How to Build a Tornado Safe Room

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A safe room is a small, structurally robust shelter inside or outside a home that is designed to withstand extreme weather and even severe damage or failure of the home's structure. Building a safe room can be a do-it-yourself project, but requires general construction skills and a strong understanding of building plans and design specifications. Whether you construct a room yourself, or have one professionally built or installed, creating a safe haven from tornados starts with gathering information; consulting with local building authorities; determining the best location, type, and size of room; and drafting a construction plan that meets your needs and your budget.

Gathering Information

  • Visit the safe room websites of (or call) the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) to find a broad range of information about storm shelters, including resources for learning more about weather and building data specific to your area.

  • Contact state and local authorities for information about current financial aid programs for safe rooms. Homeowners in some areas may be eligible to receive assistance through special funds, grants, or financing for building safe rooms in existing or new homes.

  • Call or visit your city's building department to learn about building code rules and the permitting and inspection processes for safe rooms. Building authorities may also refer you to qualified local design and construction professionals, such as architects, engineers, and building contractors, in your area who specialize in safe rooms.

Assessing your home

  • Identify all viable locations for your safe room, considering factors such as emergency access, probability of flooding, construction type, and cost, among other criteria. Typically, the least expensive and easiest place to build a safe room is in a full-height basement, but you can also build one above ground within the first floor of the house, outdoors, or below a concrete slab-on-grade foundation for a garage or house.

  • Determine the space needs for your safe room based on the number of people in your household and other factors. For tornado safe rooms, FEMA recommends a minimum space of 5 square feet for each person, standing or seated, while more space is needed for those in wheelchairs or beds. Tornado safe rooms can be much smaller than shelters for hurricanes due to the shorter periods of danger for tornado events.

  • Consider nonemergency uses for the safe room. For example, safe rooms can double as bathrooms and closets, or be used for long-term storage. Planning a safe room for secondary use may add to the construction cost, but it's a good way to provide safe shelter without compromising living space.

Designing and Building the Room

  • Plan your safe room following the general specifications prescribed by FEMA, NSSA, and the local building code, which supersedes, and may or may not include, state and federal code requirements. If you're working with a professional designer and/or builder, they will likely lead the construction planning, guided by your preferences.

  • Create complete construction drawings detailing all aspects of the room and any related house elements, such as the walls, ceiling, and floor surrounding the safe room. Obtain all permits and permissions required by the local building department prior to construction. If you're hiring out the project, your contractor will likely be responsible for obtaining permits.

  • Complete the safe room construction according to the approved design specifications. Have the structure inspected and approved both during and after construction as required by the local building department.

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