Why London's super-rich are busy installing panic rooms. Safe room construction By Nu Projects.
In these uncertain times the super rich in London are protecting their families by installing panic rooms in their homes. This strange bulletproof cube might seem a fictional idea. Yet, demand for these so-called safe rooms is soaring in the capital — not from fearful individuals worried about the ramifications of political careers spilling over, as with Stein’s character, but from super-rich banking families, stalker-scared celebrities, and cash-hoarding foreigners who want an anti-ballistic space to call their own. You’ll probably never hear anyone name-drop their panic room as the Kensington crew do about their triple-storey basements. Still, one prime London agent claims nearly every single one of the capital’s mega-homes — the ones five times larger than the average Zoopla listing, found around Hampstead’s The Bishops Avenue and Belgravia’s Eaton Square — hides a panic room within its four walls. That’s despite the standard safe rooms starting from £100,000 and costing as much as £1 million. As the agent puts it: “That’s a lot of money for you or me, but if you’re spending £15 million building a house, it’s not.”
The first rule of panic rooms is you don’t talk about your panic room. They’re hidden behind standard-looking doors or bookshelves, they’re never part of the show-off house tour. “You don’t advertise it in your house’s particulars, you don’t talk about it on the golf course,” says one foreign tycoon living in London who immediately breaks his own decree by whispering he’s had one installed. “It’s not like the basement swimming pool or the retractable-roof tennis court — it’s low-key, it’s there for the security.”
The billionaire had his panic room built soon after his first child was born — “you want to protect them, y’ know?” For most parents, that means splashing out on a top-of-the-range baby monitor. For the super-rich, it’s a concrete bunker with nuclear, biological and chemical attack protection. There are two types of safe room for the average zillionaire: one is that underground, concrete cell (anti-radiation as standard, but it’s an extra £90,000 for nuclear protection. One developer tells me that’s a far more popular choice in New York than in London). Or there’s the more common anti-intruder panic room. This is the one you might think is a dressing room or bathroom, unaware that the fluffy Roberto Cavalli towels are hanging off ballistic steel wall panels, or that the racks of designer dresses and suits are the architectural equivalent of Superman, a safe room in disguise protecting people from burglars and bombs. The wealthy spend a lot of money on the room they hope never to have to enter. Tom Gaffney, president of the safe-room specialist Gaffco Ballistics, says: “The panic room has the same finish as any other room in the house. Clients aren’t going to go with lino floors when the rest of the house is white quartz — they spend the money.”
Inside, the “most important thing in a panic room is good communication”, says Paul Weldon, founder of The Panic Room Company, the name behind many of London’s safe rooms. “It might be a simple mobile phone or iPad or satellite phone, but you need to stay in touch with the police or your own security services. The CCTV is linked to the room too, so the occupants know what’s going on outside.”
The priciest panic rooms have their own air supply, a filtration system to keep out poison gases, independent lighting and plumbing systems, heating and an alarm keypad, all powered by a generator, plus emergency food stocks. It’s more war rations than Whole Foods: freeze-dried meals and tinned meat with bottles of water are the norms. The anti-intruder panic rooms beside bedrooms are only designed to protect their occupants until help arrives — up to about an hour — but bunkers can keep them fed and watered for as much as a week. Most US panic rooms host a secret compartment for a gun. Over here, home-owners are still asked to pick their ballistic protection — a wall that will stop a shotgun’s ammunition or one that will prevent armour-piercing rounds.