby room due to the acoustic properties. They also equip their safe room with special features.
Special Features for Safe RoomsSafe rooms are special places for a special purpose. It goes with the territory that safe rooms need special features. This is where your creativity combines with your home designer’s ability to make your safe room a multi-purpose area that functions normally until its hidden purpose is required during a state of emergency. Some special features to include in your safe room house plan design are:
- Ventilation is critically important. A properly designed safe room, like one constructed of ICFs with a concrete roof and floor, is going to be airtight, especially with the metal door sealed shut. There are no windows to open, so natural ventilation is absent. Mechanical breathing with ducting and an electric fan system is a must. However, plan to have a backup electrical source as well, given the high likelihood of power failure during a severe storm. A rechargeable battery is the solution, but for safety’s sake, a small passive ventilation tube with a snorkel top extending through the roof is wise insurance.
- Communications are equally important. You should wire landline phone and Internet connections to contact emergency services. But these too can fail during a tornado or hurricane. You probably have cell capabilities, but consider the thick nature of your ICF walls. Like an underground parking garage, they can block cell signals. Consider designing an exterior aerial device as an auxiliary broadcast and receiving assist. Don’t overlook having a portable, battery-operated radio for getting emergency broadcasts.
- Video surveillance is another special feature to consider. This can be tied into your entire security system and keeps you in touch with outside conditions. It’s not just for surveilling burglars. Video monitoring lets you know when it’s safe to return outside.
- Survival supplies are a must if you’re designing your safe room for hurricane areas. Tornadoes are short-term events, even though they can be incredibly destructive. Hurricanes are a different matter. You and your family could be locked up for hours or even days. Make sure you stock your safe room with adequate supplies of clean drinking water and non-perishable, high-energy foods.
- First aid should be a high priority in your safe room supplies. That should include, at minimum, bandages and pain relief medicine. You should also think of special requirements and your family’s needs, such as prescriptions.
- Toilet facilities are a fact of nature, and that’s not going to change during a disaster. Many safe rooms are designed with toilet facilities, whether plumbed-in or portable.
Residential Safe Rooms and Community Safe RoomsReferring to the FEMA P-361, Safe Rooms for Tornadoes and Hurricanes: Guidance for Community and Residential Safe Rooms, you’ll note the guidelines make two distinctions between residential and community safe rooms. They also separate safe rooms designed for tornadoes and hurricanes. There are reasons for that.FEMA rates maximum residential safe room capacity as 16 occupants. They calculate the area and specify the structural strength and design requirements, based on what 16 people would require during a state of emergency. They view tornadoes as brief events with sudden starts and finishes, whereas hurricanes are long-duration disasters with slow buildups and letdowns. The exact residential safe room specifications are found in their FEMA P-320 publication. Community safe rooms are designed for larger capacities, where entire neighborhoods can be safely sheltered. They serve as community relief centers and were originally conceived by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in response to disasters where tornadoes and hurricanes demolished entire mobile and manufactured home developments. FEMA specifies community safe rooms slightly different than residential ones, the main difference being the ability to support larger groups over long periods. Some federal assistance funds are available for community safe houses.
FEMA’s Frequently Asked Questions About Safe RoomsFEMA is undoubtedly the top authority on safe room design and requirements. Their website is a wealth of information, which includes frequently asked questions. Here are the main ones you should know if you’re interested in house plans with a safe room. Should I have a safe room? That depends on a few considerations like:
- The probability that a tornado or hurricane will hit your house
- Any existing refuge places you have
- The level of safety that makes you comfortable
- Your budget
- The feasibility of incorporating a safe room into your design
- Pro — In-ground safe rooms use the earth as natural protection.
- Pro — Basements are cost-effective spaces.
- Con — Lower safe rooms are difficult to access for mobility-restricted people.
- Con — Basement safe rooms can have collapsed material on top and be hard to escape.
- Con — Basement safe rooms are dangerous in flood-prone areas.
- Size of your safe room
- Location in the building
- Materials used
- Labor familiarity and availability
- Added amenities and special features
- Most building codes don’t differentiate about safe rooms.
- If construction is outside the local codes, you’ll need professional engineering.
- Permits will be part of your overall package. There’s nothing special for safe rooms.