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Rich people are spending millions on underground bunkers equipped with robot security and movie theaters after a year of man-made and natural threats

Mark Ellwood May 21, 2021, 7:43 AM

A panic room door by Rising S

A panic-room door by Rising S.

A 13,000-square-foot house in the San Jose Valley has a single-lane bowling alley and a swim-in-place indoor pool. It’s controlled via fingerprint access, using an app that was developed specifically for the home. The garage is attached and so are the stables — the owner’s horses, used for stud, are too valuable not to keep close to hand.

There’s just one difference between this sprawling mansion and the other wealthy homes nearby: It’s entirely underground.

The project, which cost just under $14 million, was built by Clyde Scott of Rising S, a specialist in luxury panic rooms and bunkers.

Even Scott was surprised at the reach of this brief when he arrived for what was supposed to be a one-day site inspection.

The owners initially intended to build a conventional panic room, around 500 square feet. Eight days later, Scott was still there, workshopping plans for a more ambitious alternative.

Scott collaborated with the owner’s go-to interior designer to make the bunker feel more like home. “Even though there are no real windows, we did virtual ones in the family room so it feels less psychologically claustrophobic,” he told Insider. “We even inset them in a boxed opening to get the depth of a window frame and installed custom drapes.”

This astonishing underground home might be the fanciest bunker Scott has built to date, but it isn’t the only one.

Interest in such plush panic rooms is skyrocketing, he said. His firm started offering high-end shelters and the like a decade ago — of the 232 it’s built so far, 200 were commissioned in the last five years.

The pandemic, of course, added an extra boost to his business: Sales last summer were 15% to 18% higher than projections, and surged 22% more in the winter. “It’s something that our generation had never dealt with before,” he said. “And I saw a lot more urban locations for shelters, an uptick in some of the areas where there were more COVID restrictions.”

A standard bedroom in a panic room

A standard bedroom in a panic room.

For example, until last year, he’d only installed one panic room in Chicago. In the last 12 months, he’s already built two more.

Economic and political anxiety are a factor, too. “The United States is north of $30 trillion in debt, and at some point those checks will bounce,” Scott said. “Owning a shelter is no different than having auto or health insurance — it’s just an insurance policy against a different threat.”

Perhaps the clearest endorsement of a luxury panic room among the elite is the one reportedly installed in Highgrove, the country residence of Prince Charles. According to a recent biography, he’s installed a secret, steel-lined room in which he and his wife, Camilla, can survive for several weeks, whether sheltering from a home invasion or a revolution.

Getting into the business of decked-out bunkers for the whole family

The Murchison, Texas-based Scott first started his steel fabrication company to build tornado shelters for the resident market. It was only when a client called and asked if he could upgrade the interior of an 8’X40′ shell he’d produced — adding benches, some cushions perhaps, and a kitchen area — that Scott’s attention pivoted toward panic rooms and bunkers.

A custom kitchen for a panic room

A custom kitchen for a panic room.

Specifically, he saw the opportunity in high-end shelters intended almost to seem like second homes rather than emergency dugouts.

He describes his client process as the “Burger King mentality” — you can have it your way. The typical luxury panic room is around 600 square feet, with kitchens, showers, and a huge screen for movies and games to keep residents’ minds distracted from whatever problems in the outside world have driven them to hunker down. Retinal screen access is commonplace, as well as remote locking or unlocking, plus a self-contained water purification and supply system.

Working with new construction, he’ll recommend that these shelters are subterranean, but it can be costly to excavate in older homes — an extra $120,000 or so, on average. Instead, he might adapt an area on the first floor. Typically, families ask for it to be located close to children’s bedrooms.

A bunker storage room

A bunker storage room.

Scott encourages families to use the panic rooms in their everyday lives, mostly to normalize the locale for younger kids — have family game night down there or go and read a book, he’ll suggest.

Security like this does require some discretion. “Tell the children to refer to it as the basement or the tornado shelter — anything but a bunker,” he said. “Children will repeat things.”

He’s even upgraded a car to be a mobile luxury bunker. His firm took a retired military-armored vehicle and retrofitted it so that his clients, a family of three, had an alternative in case they weren’t able to reach their bunker in good time — in this case, it’s a standalone cabin a two-day journey from home.

“They can live in that car for six weeks, with food, water, air filtration, and solar-power generation,” he said.

From Texas to California, the rich hunker down in fear of natural and man-made threats

Bill Rigdon, another well-known architect of luxury panic rooms, lives and works mostly in Southern California running the firm Building Consensus, and also reported turbocharged interest in his services.

Rigdon told Insider that clients often mention the threat of earthquakes when planning a panic room — specifically, when freeways collapse and emergency services can’t reach neighborhoods easily. Safeguarding against that situation demands self-sufficiency.

One of Bill Rigdon's panic rooms

One of Bill Rigdon’s panic rooms.

Now, though, Rigdon also echoed Scott in citing clients’ concerns about societal collapse as a driver of his business. “The economy continues to downspiral. People who have nothing to lose are filtering up into LA from the border crisis. It’s really affected our business,” he said, adding that traffic to his website had surged 2,000% from February to March this year.

Fittingly, given his Hollywood-adjacent location, Rigdon’s designs sound like spy thriller out-takes. His focus isn’t on tricking out the rooms themselves, but rather helping already-lavish mansions repurpose existing assets as hideouts.

The panic rooms he builds are often artfully camouflaged — one was behind a bookcase and opened when someone pulled a particular title forward from one shelf. He worked with the interior designer for the house to integrate it seamlessly.

He’ll often armor-plate the master bathroom so it can double up as a hideout and withstand the onslaught from any weapon. “You need to wash your face if someone maces you,” he said.

He’s also installed robots outside panic rooms which can be controlled from within using a built-in camera for navigation. “They can follow an individual around and spray them with pepper spray,” he said.

A panic room being built

A panic room being built.

After one client told him they’d been robbed by burglars who tapped into their HVAC system and drugged them with gas, filtration systems on luxury bunkers have become standard.

If an owner sounds a silent alarm, that room becomes airtight — as an added layer of protection, Rigdon will instal decoy vents intended to distract and derail a home invader planning to drug the owners.

One current project in Beverly Hills, he said, involves an underground screening room that can quickly be repurposed as a luxury panic room.

The anxiety of the wealthy isn’t limited to America

Ali Bakhtiar owns and runs a namesake firm in Dubai. The luxury bunkers he designs usually cost between $800,000 and $1 million, he told Insider.

Ali Bakhtiar

Ali Bakhtiar.

Bakhtiar is at work on a discreet luxury panic room in a mansion in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in the south of France, a reconstruction after the owners demolished the previous villa.

The impetus to upgrade the secure room was his suggestion. “People are really becoming much more paranoid, so I said, instead of designing it like a hospital or a jail, why not do something nice with it so you can use the room part of the time,” he said.

The 550-square-foot room is hidden behind the library, and the access panel is concealed behind a bookshelf. “None of the staff knows about it, but there’s sustainability for four people to live there for a month,” he said. It’s kitted out much like the rest of the house — think of it as a luxury pied-à-terre with attitude. When and if they do want to make a break for it, he added, there’s direct access to the main garage at the bottom of the house.

Bakhtiar’s expertise in luxury bunkers, however, goes beyond built-out basements. He’s also installed a premium panic room on a 560-foot superyacht.

The client had tangled with pirates while sailing off the coast of Africa the year before, and so was primed to need a safe room onboard — what’s known as a citadel on commercial tankers. Bakhtiar repurposed a bedroom, which resembles a normal cabin and can be used as such, and installed shutters and an emergency bulletproof wall that can be pulled down and seal off the room from the rest of the vessel.

From the outside, the yacht then appears to be empty. This oceangoing bunker also features a control panel that allows those inside to override any navigation orders issued from the captain’s perch, rendering it virtually impossible to hijack.