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Originally published on Site Selection Magazine by Jack Lyne on December 2011

Rattling and groaning like the ghost of Jacob Marley, the global economy feebly hobbles forward, setting the tempo for a construction industry that largely continues to limp along at its own sluggish pace. Yet there’s one building blitz afoot that’s quietly unfolding in the underground real estate market — a market that’s literally underground.

The unlikely seed for all that growth is the fallout shelter. Yes, that musty relic seemingly marooned forever in the 1950s and ’60s has roared back to life. And that’s spurring many shelter-makers to expand their operations and hire new workers to keep pace with demand that’s, well, exploding.

The impact of that demand surge is also registering at Radius Engineering, which specializes in fallout shelters. President Walton McCarthy says that business has never been better at the Terrell, Texas-based firm, where the corporate slogan is “The Future Belongs to Those Who Plan.”

“We’ve doubled our business in each of the last five years,” says McCarthy, a licensed mechanical engineer who founded Radius in 1978. “I’ve had to add a second plant, and we’re planning on adding a bunch of new employees.”

Radius sold $31 million worth of shelters last year, he says. The new hires may swell to the point that the company has four times as many workers as the approximately 60 employees now in place, he adds.

As at Hardened Structures, Radius has handled some sizable projects during its sales surge, McCarthy says. One of them is a $41-million shelter built for 750 people. McCarty says that client confidentiality precludes any mention of the development’s location or its ownership.

Small Sector, Big Projects

The shelter industry as a whole is probably still small. Not that you’d ever really know. The industry’s penchant for secrecy makes precise quantification impossible.

Companies who make and install shelters have their own industry association, The American Civil Defense Association (ACDA), which was created in 1962. (One early board member was Edward Teller, “the father of the atomic bomb.”) But ACDA Executive Director Sharon Packer, who’s also co-owner of Utah Shelter Systems, declined to specify the current number of member companies. Four years ago, though, she told a reporter that 400 companies were represented in the ACDA.

Whatever the industry’s size, some shelter-makers are building some very big structures.

But prefab models can’t fill the needs of many of today’s buyers. They want more — a lot more. Many want to extensively customize the new space they’re buying, shelter manufacturers report. Since they just might need to stay inside for extended periods, those customers want a living area with plentiful creature comforts. Consequently, buyers are often designing their shelters with full, well-equipped kitchens; home theaters; top-of-the-line bathrooms; hot tubs; small personal gyms, and separate walled bedrooms.

Shelter customization is what really starts the money meter running in fast-forward.

Fit for a King

Given the shelter industry’s close-mouthed nature, trying to get particulars about individual customizations is like trying to hold mercury in your hand. And shelter owners aren’t the types to covet a spread of their new homes in the likes of House Beautiful or Architectural Digest.

/// An informational vacuum helps perpetuate such stereotypes. The industry goes to considerable lengths to keep its profile about as low as the subterranean shelters it makes.

That guardedness is not without good reason. Shelter owners understandably don’t want the world to know they have a fully stocked safe haven. It boils down to a chilly calculus of survival: The more people who know about your shelter, the more people who may one day end up desperately clawing at your door when the ca-ca hits the fan.

“We’ve got to keep things confidential in order to protect our clients,” says McCarthy. “Being secretive defends our customers.”

Shelter-makers try to maximize confidentiality by making their installations as inconspicuous as possible. And you can’t successfully be inconspicuous if you’re always talking about how you’re being inconspicuous.

McCarthy will discuss tactics in general terms.

Choosing the crew to install the shelter is one way that some companies protect their client’s confidentiality, he explains. Crews are imported from out of town, which lessens the chance of a shelter’s location spreading by word of mouth. In some cases, he adds, companies even bring in installation crews from other countries — many of them knowing no English. Weekend installations, for example, often draw less attention than they would during the work week. What’s more, most government agencies are closed on those two days.

The Shelter Next Door

Many Radius customers site their shelters on vacant properties at remote locales that aren’t near heavily populated areas, McCarthy says. Camden says that Hardened Structures’ customers typically install their shelters to connect to their primary residence. He adds, though, that the company is selling a lot of shelters lately in Appalachia “because that’s a very rural area.”

A number of shelters, though, have been installed in heavily populated areas out in plain sight, and they haven’t drawn a whiff of suspicion.

After all, what was there to suspect? One day a construction crew shows up and they start building a new house on that vacant lot next door. Oh yeah, you remember, that new couple is planning to move in over there early next year. Looks like they’re puttin’ in a big pool and a real roomy basement. Those two must be pretty smart. And they do seem awful nice, don’t they?

Except that nice new couple just could be quietly building a mini-fortress.

“One of our most popular installations goes in at the same time we’re building an entire new house,” Camden explains. “It looks like any regular house, only it’s really not. We install a bunker underneath the house and stock it with food and supplies. And we build an emergency exit in the house so the owners can get downstairs quickly.”

Hardened Structures is also often racheting up those homes’ protection quotient in the project construction that unfolds above ground, Camden explains. Some Hardened Structures customers are specifying that they want the main residence to have a ballistic “Level 8” exterior. That hardened protective layer is fire resistant. And the exterior is strong enough that it can’t be penetrated by bullets fired from an automatic weapon — even one blazing away directly in front of the house. Spraying lead through the windows won’t work either; they’re made of bulletproof glass.

The Mayan Doomsday

So what’s the primary catalyst in the increase in shelter sales?

There’s no one answer for that; there are many. Buyers are motivated by a diverse array of fear factors. Some are obvious dangers, ones that have been front-page news of late — tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, tornados, diseases named for animals, nuclear accidents, hurricanes, forest fires, power outages and more.

Other dangers are more obscure. For one, solar storms — which actually do exist, with one that happened in 1859 widely considered as the most devastating on record. If one hit today, it might conceivably shut down the entire power grid. That in turn might trigger nuclear plant meltdowns.

And then there are safety concerns based on more ethereal notions. One of the most influential of those concepts traces back in part to the prophecies made by the likes of Nostradamus and Edward Cayce. The predominant driver, however, is the 5,125-year-old Mayan calendar. That calendar, some are convinced, points to Dec. 21, 2012, as The End of the World as We Know It — or TEOTWAWKI, as it’s called in some apocalyptic circles.

Cold War Shelter
Cold War Shelter

On that day, the ancient Mayan calendar will end, the believers contend. And that, they say, will trigger cataclysmic upheavals that could range from the reversal of Earth’s polarity to a total ecological collapse.

The notion of 2012 as el muerte para el mundo has gained wide enough credence that it’s spawned a cottage industry. You can buy books about that end game and t-shirts trumpeting the date; you can watch TV specials about it, and you can pay to attend seminars about it. In 2009, that Mayan date was the basis for an entire movie, “2012.” (The movie’s promotional catchphrase: “We Were Warned.”)

Radius Engineering Shelter InstallationMany observers, though, argue that there’s no solid evidence that TEOTWAWKI is fast closing upon us. The Mayan calendar, they contend, doesn’t actually end on Dec. 21, 2012; it only resets and starts anew. All the brouhaha about that day, they believe, will end up being another unrealized doomsday prediction. Dec. 21, those naysayers contend, will be remembered as much like Y2K or even the prolifically prognosticating Rev. Harold Camping (who of late has seemed to be resetting his own calendar).

Most shelter makers include some 2012 information on their websites. Vivos seems to give the prophecy the most prominent play. The company’s home page prominently displays a clock face. Beneath it, the time between now and Dec. 21, 2012, inexorably counts down, with second after second evaporating into the past.

On the other hand, more worldly concerns are often motivating many Hardened Structures’ customers, says Camden.

“The reason I hear most about why our customers are buying a shelter is the fear of economic collapse and the chaos that would ensue,” he explains. “I’d say that about half of our customers mention that.”

‘Client’s Priority, Our Priority’

Hardened Structures doesn’t get involved in championing or opposing any particular doomsday prediction.

“That’s not the business we’re in,” Camden explains. “It’s not our job to get wrapped up in those kinds of scenarios. What our priorities come down to, really, are what each of our clients’ priorities are. That’s what our company’s philosophy is, and that’s what our company’s philosophy will always be.”

Sounds eminently sensible. Even so, though, don’t shelter builders still have to be able to work their way through the complex web of thoughts, fears and emotions that motivate customers?

Definitely, Camden says. His company tackles those issues by sitting down early on with each client and talking at length. That process facilitates both the company and the client getting a solid grasp of some essential issues, including: who and what will be inside the shelter; the specific threats and hazards that clients want to ensure that the shelter can withstand; and how long the occupants want to be able to live safely and comfortably inside.

“What we figure out in the course of that process is what the shelter needs to do to give the client peace of mind,” Camden says. “Once we’ve got that all worked out, then we do the work that we’ve been trained to do … the work that we’ve been doing for a long time now.

“From that point out,” he adds, “it’s just a construction job. It all boils down then to just physics and engineering.”
A crew lifts a prefab shelter and begins to position the structure to be lowered into its underground site.

The fallout shelter is certainly nothing new. It has a past that’s longer than the hula-hoop’s, and started in far more dramatic fashion. The fallout shelter’s birth is symbiotically linked to the birth of the Cold War, which began shortly after World War II and raged on for nearly half a century.

Shelters didn’t reach a tipping point, though, until the U.S. government released a 1958 report detailing how the Soviet Union had quietly built up a nuclear arsenal that now rivaled America’s.

That uneasy news sent shock waves rattling through the body politic. Then, as U.S.-Soviet relations steadily grew more hostile, the unthinkable started looking like it might just be thinkable. The inimitable phrase “mutually assured destruction” embedded itself in everyday discussions. By the summer of 1961, President John Kennedy was on national television urging Americans to build shelters.

“We owe that kind of insurance to our families and to our country,” said the president, who’d just returned from his first up-close and unpleasant confrontation with pugnacious Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

“The time to start is now,” Kennedy emphasized in his July 25 address to the nation. “In the coming months, I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack. I know you would not want to do less.”

Americans were getting more strong shots of shelter-building motivation from what they saw around them. Television news shows regularly broadcast film of nuclear tests, with each detonation sending a fiery mushroom cloud aloft that hung in the sky like a giant question mark. For many Americans, the question it raised was one they asked themselves: “What the hell am I going to do if they drop the Big One?”

The issue even invaded primary and secondary schools. Teachers routinely ran their students through “bomb drills.” Kids learned to crouch on classroom floors, huddling beneath the dubious security of their desks.

Dr. Strangelove, I Presume

Even a trip to the movies didn’t guarantee escape from that gnawing worry. Studios regularly churned out films that reflected the era’s anxious preoccupation. Some of them packed a wallop that still kicks today. There’s the sobering “On the Beach,” for example, which is set in Australia after the Big One’s dropped, leaving some of the world’s last survivors to ponder an uncertain future. Then there’s the zanily black-humored “Dr. Strangelove,” which ends with a mushroom cloud after Slim Pickens, straddling an A-bomb, jubilantly rides the lethal spheroid down toward Soviet soil.

Not surprisingly, the idea of building a shelter gained a foothold. By 1965, Americans had built an estimated 200,000 of them.

Then, though, U.S. shelters began a slow, steady fade. In part, it was a case of battle fatigue for many Americans. Both the U.S. and Russia, it became clear, had thousands upon thousands of long-range atomic missiles, precisely aimed and ready to launch in the wink of an eye. Atomic warfare, the raw facts suggested, just might not be survivable. What’s more, the post-apocalypse world sounded so nightmarish that survival might possibly be the greater of two evils.

Futility-fueled neglect set in, and most shelters gradually went to seed. Today, most ’50s and ’60s shelters are virtual ruins. A few of the ancient structures are still in use, usually for storing items like wine and old clothes.

Now and again, though, one of those old 20th-century relics wanders into the present tense. WikiLeaks’ base server, for instance, was once located inside the Cold War-era shelter in Sweden in which a local company was basing its operations.

Soon, though, WikiLeaks was uprooted and looking for its own shelter. Pounded by hacker attacks and government pressures, Internet service providers in Sweden, the U.S. and France shut down the cyber-mutineer’s website in rapid succession. Eventually, WikiLeaks relocated its server somewhere in Switzerland. That site remains a closely kept secret.

Which, appropriately enough, sounds just like a fallout shelter.