by A. GunsSaveLife Member
This is the first of an occasional series. We’ll track the project, from design to completion. We hope you enjoy it.
Several years ago, when my wife and I first decided to take responsibility for our own protection, I ran out and bought a cheap gun safe – just so we could store our firearms responsibly. The safe wasn’t even fire rated. It was small and flimsy. What can I say – I didn’t know any better.
As our gun collection grew, our small, flimsy gun safe became very crowded. With our most recent purchase (a beautiful old Sako Forester chambered in .308 Winchester), it became clear that we couldn’t fit anything else into our safe. It was time for a new safe.
After researching gun safes, we realized that a large, good quality gun safe would be very expensive. Just to get an idea – I priced out the largest safe made by Fort Knox: a 72” x 61” Legend with every bit of extra metal available (including armor plate and a layer of stainless). That monster weighed in at 5500 pounds and cost about $18k – not including shipping. A Graffunder safe would cost even more! And when you get right down to it – these safes were not all that large. What would we do when we filled up the new safe?
There is an alternative: build a safe room. You can build a safe room as large as you want – much larger than a gun safe. A well-built safe room can be used as an emergency shelter. Think about it – a room that can withstand an F5 tornado might come in handy in central Illinois. You can design a safe room to have whatever fire rating you want. You can connect your safe room to the house HVAC – no more dehumidifier hassles. In short, the possibilities for a safe room are endless.
If you are building a new house or a new addition – then is it easy to incorporate a safe room into the basement design. If, like me, you are adding a safe room to an existing structure – well that is a little more complex. Here are a few things I learned while designing our safe room.
A safe room needs a proper foundation with footings. A 14×14 foot safe room with 8” thick concrete walls, floor and ceiling weighs about 65,000 pounds. The typical 4” slab floor found in most basements and garages is not strong enough to support that much weight – the floor will crack. If you want to build a safe room in an existing garage or basement – you will probably need to remove the floor, pour footings and pour a new floor.
A safe room needs adequate climate control. Heat in the winter. Cooling in the summer. Humidity control. We went back and forth between a ductless HVAC unit verses tying the safe room into the HVAC system. We ended up tying into the HVAC system. However, in a different situation, the ductless system could easily be the better choice.
What sort of technology and utilities should you put in a safe room? Power outlets and lights for sure. Water? What about a security system? The rebar in reinforced concrete may interfere with radio transmission into and out of your safe room. So, you may have problems with common hand held electronics (cell phones, radio, TV, Wi-Fi and G3/G4 Internet). Should you run Ethernet and set up Wi-Fi inside your safe room? Plan ahead. If you want tech or utilities in your safe room, then you need to run the conduit before the concrete is poured.
A vapor barrier is important if you plan on storing firearms or framing and hanging drywall to finish the interior of your safe room. An architect told me about his product of choice for waterproofing concrete: Drylok Extreme (drylok.com). Spray foam insulation is another great way to establish a vapor barrier.
The floor of your safe room needs to be above the water table. That can be a real challenge in Illinois. Many Illinois homes have footing drains and sump pumps to keep the basement dry. If the sump pump fails, or if the electricity goes out for an extended time, then the basement floods. Do you want to take a chance on your safe room flooding? In places with a high water table, or if you are adding a safe room to an existing house, if may be best to build your safe room above ground. I know this is obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: don’t build your safe room in a flood plain.
Safe room doors can open out (out-swing) or open into the room (in-swing). There are good reasons for each. Out-swing doors maximize usable space inside the safe room. However, debris can block an out-swing door. If you plan on using your safe room to ride out a tornado or to retreat from evil people, then an in-swing door may be the better choice.
There are a number of good resources for safe room design. FEMA has a web page including plans for rooms designed to withstand a tornado or hurricane (www.fema.gov/safe-rooms). High wind safe rooms is a web site about multi-function safe rooms (highwindsaferooms.org). There are also lots of resources covering ICF (insulated concrete form) construction. If you are trying to decide between ICF or traditional concrete form construction – my advice is to go with whatever your contractor knows and does best.
How thick should the walls be? I’ve heard of guys building safe rooms with anywhere from 6-inch to 2-foot thick walls. It all depends on how much you want to pay. A couple of manufacturer reps suggested to me that 8-inch walls are a good compromise.
The weakest link in a safe room is the door. Before choosing or specifying a door, you need to get educated. Youtube has some reasonable video discussions that will at least get you a basic knowledge of the issues. Once I grasped the basics, I gained a much better understanding by calling different safe companies and talking with the manufacturer reps. The most important lesson I took away from these discussions is that more metal makes for a better, more secure door.
Many safe manufacturers have gone to a “compound” door. These doors look massive, but actually are made out of a thin metal shell. These doors are flimsy and easily breached. Choose a door with a thick, solid outer steel plate. Also, consider choosing a door that includes special metals. Stainless steel resists cutting torches. Armor plate is hard to drill through.
There are many excellent safe manufacturers who supply safe room doors. I ended up ordering a custom door Fort Knox (www.ftknox.com) with all the extra metal I could add. Door fabrication takes about 8-9 weeks. Our door will weight in at about 2200 pounds. Once completed, it will be delivered right to the safe room construction site.
Hiding or disguising your safe room is a hot topic. A lot of people fantasize about hiding their safe room behind a hinged book case, fake fireplace or some sort of trap door. Before you get too elaborate – remember that your safe room needs to be easily accessible. If your safe room is hard to access, then you probably won’t use it. What good is the safe room that you don’t use? Simple concealment of your safe room is probably best. If the bad guys get past your concealment, they still need to break in to the safe room.
Selecting a contractor to build your safe room is a complicated, personal decision. I was fortunate to find an excellent contractor with experience building bank vaults. We will be using traditional form construction. The contractor is going to install the door, hook up HVAC and build in several conduits for electricity, Ethernet, a security system and other tech.
Building a home safe room is a big decision. It comes down to security, what you want to store and how much you want to spend. If you decide that a safe room is in your future – take your time. Get educated. Talk to contractors and safe manufacturer reps. Draw up plans and get a good contractor. It’s a lot of work. But consider the security you get in return.