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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
(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.
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.