Self-built Tornado Shelter, how to.......

Claremore, OK(Zone 6a)

Most of us have seen, on the news, or in person, the devestation that recent tornadoes have done in the midwest states. It's terrible.

So far, we have had tornadoes (small ones) do damage within 10 miles of home, 2 times this spring.

We live on a rural 1 acre lot, and could dig our own tornado shelter.

I've been looking at those steel waste dumpsters, which are not all that big, but there's just the 2 of us now.
And wondering what would be wrong with digging down and putting one just below ground level. Some of them even have a steel door.

Yeah, I know it's probably not FEMA approved....... but it's got to be safer than any room in my cabin style, open design, 800 sq. ft. slab house. I think a tornado would just wipe the slab clean, the way my house is designed. I'm also thinking 'cheap' here. We can't really afford a 'real' one, so just trying to figure out something.

Has anyone here made any type of homemade tornado shelter ? We are mostly interested in something below ground, or even hilled-in, rather than a safe room style. Our house has no place for the safe room type. It would have to be something else.

I'd like to hear ideas, and get some links if anyone knows any. Thanks all, be safe !

San Francisco Bay Ar, CA(Zone 9b)

Wow! I can easily understand why you would want to build one. We had a freak mini tornado touch down and take off a roof in Sunnyvale several years ago. This is California, we're supposed to be limited to earthquakes, volcanos, tsunamis and blizzards.

I did a quick google search on "how to build a tornado shelter". I'm not entirely happy with the results (not enough info for me if I had to build one), but perhaps this can get you started:

Claremore, OK(Zone 6a)

Thanks garden_mermaid, those are the same links I could get by googling. You would think there would be more info available wouldn't you.
Seems like I remember some info about building a hilled-in tornado shelter somewhere tho. Maybe it was something to do with Mother Earth News' magazine. Wish I could remember.

Caneyville, KY(Zone 6b)

Peggy, if you find some could info, please share. I'll do the same.

I was giving this a lot of thought yesterday while I was on a road trip. This is what I have come up with so far...

We live in a trailer on a hill top, with a slight slope on one side. Wondering if it's possible to dig out a hole 8' x 8' x 4' deep right up to the edge of the trailer and a walkout on the opposite side. Putting 2 cattle panels arched in the hole (like for a greenhouse) and then putting in 4" x 4" corner posts and then 4" x 4" posts in the center of the open ends with a ceiling support beam. Covering the topside of the cattle panels with maybe a rubber liner extending it well past the edges of the sides, putting some dirt (maybe 6" or so) over that. I'd use wire fencing cut to fill in the back wall...the sides walls having waterproof paper all around the outside against the dirt. Build in the front wall and door. We are going to build a deck the entire lenghth on that side so it would be under the deck, if we used hurricane rated joist hangers, etc...I know, sounds pretty far fetched, don't know if it's feasible, etc.

I read somewhere, don't know where or how dated the info was, but a couple dug a hole and put in a new, but cracked concrete septic tank they paid $125 for a root cellar/septic tank.

San Francisco Bay Ar, CA(Zone 9b)

If you are going to go through all the work to make a hilled -in shelter, it might be worth making one that can serve a dual purpose as a root/cheese/wine/fruit/pantry cellar or similar. This would ensure regular inspections of the shelter and you'd have provisions during and after the storm if needed.

Claremore, OK(Zone 6a)

I'm convinced that underground and out of a mobile home is better.

The one thing that frightens me about anything underground, is any type of cave-in. Especially if it's something that is self-made.

As long as it is supported in every direction to withstand any movement of supports and dirt, I would think it would be safer than in our residences, in the event of a tornado.

The concrete septic tank idea sounds interesting.

I once saw an article on the 'net' about one that someone built out of a huge 6 foot diameter, steel corrigated culvert pipe too. I think it was a piece about 12 feet long. They sealed off the ends, made a door on the top, which would be the side pointing up, and installed vents for air. It looked effective enough.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

An acquaintance did the culvert however, the price was not cheap and he owned a dozer so did the work himself. Not really cost effective.

San Francisco Bay Ar, CA(Zone 9b)

So does it get down to the cost of building a basement vs a shelter?

I agree that anything underground needs to be built properly so that it doesn't cave in on you. Are basements common in OK?

Caneyville, KY(Zone 6b)

Cost is definitely an issue. I have in mind a combination root cellar/storm shelter. Based on the time it took DH to dig the hole for the garden pond, figured it would take 2-3 days to dig the 8' x 8' x 5' deep hole. The root cellars I have been seeing around here are a couple of feet higher than the surrounding level ground, but the roof area has dirt mounded up over it.

In NM. I saw the inside of a bomb shelter made with the culvert pipe, with spiral staircase. Would love something like that, but way out of our price range.

I found online directions for a DIY rootcellar using pallets for the walls and tree trunks, plastic and dirt for the roof. That was a little too basic for me, in regards to safety. Also kicked around the idea of using tires packed with dirt for the inside walls (think Dennis Weaver Earthship) but then the hole would have to be bigger and that's a whole lot more work packing the dirt. I'm kind of counting on a very well secured deck over the top of the root cellar to offer a little more protection too.

Definitely need to get started on something though, as the number of tornados increases every year.

Claremore, OK(Zone 6a)

There are some homes in Okla. that have basements, although the majority do not. You would think, with as many tornadoes as we have in Okla. it would be more common.

As far as digging the hole, one might consider 'renting' a mini- backhoe-trencher. We rented one to dig our footings when we built our house. It was less than $ 300.00 for the whole weekend, and we got a lot done with it. I wish we would have done a little more dig a big hole for the shelter, lol. The people at the rental center showed DH how to use it, and it was easy enough for him.

I'm also wondering about one of those big plastic water sotrage tanks that are available at Atwoods and Tractor Supply, etc.

I wonder if a person could get a large one (500+ gal. size) and set it into a hole, then put rebar around it and pour concrete around the outside ? Support beams and rebar could be placed across the top to take the weight off the plastic top (no cave-in) then concrete across the top ? Installing a vent for air thru existing fill hole, and probably
have to cut an opening to install entry door. ???
This would still be a considerable cost, but something we could do ourselves....and in stages that would be pay as we go, easier on our budget.

I don't know if this is a crazy idea, or something that might realistically work. But I keep eyeing those big water tanks out in the parking lot at Atwoods........and wondering. And then I gaze at the big steel dumpsters behind the stores.......and wonder.

We keep having more tornadoes, so I'm pretty motivated to figure this out. I just hope I don't figure out some kind of crazy thing that costs too much, then squashes me like a bug, lol.

Caneyville, KY(Zone 6b)

We've got a deep ravine (25-30') on both sides of our hilltop, but I think in the presence of tornado winds, I'd much prefer to be totally encased underground! LOL! Besides, I'm too old to enjoy playing in the rain.

Had to laugh, because I've been eyeing those plastic things too! Just couldn't figure out how to shore up the roof.

One idea I had using the cattle panels is placing it several inches from the walls, securing plywood on the underside, shoring it up with a few roof beams on permanent posts and pouring concrete over it to a thickeness of several inches. The cattle panel would be like using rebar. Seems to me those concrete culvert pipes are only a few inches thick. That would put a secure roof over head.

The roof on an regular stylr root cellar is what is giving me the most concern. As mentioned earlier, I read where you could just lay tree trunks across the roof, then waterproof paper and cover with dirt, making sure to extend the logs past the edge of the walls by a couple of feet for water to run off away from the walls. I sure would like to take a look inside some old root cellars, to see for myself exactly what they used long ago.

Concrete block walls would probably be the easiest. I figured for an 8' square, it would take about 360 blocks. Working with the blocks is something I could physically handle. Could also frame up the interior walls with 2 x 4's and plywood and pour concrete between the dirt and plywood, like you would for a baesment.

I searched a little online this am, but couldn't find anything new.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a) You may have run into this type of shelter. The whole unit is buried. They don't list prices so I suspect if we have to ask we can't afford it... but they are neat.

One fellow in our area had an old train boxcar he planted in a hillside. Pretty good idea but I suspect moving one of them would be pricey too.

Claremore, OK(Zone 6a)

Podster, thanks for the link. Those are pretty cool, and not all that big. One of them actually looks (a little) like a modified commercial refuse dumpster, like I was thinking about, only with steps and a dome top. I am going to email them and ask for a price.

haha, the train car is probably safer than my house, even if you didn't bother to plant it in. Those things are pretty solid.

msrobin, I think a concrete top could be poured on. I talked to someone today that said the concrete strength should be 5,000 psi
and contain fiber in the mix, in addition to the cattle panels or rebar.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

When those containers are buried, they must have some way to keep them underground. Too much groundwater could make them float I would be afraid.

Paris, TN(Zone 6b)

I had a link at one time (that I can no longer find) of someone who used a concrete reinforced septic tank as their tornado shelter, complete with concrete steps down into it. Of course, I can't find it now! I believe the cost including dig-out was about 1,500.00. I'll keep searching to see if I can find it again.

Caneyville, KY(Zone 6b)

Podster, yep, if we have to ask the price, we probably can't afford it. I'm guessing they are pretty proud of their products, too, if we have to contact them for the price. But it is definitely a cool shelter and probably the easiest to install!

In our case, I keep remembering pictures of trailers destroyed by tornados. The frame is always wiped clean, but the frame appears to still be anchored securely in the ground. I'm just trying to come up with an idea working around that.

So.App.Mtns., United States(Zone 5b)

I want to contribute to this conversation... but I am away from home for the weekend and using a friend's computer. I'll see what I can find in my stuff when I get home///

But for now, just remember the strongest structure/shape is an arch.

Caneyville, KY(Zone 6b)

Anxiously awaiting your input Darius! I know the old root cellars didn't cost an arm and a leg to put in. We don't have a few thousand laying around for this project and at this point a few hundred would be a stretch unless we could do the root cellar in stages.

Fountain, FL(Zone 8b)

I found this one. The guy has pics and instructions on how he built it. It's more along the lines of mounded into a hillside but looks easy enough-


zone 7, TX

I live in 'tornado alley' also and I was driving out in the 'sticks' and noticed that someone had an old van buried into the side of a hill. THe tail end sticks out so you can see out the windows. I suppose that is what they were doing, building some kind of shelter. The only thing that bothers me is that it faced west. I would think I would want it facing north or northeast. But then of course they might not have had a choice. Oh, their regular home was a mobile home so maybe ANYTHING else
away from their home is safest..

Fountain, FL(Zone 8b)

Ladybeetle... that reminds me, there was a guy here that buried two school buses on his place. I don't know how that worked, how he got into them or whatever but I do know he did it. It was probably 30 yrs ago now and he is long since gone.

Caneyville, KY(Zone 6b)

I like that storm shelter! Looks fairly simple to do....note I did not say easy. LOL!

We have an old mini-van that I have sure considered burying in the side of the hill down in the woods.

Appreciate you sharing the link.


You reminded me...there was a home for Sale in Sapulpa or Creek County years ago. It had a big yellow school bus partially buried underground for Tornados.

I had forgotten all about it.

Can't you see it now...The Big Yellow Bus subdivision...everyone must bury a Yellow Bus in the front yard for protection...LOL.

Fountain, FL(Zone 8b)

That would be something else.
It wouldn't cost much to buy one though. The county sells them pretty cheap here.
Hiring a backhoe to dig that big a hole would cost a bit, though!

Lecanto, FL(Zone 9a)

I was picturing those big trash bins, from behind supermarkets, disappearing. And me, dragging one on coasters behind my little Kia Sephia.

Caneyville, KY(Zone 6b)

That'd be a sight! They're bigger than your car, aren't they? LOL!

But you make a good point. They would work great...a little cozy, though.

So.App.Mtns., United States(Zone 5b)

Despite my 'intentions' I haven't had time to think on this from a design/build aspect, but offhand it seems to me that an important factor would be no protrusions above ground to catch the wind.

Caneyville, KY(Zone 6b)

Peggy, aren't you a concrete contractor?

Anyone heard about the Round Houses? They are called Eagle Nest homes or Nest homes or something like that.

Round is stronger than flat because the wind does not have a solid flat surface to blow against. Round defuses the air and the wind goes around the object instead of blowing it over.

Any experience with this? Wonder why more of us don't build these houses?

So.App.Mtns., United States(Zone 5b)

Deltek makes/sells round houses, pre-fabs in sections. If you put a solid foundation under them (rather than on stilts) they would resist uplift better...

Colorado Springs, CO

I am a little late with this, hope you are still interested. I have seen some info on various uses of shipping containers, and I know that there are a number of sources for these, all claiming lowest prices.

Seems like research into that area might come up with something, rather than tornado shelter specifically. I know they are being filled with plywood, bedding, etc and sent to refugee camps to provide temporary housing. Everything needed to complete a "house" is included inside. Pretty innovative.



Good job! I think those are the homes I remember reading about. Cool. I googled under Deltek, round, home and found the site.

Love the look of them. The site states that they are more energy efficient also. Wonder if that is true.

Did you see the pics of the homes that "lived" through a hurricane? I'm impressed. Let's start a subdivision of round homes, hmmm?

Wonder if there are any major problems w/ this type of construction.

So.App.Mtns., United States(Zone 5b)

I did some repair work (when I was still doing construction) on a Deltek home in Asheville 6 years ago. The home was then at least 20 years old, and not well insulated. The underneath portion was very exposed to the windy site atop a hill, and air infiltrated everywhere. However, all that may be due to what was the norm at the time of construction.

Since those homes are all modular SIP's (Structural Insulated Panels), there is an opportunity to use better sealants/systems in joining the panels at the job site, thicker insulated walls and floors, etc.

Structurally they aren't as strong as Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, but they also don't have the same cubic volume to floor area ratio to heat and cool. Frankly, passive solar earth-sheltered homes have far more to offer. (Earth-sheltered on 3 sides, not totally underground.)


Thanks! It is great to have that information. They had some pics of 1 story homes; guess that would be better.

Aren't all the Buckminster Fuller homes sort of ugly? For the general public, it seems like we need a mix of functional, beautiful and priced right to make them sell. I've been in a couple of round "dome-like" homes that have leakage problems w/ the roof. Have u seen that problem?

Cellars aren't built much in the area of OK around Tulsa because of our ground combined w/ weather and water tables. We have clay soil and extreme variables in both water levels and heat. Plus, many areas here have high water tables. Even heat and air ducts built in the concrete slabs are rusting out. So, I'm not sure that earth-sheltered would work well here for the long term or for the beauty...although I'm sure the look could grow (pun totally intended) on us. LOL

Thanks again for all the info.

So.App.Mtns., United States(Zone 5b)

Yeah, geodesic domes aren't particularly attractive, LOL.

For fun, google "Flying Concrete" and peruse lots of the pages...


My husband is not going to like you...LOL!!! I'm going to bug him to build me a concrete house: or at least think about it. Okay, so...he won't consider it...LOL. Maybe he will build me a little cottage house in the back yard.

Flying concrete! Wow! I am delighted by "Tim Sullivanís incredible house, planned by the American designer Steve Kornher" as stated on OltreMarie's web site.

It looks like something from a Dr. Suiss book...LOL.

Funny, but I hated it when my sister painted her shutters robin-egg blue to match the fish gravel in her front concrete walk-path. But, I love this over-the-tip-top-smash-and-crash house!!!!

Thanks; I enjoyed the tour.

BTW: How safe do you think a flying concrete house would be in a tornado?

So.App.Mtns., United States(Zone 5b)

I think pretty safe if anchored properly to the foundation/footers. The designs allow wind to flow over instead of creating shear.

About 3 years ago I wrote to Steve about setting up a summer class/workshop to build a lightweight concrete structure here. I wanted to get students in architecture, structural engineering, and even artists to participate... along the lines of what Ben Long did when he painted his frescoes in North Carolina. Alas, Steve was booked for the next 2 years, and then I moved to VA.

There had been some issues with the US Building Codes not accepting his structures. There has to be LOTS of documentation in order to modify the building code to allow different construction methods. I've worked with them and I know how difficult it is. There is ONE model building code committee for the US, comprised of members from many disciplines. Once they decide/approve, then the 3 major US Codes can adopt those measures. Each state can take all, or part, for their Code, and then each county/city can adopt the state code intact, or in part.

It all boils down to (for example)... the local building inspector has a book stating what size beams to span what length. If it doesn't match his printed sheet, it doesn't pass. Those guys don't have the education/qualification to make independent decisions at the job site that really require a structural engineer... Same with anything new/different being built. There is no malpractice insurance and they don't want to be responsible if your house falls down.

Thanks for all the information. It sounds like you really know your stuff!

I guess if it was built according to the specs but made creative, maybe it would work.

Thanks again for the fun tour!

So.App.Mtns., United States(Zone 5b)

Here's a drawing I found in my notes today... it is for a root cellar but I think it would be adequate for a shelter also.

NOTE: This is NOT my drawing, but I've had it so long that I don't remember the source.

Thumbnail by darius
Caneyville, KY(Zone 6b)

Darius, what is a Ferrocement Shell?

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