Ask the Architect

Pondering the unthinkable


Q. With all the crazy talk going on, I was wondering what I need to do to build a shelter against nuclear attack. Do I need any special permits? How do you build one?

A. I remember as a first-grader, during the Cuban missile crisis, living in Orlando, Fla., and practicing what was referred to as “duck and cover”: An alarm would sound, and we were shown how to quickly drop to our knees and grasp the legs of our school desks. We all stared at one another and wondered if the sound would be loud, and waited, each time, expecting we were safe and would naturally survive. At age 6, I guess you believe what you’re told, and nobody would tell you something that wasn’t true, right? But what were the adults thinking? Looking back, we were so vulnerable and naïve.

Your question makes me ponder how vulnerable we still are, as if we could survive, or maybe it would just happen somewhere else. The fact is, we are, for the most part, unprepared and unable to survive, unless you want the expense and are willing to study the entire procedure for survival. In my early 20s, just graduated from college, I volunteered to become a “disaster shelter technician,” studying the federally issued manuals and taking an exam to be federally certified. It involved a lot of engineering knowledge to understand how a building would blow sideways with the atomic blast, analyzing which portions of a building would remain and how best to identify where a bunker could help house people for the 28 to 30 days it would take to avoid fallout exposure.

Remember, the landscape will look completely different when you emerge into sunlight, and if there’s a large building above, the rubble could prevent you from getting out. So first, imagine which shredded buildings would come to rest above your shelter and seek open space. Next, are you planning on hunkering, or should I say bunkering, down and rationing freeze-dried sealed packages of food and water for 30 days, at least 3 to 10 feet below earth cover? You can’t go outside right away, and will need a large reservoir of water, not to mention air tanks able to supply air for breathing so you don’t inhale radioactive dust.

Online, I’ve seen examples that range from reinforced-concrete structures that must be able to withstand shock wave impacts to steel, submarine-shaped tubes able to distort on impact and then resume their original shape. If you’re in a flood zone, don’t attempt to dig down to form an earth-protected shelter. The resultant tsunami might get you before the radiation does. I would imagine, since fallout shelters are not common, a permit would involve soil testing, and groundwater location would have to be proved. If this hasn’t discouraged you, I highly recommend discussing your planning with an engineer and a physicist who are experienced in this very narrow field of expertise.

© 2017 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.