The first tenant for one of Frank Woodworth’s underground bunkers wasn’t a human, it was a seed. “A couple of hippies called me up and asked me to build them a vault for their heirloom seeds,” he said.
A reserved man with Downeast stoicism, Mr. Woodworth is the owner of Northeast Bunkers, a company in Pittsfield, Maine, that specializes in the design and construction of underground bunkers. It was 18 years ago that Mr. Woodworth outfitted that first steel vault while working as a general contractor, and he has since changed direction, pivoting his business model to focus solely on designing, installing and updating underground shelters.
He stresses that these are not “luxury bunkers” for the top 1 percent, and only a small part of the calls are coming from Doomsday preppers or Cold War-era holdovers. Rather, about two-thirds of his business comes from consumers who pay approximately $25,000 for an underground livable dwelling. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Woodworth said he has been unable to keep up with the demand.
Buyers of these kinds of underground dwellings say that they simply want to protect their families from an increasingly turbulent world. For many, the decision to build a bunker was made before the coronavirus pandemic surfaced, but they say that they now feel prepared for the next local or global crisis.
Aaron, who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used to protect his privacy, said he bought a bunker three years ago to keep his family in the Washington D.C. area safe in a variety of situations. “If something happens, I can put the family in there, or if I’m gone, my wife can lock the family in there,” he said. “Not just the coronavirus, or civil unrest. Even in environmental things” — like earthquakes and tornadoes — “my family is protected.”
Aaron, who has three teenagers and is in his mid-40s, said he is currently using his 1,100-square-foot bunker as an office. “Parts of the bunker are off-limits to all my children, like any of the security rooms, the weapons room, the food and storage room, the pantry,” he said.
Other amenities include a food and storage room, as well as an aboveground “safe room” which is used “if you need to quickly get away from something immediately. Basically, a panic room.”
He bought his bunker from a company called Hardened Structures based in Virginia Beach, Va., one of the many bunker builders across the country.
Some buyers go through a bunker broker to find a shelter that fits their needs. Jonathan Rawles is the owner and manager of Survival Realty Brokerage Services, a national company based in Idaho that works with agents and brokers specializing in remote, off-grid bunker-type property.
“There is continual demand for people that are looking to find more of a sustainable future for themselves, for their families,” Mr. Rawles said. “A lot of real estate markets only focus on housing in the urban areas, suburban areas, exurbs, and there is very much a missed opportunity for people who are looking to live off-grid, wanting to live remote, or actually looking to secure a property, whether that’s a bunker or a more secure and sustainable home.”
Mr. Rawles pairs his clients with bunker-building companies in the U.S. and says his company has a wide range of clients. “This market and desire for security cuts across all levels of society — social, political, racial, religious,” he said. “People are looking for the opportunity to secure the family’s future, to have a more sustainable future, and part of that may be having a bunker.”
Mr. Woodworth at Northeast Bunkers, said that recent inquiries have come from across the United States, and worldwide. The furthest installation he’s ever done? The Caribbean. “That one went by truck then by barge then by truck.”
The basic model at Northeast Bunkers is a cylindrical steel vessel eight feet in diameter, in 13- or 20-foot lengths, welded from quarter-inch plate steel and equipped with an entrance hatch on top. Standard features include rust-resistant exterior paint, cedar plank flooring, zero-VOC (volatile organic compounds) interior finishes, two vent ports, floor hatches for storage, and an emergency exit hatch.
Optional features include power connections (your choice of 12-volt or 120-volt), potable water system, septic system, bathroom, kitchen, bunks, and a blast door. “All depending on what you order, and all materials are made in America,” Mr. Woodworth said. “We try to get people as safe as possible within a reasonable budget.” The company’s bunkers range from $25,000 to $35,000.
In the 1950s and 60s, the threat of nuclear war and Cold War tensions sparked demand in home fallout shelters, with endorsements from both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, a proliferation of pamphlets (and coupons) for such structures scattered across America, as well as a vote in 1961 in Congress for $169 million with a big push to mark, locate and stock fallout shelters in existing public and private buildings.
Back then, bunkers were economical in construction and basic in design, consisting of rot-resistant plywood panels and concrete blocks, buried and backfilled with sand or gravel. Today, most shelters are fabricated from steel, like Northeast Bunkers’, or concrete, or cinder blocks. Others are made from airform — a highly engineered reusable and inflatable spray mold to be covered in concrete to create monolithic domes — or from renovated missile silos, and many are completely new high-end construction.
Today, some underground shelter companies market military-grade materials, such as Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) Air Filtration Systems, gas-tight and waterproof doors, and six-point locking systems. Others offer the option of home entertainment theaters, game rooms, wine cellars, gun racks, even underground swimming pools.
Atlas Survival Shelters, a fallout shelter company based in Sulphur Springs, Texas, specializes in safe rooms and bomb shelters, and advertises one modular unit that “feels as close to home as possible.”
The modular 8-by-12-foot (not including the entry corridor) mini model costs $49,000 and includes a mud room, a decontamination room, a gas-tight marine door, an air-filtration system, a blast valve and a generator pod. Products at Atlas start at about $400 a square foot, ranging from $9,000 for an inflatable shelter to $5 million for their “platinum series shelter.”
Ron Hubbard, president and owner of Atlas, makes, among other shelter products, monolithic domes that “meet FEMA standards for providing near-absolute protection.”
Atlas’s bunker building videos on YouTube signed up 47,000 new YouTube subscribers in April, and a video of a luxury bunker installation has gotten nearly 6 million views. Atlas has also seen a big uptick in calls and orders since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“But you do not need to go into a bunker to save yourself from the coronavirus,” Mr. Hubbard said. “No one has bought a shelter from me to hide during the pandemic, but many people have bought it because of the pandemic. They feel that this is the beginning of something a lot bigger, and they feel it in their gut.”
Another bunker owner, Roberta, who lives in New Mexico and who also asked that her full name not be used to protect her privacy, bought her off-grid bunker from Atlas Shelters four years ago. “I believe everyone deserves a better chance of survival, not just me.”
She calls her underground shelter her “woman cave,” and it’s equipped with a kitchen, entertainment center, toilet, shower, mud room and a place to sleep. Roberta, 59, married, and retired with grown children, wants to be able to provide a safe haven for her family at a moment’s notice.
She gets into her shelter by entering what looks like a rickety shed hidden in plain sight on a sandy, deserted plot of land that she owns. Inside the shed, she opens a hatch on the floor, and steps down a steep set of stairs to a steel submarine door. Inside, just past the bunker’s mud room is the living room, where a sign reads, “My husband needed more space, so I locked him outside.”
Aaron, the bunker buyer who lives in the Washington D.C. area, found Hardened Structures on Google, and said the company had a good reputation online. When the family was installing an in-ground pool, he decided to have Hardened Structures put in a bunker at the same time.
“So no one knew what we were building,” he said. “I’m not a prepper. My parents were ranchers who do old-school canning, deer hunting, that kind of thing. So I took little things from them.”
Brian V. Camden, principal of Hardened Structures, has been in business for 32 years. The majority of his projects are underground bunkers beneath fortified homes in locations ranging from Brooklyn to ranches out West, as well as contracted military work in the Middle East.
“I collaborate with architects, engineers, Navy Seals,” Mr. Camden said. “We have ex-military employees specializing in C.B.R.N. — chemical biological radio nuclear analysis.”
Hardened Structures also works with a company called Red Team Analysis, ex-Navy Seals who teach bunker breaching to officials from the National Security Agency.
When Hardened Structures is building a bunker, Mr. Camden said, Red Team Analysis supervises their work. Unlike Northeast Bunkers or Atlas, Hardened Structures does not design steel enclosures, but rather cast reinforced concrete, which he says would shield the interior of the bunker from an electromagnetic pulse or geomagnetic storm.
The company’s underground shelters are made from cast-in-place reinforced concrete. The prices range anywhere from $600 to $3,000 per square foot. Factors affecting the cost include blast overpressure (thickness of the concrete walls and structure) and whether it is designed to withstand chemical, biological and radiological dispersion, and conventional weapons — “also known as weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Camden said. “Other factors include the client’s secrecy requirements, the site geotechnical makeup, and the extent of EMP shielding within the shelter itself,” he added, referring to electromagnetic shielding.
With new business booming, bunker installers are also keeping busy with their previous clients.
Recently, Mr. Woodworth, of Northeast Bunkers returned from an installation job on Chebeague Island, in Casco Bay, Maine, and said he was so busy that clients were being wait-listed. Bunker upgrades have also become much more popular among Mr. Woodworth’s clients, and people who were putting in just six months’ worth of food are now putting in two years’ worth.
“I’m just a businessman who deals with paranoid people,” he said, “and it seems like the parameters of paranoia are changing every day.”