secret rooms and security

Concealment Strategies Against Social Unrest, Theft, or Confiscation

In Home Security and Self-Defense, Prepping and Survivalism by Contributor

secret rooms and security

By Joel Skousen

It does little good to spend a lot of time and money in preparing for difficult times if you don’t also plan on securing those supplies against the very threats you are preparing for.   Severe social dislocations caused by war, economic problems, or widespread natural disasters are almost always accompanied by looting, theft, and increased criminal behavior—sometimes in large mobs that even police cannot control.  We need to plan ahead on how to deal with those threats without resorting to violent confrontations, which should be a last resort.

We also have to consider government’s propensity to confiscate stored supplies when in short supply.  There is still a 1950’s law on the books that gives the government the power to declare anything in short supply as “hoarding.”   In the March 3, 2012 edition of my World Affairs Brief,  I covered the relevant sections with the Defense Production Act of 1950 that affect personal storage:

Sec. 102HOARDING OF DESIGNATED SCARCE MATERIALS [50 U.S.C. App. § 2072]

In order to prevent hoarding , no person shall accumulate (1) in excess of the reasonable demands of business, personal, or home consumption, or (2) for the purpose of resale at prices in excess of prevailing market prices, materials which have been designated by the President as scarce materials or materials the supply of which would be threatened by such accumulation.”

The wording implies that the government is taking action against those that start to hoard for profit once something gets scarce in a crisis, but notice that there is no provision for acknowledging or exempting stockpiles that were accumulated before something was declared scare.  That’s what is dangerous about this wording. And there are severe penalties for getting caught “hoarding,” regardless of when your supplies were purchased:

“Sec. 103. PENALTIES [50 U.S.C. App. § 2073] Any person who willfully performs any act prohibited, or willfully fails to perform any act required, by the provisions of this title or any rule, regulation, or order thereunder, shall, upon conviction, be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.”  

As you can see, it is wise to prepare to conceal your supplies from the government as well as from desperate people who may turn to looting and theft in order to survive.

In this article, I’m going to talk about strategies for concealment rather than specific designs—which have to be customized to each specific situation, and shouldn’t be published anyway, lest they become compromised.

Remember too that you must be prepared to secure people as well as your supplies.  Social unrest and even government may be a threat to your person as well, and your supplies won’t do you any good if you are dead.   A well designed safe room can provide for both protection of people and your essential supplies if they have temporary living facilities included for an emergency where you may need to get out of harm’s way.

Principle 1Select the space for a secret room where that space isn’t obvious without detailed measurements.   I’m not talking about concealing the entrance here but rather picking a space within a cluster of rooms where one can’t tell easily that there is unaccounted space somewhere in the middle.  Large homes are more amenable to hiding a room in a complex of other rooms, wherein the presence of several twists and turns of hallways, it’s impossible to keep track of where you are, let alone the size of rooms around you.

For smaller homes, let’s suppose you have two rooms of equal size along a common wall, and the doorway to each room opens from a common hallway.  You want to create a secret narrow room within one or both rooms.  If you shorten the back wall of one room and not the other, someone opening the door of each room and looking in at the back wall can easily tell that the wall of one room is closer than the other.  But if you put the secret narrow room between the two rooms (shortening both rooms equally), no one can tell that there is extra space between the adjoining walls of both rooms without measuring.

It’s even easier to conceal a secret room in a basement if you carve out space under the garage or an outside deck since no one expects there to be basement space under these two structures.   This is easier and less labor intensive if done during initial construction of the home, but the downside is that the space shows up on the building plans on file with the county or city.  If you do it as a remodeling, shoring up and excavating by hand, the better your chances are of doing this in total privacy.

Principle 2: Make sure you can get to your secret room quickly and privately.   It does little good to have a secret room (for either storage or personal safety), if you can’t get to it easily and in private, both for loading in supplies and to access in a crisis when others may be watching.  This is one of my main objections to backyard buried shelters, with a hatch type door in the ground in the backyard that is your only entrance. People can observe not only the burial of the shelter during construction but your many trips back and forth loading it with supplies.  When you need to get inside during a crisis, don’t be surprised if the entrance is surrounded by people wanting inside too.

Even if designed inside of a house (which I prefer), I like to design the home in such a way as to get to the safe room or concealed storage room without transiting open rooms, front hallways or main staircases. In an intrusion, your access to those public areas may be compromised, so you need to provide alternate access.  If you have a home without a basement, try to carve out space near your master bedroom so you can gain access easily without venturing outside the safety of your room.

In two-story homes, I also like to design ladder wells where kids can get down to the parent’s master bedroom without using the stairs, and from there to the shelter.  Building codes don’t like penetrations through floors, so sometimes you have to do this after the home is finished, as a minor remodel.

If your secure room is in the basement, try to devise a trap door entrance from your bedroom closet that gets you directly down to the basement without using the stairs.  That requires some sort of ladder, but my preferred way is to design a trap door from a master bedroom closet that comes down over a set of basement shelves where I can use the beefed-up shelf edges as a ladder.  I simply design the front reinforced edge of the shelf as a 1” x 2” board that protrudes above the shelf rather than below, giving me a handhold as I climb up or down.

Principle 3:  Use double concealed entrances where possible:  Whenever possible in my design of high-security homes, I like to have a concealed storage room or closet in front of any safe room.  Both rooms have concealed entrances.  The would-be intruder has to find not just one secret entrance, but two, and the latter is unlikely because once the first room is found the person thinks, “I’ve found it.”

This is especially effective if you do keep some “throwaway” valuables in the first room to give some sense of satisfaction.  Naturally, you shouldn’t use the same type of concealed entrance scheme for the first room as with the second one.

Principle 4:  Think outside the normal:  The previous idea is an example of designing concealed entrances that fool people.  So is placing a basement below a garage where people don’t usually expect to find one.  But you can get even more sneaky by providing the entrance to a concealed room on the floor above or below.  Now, that’s hard for people to conceive of, let alone discover.

Principle 5:  Keep the number of persons involved small:   Constructing secure rooms is difficult to accomplish with any privacy if you have to hire it done.  The more you can do yourself, the better in terms of keeping them from being known to others.  It’s even worth learning new skills than taking the easy way out and hiring it done.  Now, I realize that is not possible with many people, so if you need to hire something down, use an older handyman rather than a big contractor who is going to bring in hired labor—which are mostly young guys who talk about any new they are doing.

If you are doing something with new construction that involves building permits and a contractor, design the basic structure of the rooms, but label them as storage.  Finish out the rooms and build the concealed entrances after the occupancy permit is issued when you can remodel or finish in privacy.  During the building process, you may observe one or more workers that are a cut above the others, who you may be able to hire on the side to do addition work later.

You also have to be careful about talking to your own children about secret rooms.  Kids love the idea of secrecy and will run around telling all their friends about the secret room in their home.  It’s better to not tell them or show them these things until they get older and you can trust them to not tell others.

Building Concealed entrances:   While I don’t have the space to get into specific designs, here are a few hints:

  1. Hinges are the most difficult things to conceal in swinging cabinets.  I prefer pivoting pin-type hinges embedded into the top and bottom of a cabinet, which are completely invisible. I show these types of designs in my books (see Bio)
  2. Avoid putting castors or rollers on the swinging side of concealed cabinets to support the weight. They will make marks on the floor that can reveal that the cabinet or shelf swings out.
  3. Pins or latches to open the secret door or cabinet can often be concealed behind the edge of an adjustable shelf. Just lift up one side of the shelf to withdraw a locking pin for opening.
  4. Make sure you provide a second locking mechanism on the inside of the concealed entrance so that once inside, you lock yourself in and disallow anyone else from opening the concealed door even if they find it.
  5. Use a steel door in a steel jamb (14 gauge steel ) for the actual door into the safe room. This way, if someone finds the concealed entrance, they still can’t easily breach the room itself.   Usually, the concealed cabinet must swing out, and the second steel door swings inward to avoid conflict.

Be wary of using published designs on concealment such as books like “How to Hide Anything.”  Once published, others will know about them.  It’s ok to read about what others have done but try and design your own variation. If you study the idea behind the concealment technique, it is easy to think of ways to modify or change them to suit your needs.

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Bio: Joel Skousen is the publisher of the World Affairs Brief, and weekly news analysis service, and a designer of high-security homes and retreats.  He has published three books on the subject:  The Secure Home, and The High-Security Shelter.  He is also the author of Strategic Relocation—North American Guide to Safe Places.