We’re Living Through Another Age of the Bunker

Underground properties grow in popularity every decade or so. They’re back, and more attainable than ever.

Amid the holiday season, I received two bizarre press releases: one for a French chateau with a newly installed "extreme dine-in aquarium lounge," bookended by Pinterest’s 2024 trend report, letting me know that "aquatecture" would be all the rage. As it turns out, the chateau’s underground aquarium is actually an acrylic-domed room beneath the moat surrounding the mansion, where its residents can comfortably observe sturgeon and koi while they relax on a curved white-leather sofa in a temperature-controlled setting—true subterranean luxury! This, presumably, is on a far larger scale than the mini-terrariums predicted to dominate overpriced millennial and Gen Z apartments this year. But underground constructions also seem to be having a moment: In January, news of a secret tunnel below a historic Brooklyn synagogue became one of the year’s first viral stories, while a Virginia woman crowned TikTok’s "Tunnel Girl" stoked controversy for digging an underground shelter below her home.

Tunnel Girl is hardly the first subterranean enthusiast to discover a world beneath her floorboards. In 1963, a man in Turkey uncovered an ancient underground city below his property after knocking down a wall in his basement, to give one example, and during World War II, many European governments launched extensive public bunker-building programs as protection against airstrikes, and later, possible Soviet nuclear attacks. The widespread use of domestic bunkers in American homes traces back to Cold War-era fallout shelters, but the desire and trappings of a "trophy basement"—a below-foundation space filled with amenities meant to augment a mansion owner’s lifestyle—evoke the grandeur of cultures like the ancient Egyptians or dynastic China, where elaborate palatial tombs were built over the span of a ruler’s reign to accommodate them in the afterlife. Keeping a pressurized tank filled with fish below sea level takes the confidence of an Egyptian pharaoh buried with all their wealth, and it seems our contemporary pharaohs—tech billionaires, largely—haven’t shaken the impulse to carve themselves out underground grottos. Take Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is reportedly building his own Hawaiian bunker (which he recently flaunted on Instagram to much public chagrin) as part of a plan for a super secretive $270 million compound that rivals even Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Gold Base. Even our fictional onscreen billionaires are building themselves gargantuan underground lairs.

Vivos xPoint, the self-proclaimed "largest survival community on earth," consists of 575 concrete bunkers on a former U.S. military base near the Black Hills area of South Dakota.

Vivos xPoint, the self-proclaimed "largest survival community on earth," consists of 575 concrete bunkers on a former U.S. military base near the Black Hills area of South Dakota.

Since WWII and the Cold War, bunkers have continued to be built around the world for a number of reasons: people distrust the government (relatable!), threats of impending societal collapse (again, so relatable), and natural disasters writ even larger by global warming. According to the CEO of Rising S Bunkers, a Texas manufacturer of steel underground bunkers, bomb shelters, and safe rooms, residential bunker sales have spiked 1,000 percent since 2018. It seems collective anxieties around societal crises drive the sale of underground spaces, influencing their ebbs and flows in popularity (separate from the phenomenon of restoring former bunkers as museums, even architectural getaways). In recent history, public interest in bunkers peaked in response to the Y2K panic and when conspiracy theorists cited that the 2012 end of the Aztec calendar signaled impending apocalypse. The 2020 pandemic, unsurprisingly, only boosted the bunker’s popularity, not to mention anxieties around the threats of climate change, war, and civil unrest. I can’t say I blame bunker builders—the world has felt like it’s ending for the last few decades, and the Doomsday Clock—a timepiece used to symbolize how close we’ve come to End Times—continues to signal closer than ever. It only makes sense that in an increasingly individualistic society, more and more of us want to hide from the mess we’ve made by hunkering beneath the soil.

Take TikTok user Kala (@engineer.everything), the aforementioned Tunnel Girl, an engineer (by passion, not educational background, notably) with flawless lipstick who since 2022 had been documenting her elaborate one-woman excavation project beneath her home, until ​​she was recently issued a stop work order by local officials after growing online interest in her videos of the DIY project brought it to their attention. What began as a plan to build a storm shelter below her basement transformed into a full-blown mining operation with precarious makeshift pulley systems and retrofit armatures to secure the rocky walls of the 30-foot-long, 20-foot-deep tunnel from caving in on her. In one of her TikTok "storm shelter updates"—captioned "Crumbling like my dreams! #engineering #excavation"—the woman chips away some 10 feet beneath her home with a pickax, dressed in pink pajamas and bright-yellow gloves. In another post recapping the project’s one-year anniversary, one commenter wrote: "Are you allowed to just do this…?"

Elsewhere, in an episode of HBO’s docu-comedy How To with John Wilson that aired last July, the namesake host visits two bunkers: one built for government officials under a hotel in Washington, D.C., and another, a retired missile silo being converted into a family living space. (The threshold to the latter is daunting: a heavy steel hatch opens to a rusted ladder going straight down an industrial pipe, and the interior of the silo, limited by its original 1950s design, features dusty cinderblock and reinforced steel.) The month prior, Business Insider published a story about an American family who bought a 6,000-square-foot underground nuclear bunker for $300,000 (in an undisclosed location) and are similarly documenting the process of renovating into their home on TikTok. The "bunker-curious" category seems to be expanding: In the U.S. alone, the growing number of bunker-building and selling companies includes Rising S Bunkers, Atlas Survival Shelters, Survival Condo, U.S.A. Bunker Company, Hardened Structures, Northeast Bunkers, and Vivos Group, a company that builds and manages underground shelters, including sprawling bunker complexes—one of which is Vivos xPoint, the self-proclaimed "largest survival community on earth."

According to Dante Vicino, the Vivos xPoint architect (and son of California developer Robert Vicino, the Vivos Group founder), interest in bunkers spikes every five to 10 years, depending on what’s happening in the zeitgeist. "People kind of fetishize this idea of like, I Am Legend and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but that’s why those are fictitious stories, because it’s basically impossible to survive alone," he says. "You need people, you need to make alliances and form bonds. So when we started Vivos we consulted with a lot of sociologists and psychologists who basically said, Look, there’s a strong need to bring people together. The ethos going forward was knowing that it had to be a community setting. And it had to be affordable."

Located near the Black Hills area of South Dakota on a former military fortress used during World War II to store weapons and ammunition (but abandoned in 1967), Vivos xPoint consists of 575 concrete-and-steel bunkers arranged on a plot spanning roughly three quarters the size of Manhattan. Clients can customize their bunker floor plans or choose from the existing five layouts; according to the website, there’s a one-time upfront payment of $55,000 per bunker, plus a recurring annual "ground rent" of $1,091. Vicino says a fully outfitted bunker at xPoint costs roughly $250,000—about average to a down payment on a one to two-bedroom home, depending on one’s proximity to a major U.S. metropolis. "I’m not saying that that’s cheap by any stretch, but it’s something that’s approachable to a wide portion of our population," Vicino says. "We developed Vivos from a very humanistic perspective. A reporter said this and I’m going to repeat it—we’re democratizing the bunker industry."

Vivos xPoint bunkers come in five standard layouts, but floor plans can also be customized. The bunker interiors are 26.5 feet wide and 60 or 80 feet long, with 12.5-foot ceilings, and come unfurnished.

Vivos xPoint bunkers come in five standard layouts, but floor plans can also be customized. The bunker interiors are 26.5 feet wide and 60 or 80 feet long, with 12.5-foot ceilings, and come unfurnished.

Vivos xPoint clientele range from school teachers, environmentalists, biologists, ex-military members, and law enforcement, to accountants, people from various walks of life. "I think there’s this stigma, that people think, Oh, this is for the rich, white guy, middle-aged Christian conservative, but it’s really not," Vicino says. "There’s plenty of backyard bunkers, but this is about community. The concept of a Renaissance man is a nice idea. I strive to be one myself, but that doesn’t mean that I can function through every societal function by myself. There’s so much stuff that I don’t know, right?"

Potential Vivos clients are screened before joining the company’s underground survival communities (including at other Vivos bunker complexes, such as in Indiana and Germany). "We had all these doctors and attorneys that were applying," says Vicino. "And it’s like, that’s wonderful, but who the fuck is going to fix the pipes?"

Top photo courtesy The Vivos Group

Related Reading:

Inside the Unassuming Texas Home That Just Happens to Have a Natural Cavern in the Backyard

13 Subterranean Homes That Are Out of This World




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