by Nancy A. Ruhling | Mansion Global
So-called "panic rooms" are getting decked out and expanded—in some cases to a whole wing
In the 2002 thriller "Panic Room," Jodie Foster’s character and her 11-year-old daughter, played by Kristen Stewart, are forced to hunker down in a secret concrete bunker in their New York City brownstone when burglars threaten their lives.
There they sweat it out cinematically, sealed behind a steel door in a Spartan space that has a steel toilet and looks more like a maximum-security prison than a protective paradise.
At the time, panic rooms were more novel than necessity, and if Ms. Foster and Ms. Stewart were battling the bad guys today, they’d be likely to find themselves sitting in a safe room that’s as high style as a five-star hotel and much more high tech.
While it’s true that it’s impossible to put a price on personal safety, panic rooms, which also are referred to by the calmer term "safe rooms," are among the safety features—ranging from bespoke safes and bank-style vaults to elaborately outfitted underground bunkers in the middle of nowhere—that high-net-worth individuals are spending tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars on to provide protection for their families, possessions and properties.
"Panic rooms have become more popular, particularly in London, especially with international clients from the Middle East and Russia, where they are prevalent," said Richard Westell, commercial sales manager for Safe and Bolt Co. and of Opulent Safes, based in Leeds, England, which makes and installs safes, vaults and panic rooms. "These people want to replicate what they have in their other houses."
Typically, the panic room is ingeniously hidden behind a false wall in a bedroom or basement and its walls, floor and ceiling are made of blast-proof, bullet-proof Superman steel or ballistic fiberglass that’s designed to prevent the entry of everything from gun-toting assassins to poisonous gases.
Prices of panic rooms and vaults, based on size and level of security, vary. For US$50,000 to US$550,000, clients get the basic armored room. Furnishings are extra; peace of mind is free. High-end safes generally run US$30,000 to US$80,000, according to experts.
Bill Rigdon, president and CEO of Building Consensus and of Panic Room Builders in Newport Beach, California, recently created an elaborate panic room on the bottom floor of an expansive oceanfront estate in La Jolla, California.
"It includes tunnels so the two young children can escape and a door to trap the intruders," he said. "I did another project for a client on Saint Cloud Road in Bel-Air that has a tunnel to the canyon."
In the last 18 months, there has been "a massive increase" in inquiries about safe rooms, said Matthias Fitzhum, CEO and managing partner of the bespoke safe maker Stockinger in Neuried and Munich, Germany, which has worked in over 100 countries. "A lot of stock-listed companies are requesting them for their offices as well as for the private homes of their board members," he said.
Protecting from Natural and Man-Made Disasters
As natural and manmade disasters and mass shootings increase around the world, so does the popularity of panic rooms.
"The volume of our business increases commiserate to the increase in gun violence," said Chris Acevedo, a principal of Panic Room USA, a full-service panic room firm based in Parkland, Florida. "That sparks interest."
Tom Gaffney, the owner of Gaffco Ballistics, a firm in South Londonderry, Vermont, that designs, engineers and builds high-end panic/safe rooms for clients around the globe, said his clients, "the top one-percenters," are keenly security conscious, but "they don’t want to give up aesthetics for safety."
"There’s a higher sense of awareness, and architects are calling us now before the project even begins," Mr. Gaffney said. "It’s more expensive to convert a room, so it is becoming standard for us to build them to specifications. People are reaching out to us; we don’t have to go to them."
Aiming for Bragging Rights
Chris Cosban, the owner of Long Island, New York-based Covert Interiors, which creates luxury panic rooms for the well-heeled of New York City and the Hamptons on Long Island, said people are happy to spend $50,000 to $300,000 plus similar amounts for furnishings because "it’s as much about the wow factor and bragging rights" as it is about home safety.
He mentioned a panic room that is decked out like a 1920s speakeasy and another that’s in a Ralph Lauren style, complete with a concealed entrance, walnut floors and guns hanging on the wall for decoration.
Although panic rooms primarily are being used for personal protection, some owners are also turning them into storage spaces for collections ranging from contemporary paintings and vintage guitars to classic cars.
Matthias Fitzhum, CEO and managing partner of the bespoke safe maker Stockinger in Neuried and Munich, Germany, which has worked in over 100 countries, created an armored garage for a client in Switzerland who collected Ferraris.
"The client worked with an interior designer who added a bar, sitting area and shelves for the man’s favorite whiskey," he said. "The designer also found a set of 1964 tools that had been used to work on a 1964 Ferrari, so it’s like you’re sitting next to a race track. There are flat screen TVs that look like big windows that show films that feature that car."
Going the Extra Mile With a Safe Wing
For those who desire extra protection, Al V. Corbi, the president and founder of SAFE (Strategically Armored and Fortified Environments) in McLean, Virginia, creates what he calls "safe core" rooms—entire rooms or wings that are on lock down.
"Panic rooms don’t work," he said, "because it takes too long to get to them."
He recently finished a US$100-million "exotic protective environment" that added a 30,000-square-foot wing to a 70,000-square-foot house in the United States.
Mr. Gaffney has done similar treatments. His biggest job, for US$1.4-million, was a whole-house panic room for a client in the oil business who lives in a stone home in a walled-in compound in an exclusive neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria. And in a US$1.2-million project in Mexico City, he converted a brick multi-story house with a glass entrance that soared to the roof into a bulletproof bunker that locks via the push of a button.
"Each of these projects had multiple safes and gun rooms so they could defend themselves in an attack," he said. "You have to remember that in some of these countries, the response time of the police is not as quick as it would be on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan."
All in the Bespoke Details
Panic rooms and vaults sometimes include bespoke safes that are as beautiful and costly as the small valuables they secure.
"They are getting more and more fancy," said Mr. Fitzhum of Stockinger, whose custom safes start at €45,000 (US$52,000) and feature high-gloss finishes of up to 42 layers and 24-karat gold-plated hardware down to the screws.
"The buyers want to realize a vision of absolute perfection, and nobody cares about the money," he said, adding that he created a safe room that featured 500 wrist watch winders for a client’s billion-dollar collection.
One of his clients, a jewels collector/dealer in the Emirates, ordered a two-ton safe finished with a diamond-coated varnish. The cost was €250,000 (US$289,000). And one superyacht owner ordered 18 safes.
Brown Safe Manufacturing, which is based in Vista, California, creates custom handcrafted safes that are designed to be passed down from generation to generation. Although the average price is US$9,000, the bill often rises to US$80,000 with the addition of special paint colors, hardware finishes, drawer insets and luxurious linings like leathers and ultrasuedes.
During her career, Lynel Brown, vice president of the company, has made safes for shoes, wine, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and even cigars (a humidor was incorporated).
For a Hollywood producer who was a Ferrari fan, Ms. Brown created a safe that featured a carbon-fiber finish and emblems and stitching that matched the car.
"He put the safe in a glass display case in his living room," she said.
Another time, she created a vault for the sports memorabilia of a team owner who requested special display shelves and high-security measures like fingerprint entry. And for a Batman aficionado, she made a safe whose front panel replicated the superhero’s insignia in stainless steel.
She said that most houses typically have more than one safe to provide easy access to items used or worn every day.
"It’s like closets—men and women don’t like sharing them," she said. "And each one can have a mirror on the side so you can see how you look."
Opulent Safes, which offers models in three standard security grades, 210 classic colors and wood, paint and bronze- and gold-plated finishes, once produced a safe that featured Swarovski crystals around the door. "We also can do one totally encrusted with crystals if anyone asks," Mr. Westell said.
"Like a Second House"
Beyond safes and vaults and panic rooms, people of means are turning to communities of fortified bunkers at remote locations for physical as well as emotional security.
Robert Vicino, founder and CEO of The Vivos Group, which is based in Del Mar, California, has been buying up old military-base installations around the world and converting them into survival quarters that have the status of four-star hotels.
"High-net-worth individuals see the possibilities," he said. "When I launched this in 2007, everybody thought I was crazy, but it’s become an aspirational thing—it’s like a second house, you must have it—and it’s another form of insurance, for the wealthy, it’s life assurance."
Vivos’s underground communities include xPoint, a shelter in South Dakota that’s about the size of Manhattan. It has more than 575 private bunkers, each 2,200 square feet, that can accommodate up to 10,000 people. Its Europe One, which is bored into the mountainside in Rothenstein, Germany, covers 250,000 square feet and is advertised as the world’s largest luxury underground bunker.
Vivos’s newest, in South Korea, near the tip of the country, is designed for 1,000 people. It’s still in the works.
The bunkers, which can withstand nuclear blasts and nuclear, biological and chemical threats, sell for about US$25,000 undecorated, according to Mr. Vicino.
"It’s up to the buyer to outfit it," Mr. Vicino said. "Some of them copy our showroom, whose decor cost US$75,000. That’s less than it costs to buy a motorhome or a boat. The idea is to ride out the worst of times in the lap of luxury; the cost of providing amenities is minimal."
Mr. Rigdon also has been thinking outside the panic-room box. He’s getting ready to build underground bunkers, which will sell for about US$300,000 each undecorated, on property he owns about 150 miles from Los Angeles.