Tag Archives: survival


Meet James Lovelock, the man who invented the Gaia Hypothesis: The Earth is a self-regulating organism [which, incidentally, has no any inherent need for us humans nor any particular obligation to provide us an environment we find pleasant].


In his 2006 book,

The Revenge of Gaia, [he] predicts that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation; that by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan; and parts of London will be underwater.

He thinks we’ve passed the point of no return. It’s irreversible now. His advice:

“Enjoy life while you can.
Because if you’re lucky you’ve got about 20 years before it really hits the fan.” 

His argument is simple. It’s the big things that are doing the damage, not the small ones. Banning plastic shopping bags, setting the thermostat lower, recycling your garbage all do bugger-all apart from making us feel smug, as if we’re making a difference for future generations of people who will be as ungrateful as we are. We’d be better off thinking more about what needs to be done to survive.

This blog has often featured buildings for extreme environments from desert to polar and highlighted how man’s intelligence and ingenuity has made human life more comfortable and even possible in those environments. It might be a good idea to start thinking about how to apply some of this ingenuity closer to home.


We already know how to deal with cold. Many a person this last winter would have appreciated living in one of these.

halley unit


Some parts of the world will have to get used to having more rain than they have been. The UK has had its wettest winter ever and has found out that its rivers don’t flow fast enough to drain all that water to the sea. It’s a bit late, but people are starting to think of floodproof houses, even if it’s in a pilotis-with-benefits kind of way.


It’s a step in the right direction but, with all that timber in the rain, it’s still retro design for  a time when prolonged rain and frequent flooding was not the norm.

oil rig close

Violent weather

Storm shelters are designed to protect their occupants from violent weather and tornadoes in particular.

An average storm cellar for a single family is built close enough to the home to allow instant access in an emergency, but not so close that the house could tumble on the door during a storm, trapping the occupants inside. This is also why the main door on most storm cellars is mounted at an angle rather than perpendicular with the ground. An angled door allows for debris to blow up and over the door, or sand to slide off, without blocking it, and the angle also reduces the force necessary to open the door if rubble has piled up on top. 


Tornado shelters are a good idea but perhaps a house in Tornado Alley would do better by being a bit more like a tornado shelter?


Maybe underground houses will become more the norm there. It’s nice to survive, but it would be better to be left with something you can continue living in.


It’s not quite what I was thinking but Hong Kong architects 10Design.co are on the case. Their tornado-proof house retracts into the ground.

tornado proof house

Sorry – can’t not share this. [We’re doomed.]

Random acts of violence

When extreme have-nots are forced to live near to extreme haves, people tend to take matters into their own hands and things seem to find their own level. Wealth causes crime. There are companies that provide rooms, the primary security feature of which is a secret entrance. We won’t worry about these.


Something a bit more serious might be called for when things get nasty. Luckily, Latham’s Steel Security Doorsets will be there for you.


The panic room of today can be considered the contemporary version of the fallout shelter of the past. Panic rooms are becoming increasingly popular in the UK. With the alarming rise of property break-ins and with what seem to be more volatile weather swings than in the past, panic rooms of all sizes and with a wide number of amenities are being built across the land.

Panic rooms range from the ultra-high-end to the basic survival and safety room. The concept of the panic room is to protect inhabitants from natural or man-made disasters or home invasions. In its truest sense, the panic room is an impenetrable fortress that contains necessary systems and contents to enable the occupiers to keep would-be intruders out and exist in a self-contained environment.

The desire to have a safe room or vault is not new. Medieval feudal lords designed elaborate safety rooms to protect against sieges. The safe rooms of today can be high tech. Some upscale panic rooms even feature fully stocked wet bars.

The most elaborate panic rooms consist of multiple rooms. The most basic can be as small as a 6 x 4 secure room. Obviously, budget is a major determinant in the size and scope of the panic room.

It’s a growth industry.

Aerial bombing

The effects of relative wealth and poverty side by side are not that much different between countries. We have history for limited aerial bombing. It’s always been something that’s been dealt with on a case by case basis, and never continual or continuous enough to warrant more lasting solutions. Air-raid shelters won’t survive direct hits but will offer a degree of protection from the shock waves produced by exploding munitions.

fallout shelter

Limited (as opposed to all-out) thermonuclear war

Fallout shelters are designed to withstand much larger shock waves. If you’re in a Swiss fallout shelter built after 1978, it would have been built to withstand the shock wave from a 12 megaton explosion at a distance of 700 metres. Lucky you! Listen good. A one-megaton explosion is 80 times larger than the “Little Boy” uranium-235 fission bomb dropped on Hiroshima but only 50 times larger than the “Fat Man” plutonium-239 bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Note that the vertical scale of this next graph is logarithmic.


How you’re going to deal with gamma radiation is another matter. This protection is all about putting molecules (preferably the heavy ones) in the way of the gamma rays. Use this next chart as a guide.

halving thicknesses

The last column in the chart above indicates the mass of material required to reduce gamma radiation by 50%, in grams per square centimetre of protected area.

The period of occupancy of fallout shelters is much longer than tornado shelters and air-raid shelters.


One hundred days should see you through the worst of the gamma radiation when compared to the “idealized” [!] Chernobyl fallout falloff. There’s nothing wrong then, with making your fallout shelter comfy to while away those nuclear winter nights. I don’t know why but this next reminds me of TGIF’s.


A hundred days post-apolcalypse, it won’t be a scenario anymore. You’ll finally get to apply those video game skills. 


Good luck.


The Building is Not Trying To Look Beautiful #2: New Monte Rosa Hut


This is New Monte Rosa Hut, in Zermatt (the German-speaking part of Switzerland) by Bearth & Deoplazes Architekten. Their other projects are simple and dignified with hardly any funny stuff and well worth a look. All these excellent images are taken from their site.

This particular project is what misfits’ likes to encourage. It was featured in the special Green Architecture supplement to the current edition of DOMUS, whose online edition is refreshing if you’re tired of the usual puff pieces, unedited user-generated content and advertisements for watches. I wish I’d known about their site in 2009 when this building was first published.

Environmental amelioration: The building, as you’ll notice, is in an extreme environment. People can die. It’s no place to muck around with the meaning of stuff. This building has other priorities.

Here’s a website giving you today’s weather at Monte Rosa. Mountaineers like hourly forecasts, and for various altitudes.

monte rosa weather

Footprint: The building has a small footprint and, although not a sphere, is a compact volume because a near-spherical shape has a high volume-to-surface area ratio.

This means there is less heat loss and less energy required to heat the building. It also means that a smaller amount of construction materials needed to be airlifted to build the envelope. In order to avoid heat transfer with the ground, the building is situated on a steel platform fixed into a concrete foundation.


Materials transportation efficiency: The internal structure is timber because it has a high strength to weight ratio. Timber is better value when one has to airlift structural materials. This shows – literally – in the three-layer plywood that is the innermost layer of the external wall. This is the main element absorbing horizontal forces to stiffen the structure. In a lightweight building, this is an important role as I imagine the site can get quite windy. 

external wall section

Timber also allows a high degree of prefabrication. The entire building was constructed in 420 pieces that were helicoptered to the site and assembled. It it took 3,000 flights to transport materials and a total of 35 workers over two summers to complete the building. 

new monte rosa hut

Construction was possible only between Mid-May and September. 

Structure: The structure has its own repetitive geometry for efficiency and stability whilst the geometry of the shell is determined by the topography, the climate and, thirdly, the internal functional requirements. The building is the most complex timber building ever erected in Switzerland.


Energy: One climatic given is the direction of the sun. The south face of the building envelope is covered with 89 sqm of solar panels that produce 90% of the building’s energy requirements. Excess energy is stored in batteries. There is an emergency fuel-powered backup generator. 

EUR08_Bronze_Deplazes_PI_10The building’s computerised energy management system is continuously monitored by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The team in Zurich is currently investigating the recovery of biogas so that gas for the kitchen does not have to be helicoptered in. This will make the building 100% energy-autonomous. 

helicopter to new monte rosa hut

Ground collectors are used to heat water and regulate the temperature in the rooms. Heating Energy: 17,500 kWh/m²a

ground collectors

Windows: By VELUX, who seem a bit shy about advertising this project. Perhaps it’s because triple-glazed window units aren’t anything special for them.

Spatial efficiency: The size of the building did not allow for central circulation to service a radial plan. Instead, the centre is a distribution corridor to the various accommodation rooms.

MORO_AF_50_Layout Publikation.vwx

It is easy to be awed by the landscape, or drift off into some Modernistic artificial vs. Nature “Isn’t architecture fabulous!” mindset. Let’s not forget that this building is not trying to be beautiful. It’s just doing it’s job helping humans survive an environment where they probably shouldn’t be, but where they’ll go anyway.

Yes, it is energy-efficient. It ought to be. It’s had everything thrown at it in order to make it so. It won Regional Holcim Bronze in 2008. The only thing we need to think about is “Was this building necessary?” Well, there was an older and inadequate and probably less energy-efficient hut it did replace.

But let’s keep it real. The client for the building is the Swiss Alpine Society which has 120,000 members and which might explain both the enthusiasm for the project, the enthusiasm for doing it right, and also its considerable budget of 5.7 million Swiss francs (= approx. US$6 mil.)

That’s $50 per member – once. The building coaxes those Swiss people out of the house on the weekend to get a bit of fresh air and exercise and enjoy some scenery. I think that’s money well spent. The building’s not hurting anyone, hardly touching the planet, and I don’t think the mountain cares.


Thanks to all for these wonderful images of a wonderful project.