How to Build a Safe Room (aka Panic Room)

Recent storms in the Central Iowa area brought strong winds, tornado threats and massive rain resulting in massive flooding. It's time to revisit the issue of safe rooms.

A safe room, sometimes also called a panic room (the terms are interchangeable), is a room installed in a private residence or a business to provide safety and shelter in the event of a break-in, home invasion, severe storm (i.e. tornado or hurricane), terrorist attack, nuclear attack or another threat. 

The concept of safe rooms were brought to the forefront with the 2002 thriller movie Panic Room. The film stars Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart as the mother and daughter who experience a home invasion. The criminal roles are played by Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam. The story, written by David Koepp, was purportedly inspired by 2000 news coverage about safe rooms. The safe room in Panic Room is a super secure, high-tech hidden room with concrete walls, thick steel doors, a ventilation system, a surveillance system covering every corner of the house and a phone line not connected to the house's main line.

But safe rooms have been around for much, much longer. Safe rooms are thought to have originated in the Middle Ages when castles had a room located deep within the building so the lord could hide if there was a siege. Safe rooms were used in the Underground Railroad system in the United States in the 1800s to house slaves, and again they were used to hide Prohibition-banned liquor in the 1920s. Fallout shelters, another form of the safe room, were built in the 1950s due to fear of a nuclear attack.

Across the world safe rooms are found in Mexican housing due to the high number of kidnappings. Bullet/fire-resistant safe rooms are mandated in new construction in Israel. And every U.S. embassy has a safe room.

We first published a blog about safe rooms in 2011, and we've referenced this blog almost every year since. Severe weather season in Iowa and throughout the country causes major damage each year and even devastation, taking lives and ruining homes. There are ways to minimize how your family is impacted during a severe storm, including building a safe room.

Here's our original blog followed by some additional commentary:

Tornadoes, hail and wind storms: all provide a need for protection for your family and your valuable documents/possessions. While your home is built to code and should remain safe and secure under normal conditions, it is not built to withstand extreme weather conditions. A safe room is constructed to protect anything in the room from high winds and flying debris in spite of the damage caused to the rest of your home.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers safe room plans as well as information on properly building one. Provide the preferred design to your contractor or work with your contractor to design a customized plan.

Consider these areas when building a safe room:

  • Garage

  • Basement

  • Interior rooms

  • Exterior rooms, either below the ground or attached to your home

Our additional thoughts in 2015:

Weather is the #1 reason we suggest building a safe room as it can provide protection for your family or employees during a tornado, hurricane or other dangerous weather conditions. But as you can see there are other reasons to have a safe room including for protection from a burglar or kidnapper, in case of a nuclear or terrorist attack and even for protection from an abusive spouse.

The movie Panic Room is a dramatic account of the need for a safe room, and features an array of high-tech, expensive features, but most homeowners will find a safe room much simpler in construction is sufficient for their needs.

A safe room can simply be constructed in a basement or garage where concrete walls are already present. Basic emergency items to keep in a safe room include a flashlight, first-aid kit, water, blankets, packaged food, gas mask and a portable toilet.

To get started building your safe room use these resources:

FEMA’s Safe Room Plans

More about building safe rooms from The Natural Handyman