Secure Life Homes GRID Down Homes
Licensed architects in over 17 states, engineers & builders of resilient, hardened homes, off grid homes, and other hardened structures, including shelters against severe storms, safe rooms, and nuclear fallout bunkers

What Makes us Different?

Since 2001, we have completed over 250 residential projects for clients in about 13 states and abroad.

As we seek to advance in our business, we are planning to build a new “demonstration home” which allows us to set up a house for interested persons to tour or even visit for a “short stay” as an “Airbnb” for the public to try out the difference of living in one of our secure life homes.

In our land search for this opportunity, we started around the major metros of Texas because of its centrality to the USA overall and because we’ve had several Texas clients and I’ve been a licensed architect in Texas since about 2015.

In this search we stumbled across a well-established Texas Home Design-builder.

These folks are truly monumental in the Texas Home building market; having been in business for over 90 years, 4th generation of the same family, over 40,000 completed homes (Wow that seriously dwarfs my 250 projects since 2001), showrooms in many towns, and they primarily focus on eastern half of Texas. I am truly humbled when I compare my business to theirs.

They have at least 37 plans to choose from available to view online, all of which can be customized, and they have entire customization packages. *

However, as I survey the many beautiful home plans on the home builder’s web site, I see there has been little to no innovation in the design for family security, and in all their publications, they are still at the slightly above code minimum level of advancing into energy efficiency and airtight construction and I do not find options for making their homes “off-grid capable”.

Which brings me to the focus of this article:

What makes a Secure Life Homes different from most new homes in America?  (Such as by a major Texas Home Builder with vast experience and market knowledge.)

In the following paragraphs I will outline the unique combination of features which make our Homes truly different from fully 99 percent of all new homes constructed in the United States.

*Note: Because we are largely focused on client security, and the majority of our clients require we keep their project confidential, most of our “Secure Life Homes’” projects/plans/ and designs are not allowed to be published to the Internet.

So, onto the list of features which make out homes different.

  1. ICF construction. There are many reasons that we choose to gravitate towards ICF construction instead of 2×4 wood framing for our Secure Life Homes.  The best shortest answer was stated by an ICF builder in Douglas County Oregon, “If you need the strength and protection that a concrete wall provides, and it needs to be insulated as well, then there is no better value proposition than using ICF.”
  2.  Reinforced concrete walls provide protection from such a vast range of “Natural Hazards” and Human Threats (terms of how architects broadly categorize security parameters) that all other building systems are playing catch up in comparison.
  3. Truly excellent levels of energy efficiency with ICF having insulation far exceeding code requirements, use of continuous insulation compared to the skips and voids in stud walls insulation, superior air sealing and thermal mass, and ground heat sink passive geothermal temperature stabilization.
  4. ICF walls are inherently termite proof and resistant to insect intrusion or rot or decay.

There are tradeoffs to using ICF we can cover in another article with pros and cons; however, we honestly believe the pros so far outweigh the cons that this is the building system we recommend and will continue to build for our own homes. State Farm Insurance in Texas builds their own office structures with ICF, and they can afford to self-insure. That is very indicative of the overall benefits of the ICF system.

  • We provide Fortified Homes Gold level of exterior construction for the entire home.  The Fortified Gold Home Building System is well established and gaining more market awareness year after year, with many insurance companies adopting Fortified as the baseline for reconstruction of homes after storm events, to protect their own liability interest in the properties of their clients. Fortified saves homes and lives, and this saves Insurance companies money, so they are willing to pay for this modest 3% upgrade to project costs when rebuilding damaged homes.
  • A Japanese style secure entry vestibule with a pair of high security doors. 

Some sources claim as high as 70% of home invasions occur at the front door to the home. Air lock entries are very common in commercial building in cold climates, as well as mud rooms are very common in homes.

Homes in Japan also have a step down, shoe change vestibule. What makes it unique compared to the US homes is that Japanese style vestibules do not allow visitors to view entire house plan from the front door. Enclosed secure vestibules can serve to meet and greet folks who are cleared to come in, but not all the visitors need to see inside (and surveille your home for intel gathering, seeing the entire home plan layout from easy view of the front door).  There is a long-standing use of secure entry vestibules in the history of secure structures; Castle fortifications in Europe and Asia also have done this for hundreds of years as well. We take these concepts and apply them in a very simple, useful way to home design. We are also very careful about location of glazing at front and other door entries. Glazing in our design let us see out from the vestibules but not in a manner which allows someone to use the glazing (even if reinforced or ballistic) to find a way to reach to inside and override the rest of the door security.

We like to reference the Brad Pitt Movie “Snatch” and all the trouble the “baddies” had trying to “rob the bookies” and their secure entry air lock.

Find this movie scene on the Internet and it’s a humorous but profane look at the value of the secure entry vestibule which sticks in one’s memory and well illustrates our point.

  • Cluster the children’s bedrooms within direct access of the master bedroom.
    • Home invasions often occur at the front entry or glass sliders in the back. When an emergency event occurs, our FIRST instinct is to go and secure our children. However, if your home design has the children’s bedroom far flung from the master bedroom, and/or you must go past the front door to get to the children’s bedrooms, you most likely have to expose yourself to danger and resolve the threat FIRST before getting to children. We see many beautiful plans for new homes completely fail in this regard. We would like all our clients to avoid that risk.
    • Secure Stairwell.

This is a common commercial stair concept brought into secure home planning because of the above priority, to secure our children, and to get ourselves somewhere safer in an emergency.

Typical residential stairs are “straight run”, or maybe an L with a landing. Additionally, many two-story Executive homes often have an ornamental open staircase in full view of the front entry. These stair types require occupants to exit the stair before proceeding down to another level.  Exiting the stair before getting somewhere safe or exiting the building exposes occupants to whatever hazard or threat event is taking place in the home. Architects never do this in commercial buildings; it is a violation of basic life safety codes.

If most home invasions occur at the front door, you are not getting up or down the traditional types of residential stair without exposing your family to risk. This is not to say that you cannot also have the beautiful open stair facing the entry foyer. However, the top of this stair must be able to be automatically secured by a high-performance door, via magnetic locks and automatic door closers.   In normal times these doors are magnetically held open and can be manually or automatically closed at nighttime or whenever you like, However, additionally they can automatically release to close if there is any security event which set off the alarms, or via panic buttons at key locations in the home. There would then be an additional secure stairwell which would allow the master bedroom (if on the first floor) to access the kids bedrooms AND to go back down the stairs and either to a secure place (saferoom or basement bunker) and/or to exit the home entirely such as for a fire emergency.

  • High performance doors, windows, and vandal resistant “hurricane shutters”

Not all clients can afford true ballistic windows, but the upgrade from code minimum windows to hurricane rated glass is often under 10% of the window cost for most manufacturer’s product offerings. This type of glazing is not intentionally vandal resistant but does a pretty good job of “catching” objects that are propelled by hurricane forces at the home. If we add traditional roll down shutters with a minor enhancement of vandal resistant hardware between the shutter and roll down track, we have created a very secure window opening. This enhancement compliments the ICF construction of the home, for a reasonable cost, well within normal construction costs seen in hurricane regions of the USA.

For the main home entry doors, we recommend specialty vendors of true high security door products with forced entry ratings and optional ballistic rating; despite the cost of several thousand dollars per door. We try to minimize the number of locations necessary for such doors. These doors are possibly the single largest cost upgrade of the home after the ICF wall system and the off grid energy system.

  • A robust off grid energy and infrastructure system.

 A secure life home is intended to provide ongoing support to the family during an extended “grid down” utility outage crisis. We often recommend dual small generators placed in a secure enclosure, plus a modest amount of solar back up and at least one bank of reserve power batteries.

There is built in redundancy to our off-grid power system with several criteria:

  • Sizing of generators; Having the generators sized smaller than total peak demand, they can run more efficiently, and even if one fails, you have the backup of the second generator. (Twin engine aircraft analogy)
  • some modest solar and a battery to accept the solar charge.
  • Off grid infrastructure includes sources of heating for hot water and ability to prepare food when the power is out.  One example is a wood cook stove with a water heating loop. An example product is the Esse 990, with the addition of a water heating loop on a thermosiphon system connected to a domestic water tank. One can see how this one system would serve three roles, space heating, cooking appliance, and source of hot water for washing etc.
  • We also like to include Solar powered dusk-to-dawn motion sensor lights outside in addition to exterior LED lights wired to the electric panel.
  • Energy efficient infrastructure and appliance choices everywhere. The most energy efficient heating and cooling system hands down is geothermal, and if your project can support that, great. Even better in colder climates is to tie this to radiant heating in the floors.  With an ICF home and geothermal HVAC tied to an Energy Recovery Ventilation System (more on ERV later), your highest demand appliances will be your water heater and kitchen range. The BEST energy saving water heater is a “heat pump hybrid”. Vendors include Stiebel and Rheem. These units will use $110 per year in electricity compared to $500 per year for a conventional electric 4,500-watt water heater or $225 per year for an instant-on tankless gas water heater.  Similar for the kitchen range. The range with 4 burners and an oven is a 4,500-watt appliance. Conversely an induction cook top is 1,000 watt and a convection oven if often 1,500 watts, so the correct appliance choice saves 2,000 watts. But the actual savings is even greater; both the induction cooktop and the Convection oven cook faster than traditional electric range. For example, a 2-hour chicken bake in a conventional oven, only takes one hour in a convection oven. These few appliance choices, water heater, oven and range top alone, will reduce the home backup generator by at least one or even two product size ratings. For all other appliances we look for energy star ratings and recommend all LED lighting indoors and outdoors.
  • A security camera and alarm system.  There are many evolving technologies in this segment, the important thing to make sure we cover is the capability of this system to stay operational when the power goes out. If your location allows for the system to alert 911 services, great, and help does come that’s an ideal outcome. But if help is not coming, or delayed or other, to maintain situational awareness to make choices is something we want to enable all clients to have.
  • Family Centric Space Planning, consideration of your actual lifestyle needs.

We have, for over 20 years, been proponents of the Sarah Suzanka “The Not So Big House” books and her concepts of “designing homes for how we really live.” Her design principals we took to heart early around 2001 and continue to apply them to every client. We look to design thoughtful useful spaces for how our client lives in their home. I am on my 16th home since childhood and have lived a work-from-home lifestyle for over 18 years. We have never had a home over 1,500SF plus a two-car garage. We are aware of thoughtful 4-bedroom homes under 1,700SF and 5-bedroom homes at even 2,100SF. If your climate or needs dictate a basement all the better.  Making the most of the building should include discussing with your architect how you live on a daily basis. There are really exceptional small home designs for working families being promoted by major home builders in Japan since the Covid crisis started. We are touring these homes in our family travels, and they are truly exceptional in efficiency of useful space planning for real families with kids’ schoolwork competing for other home needs. This topic of what Japan is doing that America can learn from will be a separate article in the future. However, a quick bottom line is these designs are often 3 bedrooms at 1,500SF or less with “open plan” great rooms that also incorporate a kids homework area and many other features throughout the home. This includes how they do bathrooms, living areas, storage accommodations etc.  differently in Japan., which happens to be very useful to us even in America.

  • Japanese Style Bathing. In the category of improving the quality of lives and making the best use of our spaces, we are introducing clients to Japanese style bathing spaces. For a small space-oriented culture, as Japan is and must be, they devote a LARGER amount of space to a bathroom than American homes typically do, but they achieve far more with this space. And many Japanese homes can work well with the family with just one or 1.5 baths, because one bathroom is actually 3 rooms, and 1.5 baths is 4 separate rooms. The toilet closet has a hand sink, and it is ONLY for after toilet handwashing, not for shaving, nor face washing and certainly not for tooth brushing. The main sink area is typically generous and double sinks with the medicine cabinets and such and often features the laundry area. The 3rd room is a shower/tub room; this is a combined shower stall and bathtub. It’s essentially a giant shower stall itself with a heated tub.  The Japanese method of getting clean is to scrub up in a shower condition (often on a little stool for the old-timers), then rinse off fully and soak in a hot tub for 5 to 10 minutes. You will get much cleaner in this way, and they put in bath salts and other therapeutics in the bath water and it’s a very healthy time to detoxify yourself; similar to a sauna experience, only soaking. If you’ve only been showering and think you are getting clean, think again. You will start to see how much the follow-on bath also takes “stuff” off and out of your skin when you drain the tub. I realized I was never really clean until I started bathing this way, and the hot water also has a sauna effect which is very realizing and therapeutic, and helps one get a restful night’s sleep.  Better cleaning, detoxifying and better sleep. Well worth the additional 35 square feet that a Japan bath requires. But the side benefit is 4 people can use such bathroom all at one, two at the sinks, one in the toilet room and one in the bath, or even two in the bath during the toddler years. Additionally, the Japanese know about “toilet plume” and how much bacteria sprays up in the air with each toilet flush (hence the reason for Steripods in the USA) and they NEVER keep a toothbrush or face towel in the same room as a toilet. Hotels without this feature in Japan are considered substandard and just for business travelers.
    • Washlet toilet. Supporting this entire concept is the washlet toilet, it’s a toilet with a built-in automatic sprayer. The Japanese have really perfected this technology and TOTO leads the way in this. It does NOT completely remove the use of toilet paper but reduces the paper consumption and the result is a much cleaner “down there place” because the water spray is doing its job. It’s warm, the pressure is adjustable, and it just works exceptionally well.  Once you’ve learned about this toilet feature, Not having it becomes a barbaric level of uncleanness.
  • Up to date Real world Security planning with input from top tier Special Forces professional war fighters. Because of our work with Hardened Structures, we are often teamed with truly exceptional persons who have served our nation in combat theaters around the globe. Often these consultants to us are former US Navy SEALs. I learned how incredible Navy SEALs are when I was a young Army ROTC Cadet attending US Army Airborne School at Ft Benning in 1986. I had joined the Army in 1983 and was already an infantry qualified enlisted person and was offered a chance to compete to go to Airborne school by the Army, but I failed the first year I attempted. But the next year I pulled myself up to make the qualifications at our university and was granted my chance. So, for me, I was at the best physical conditioning of my life. When I got to Airborne school there were other service members of many branches of service, including US Marines, some NATO ally special forces persons, and even other Cadets from West Point. But the most impressive persons were two key small groups, Navy SEALs, and Marine Corps Force Recon. Everything I have learned about them since that time confirms their professionalism and breadth and depth of experiences. When we get feedback on a design from these folks, it carries over into how we plan all subsequent projects which include a human threat hierarchy as a client directive.
  • Some key concepts we have learned from both NCARB architectural security training, and from modern seasoned warfighter consultants:
    • A planning concept of “concentric rings of security” from beyond the property line to the home itself to inside. We want your home to be SAFE: Safe from
    • Natural hazard, from storms to earthquakes to wildfires and beyond (any of the worst nature can deal out in your region of the country)
    • Human threat events, to the extent which is reasonable for your situation and budget (at some point the full might of military grade heavy ordinance becomes not realistic to fortify against, but if its legal for civilians to own, or capable of being carried to a site by a single person, we typically have a solution to prescribe.)

One of the key planning principles for deterrence against both man-made and natural events is called “Concentric Rings of Defense.” Originated from a military concept of defense, it now has taken hold in many realms, campus security, even software, and it can apply to home and site planning.

Important to note, this concept of Concentric Rings of Defense, is not just for human threat consideration, it apples even to natural hazard protection. For example, following Oregon code sections for “wildfire defensible space” requires we look at the property in concentric rings as well. Similar for prevention of floods and other natural hazards. However, human threat planning is part of the equation for many clients.

One simple concept we like to promote, is NO ONE gets to walkup and ring the doorbell; no one, no neighbors, not the UPS or Amazon guy (or imposters for obvious reasons), not government workers either, whether it is law enforcement or the meter man or tax appraiser.  Keep everyone out at a “standoff distance” from the front door.  Only you decide who and when folks come close to your home.

Even in the neighborhoods with local CCRs and HOAs which prohibit front fencing and gates, we can achieve a measure of standoff distance by designing an enclosed front porch on the house plan. Each step of standoff distance buys you security and time which gives you the option to make a future decision.

  1. OODA LOOP Considerations. Tying in with the security system and with concentric rings of security planning is planning considerations for the home family’s OODA LOOP

(Observe, Orient Decide Act.)This is the thought pattern which we all must go through every time we face a new situation, even in normal traffic. If a car pulls out, you need to go through this loop and react correctly, in the right amount of time to avoid a disaster. This OODA Loop term came from a Vietnam Combat pilot and has proven to be highly effective tool in training all sorts of first responders and military persons around the world. This same is true for the security of our families from everything: from a tornado siren to a smoke alarm to a crash at the front door at 3:00 am. All the improvements we make to homes are intended to give you advance time to react and to allow you to pre-decide certain actions. The best outcomes often can be achieved when everyone knows what the family’s pre planned reaction to certain situation should be. Do your children know what to do if the smoke alarm goes off? Similar preplanned reactions can be useful to your family for other types of emergency event.  We help provide the tools in our designs to allow you to react in more situations.

  • Example, if a hostile party must get past an perimeter fence and gate, and a guard dog to get to the front door of the home, and yet still someone is battering your front door with  a tool of some sort, you know the situation is serious, and you hopefully had warning of the fence gate breech and the dog, AND you already programed actions each member of your family would take in such an emergency.

This has become a lengthier article than I first intended and there will be follow on articles for some subtopics, but you are to be congratulated for making it this far.

Earlier we talked about the Texas Home Builder, and their exceptional business model and success.

They certainly do know what sells to most Americans. So why would we be doing something different? Mostly because we really believe there is a higher standard, that we as Americans should be striving for in home quality.  We see technological advancement and innovation all around us, except in our homes. Compared to electronics and automobiles, home innovation and advancement in America has only crawled forward. As we travel the world, we see Europe and Japan have left America VERY far behind in modernization of new homes.

Also, I see reliance upon the grid infrastructure as a liability to protecting our families. If you have ever had the power or heating gas shut off by a utility company for an extended period, either by a local storm event, or just because you got behind on bills for a season in life, you can see how that our dependence on the utility gird is a foolish placement of our trust, and how irresponsible for me as the protector of my family.

Finally, we see the world become more unstable, unsafe, and there really is a need to get our homes both secure from outside events and independent from local infrastructure.

Going forward, we see more Americans will experience the following: The power will go out, there will be more crime, there will be shortages of essentials at retailers, and the” first responders” will be slow at best when you call 911, if they come at all in some locations already. We will all need to able to handle life events on our own, hopefully with good neighbors, friends, and family to mutually support each other.  

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