"Obviously, real wood would be better. But that's better than nothing," an expert in disaster preparedness told me.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz. All photos by the author.
We live in scary times. Nuclear brinksmanship was, for decades, a figment of a bygone, wayward era. Now, it is suddenly back in vogue. North Korea has ramped up testing of its nuclear arsenal and long-range missiles, and the United States’ recent response has been anything but staid. Long story short: These idiots are trying to get us all killed.
In a recent Stanford University study it was estimated that, on the first day of an all-out war between North Korea and the United States, 1 million people could die. I would be so angry if I died on day one of WWIII. Ideally, I wouldn’t die at all, which is why I’m trying to be proactive. I live on the West Coast, and if North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles are the real deal, then I’m sitting in their crosshairs. Other than move, I have no option but to prepare myself. That means building a fallout shelter.
Sadly, effective blast shelters—that is, shelters that can withstand a direct nuclear blast—are rather difficult to build and prohibitively expensive. They need to be underground and shielded with at least four inches of thick concrete. I consider myself to be relatively crafty, but pouring concrete is not part of my limited skill set. Contained within that skill set, however, is an ability to assemble IKEA furniture. So I reached out to experts about making a fallout shelter completely out of IKEA furniture.
For much of the second-half of the 20th century, Sweden was nestled right up against the Soviet Union. Despite Sweden’s neutrality, the nation had to always be prepared in the event of a nuclear attack. My hope is that the minimalist, flat-pack furniture reflects this grave sense of caution.
“I have to confess—I’ve never been to IKEA,” Janet Liebsch told me. Liebsch and her husband run Fedhealth, a publishing company that specializes in disaster preparedness guides, a commercial for which you can watch below. After a visit to IKEA’s website to learn about what the company has to offer, she informed me that its furniture wouldn’t be of any help if I was in the blast zone. However, I could possibly use it to build what is known as an expedient shelter.
Expedient shelters are not intended to be lived in for much longer than a few days, but, if assembled correctly, one could shield its inhabitants from the radioactive fallout of a nuclear explosion. If I can make it 48 hours to two weeks inside my shelter (the estimated time for fallout to recede to a physiologically acceptable level), then I may just be able to survive.
Liebsch sent me a list of effective shielding materials, as well as the thickness each would need to be in order to equal the protection of 4 inches of concrete.
—Five–six inches (12 –15 cm) of bricks
—Six inches (15 cm) of sand or gravel
—Seven inches (18 cm) of earth
—Eight inches (20 cm) of hollow concrete block
—Ten inches (25 cm) of water
—14 inches (35 cm) of books or magazines
—18 inches (46 cm) of wood
I was concerned. “IKEA wood usually isn’t real wood,” I told her. “It’s a composite material, like compressed sawdust.”
“Obviously, real wood would be better,” she said. “But that’s better than nothing.”
Leaning on my expert’s advice, I headed to IKEA to find materials for my would-be apocalypse bunker.
A big table is a commonly prescribed centerpiece for expedient shelters, as it acts like a tentpole that can be surrounded by thick, protective materials serving as ad-hoc walls The dining room tables at IKEA, however, aren’t ideal. The farmhouse look is in, and most have obtrusive pieces of wood running between their legs that, while evocative of 19th-century Shaker design, make it near impossible to sit underneath comfortably.
As I crawled under a table in the showroom to confirm this, an IKEA employee politely asked if I needed any help. I apologized for being in what must have looked like a peculiar position, but she told me people crawl underneath their tables “all the time.” Clearly, I’m not the only one worried about a North Korean warhead melting the skin off my bones.
If it’s space I’m looking for, I’d need to assemble this shelter from scratch: wall by wall. Liebsch had mentioned that bookcases filled with books work as relatively effective protective walls, and luckily IKEA has plenty of bookcases. The company has sold more than 60 million BILLY models since 1978. And while the particle board material they’re made of isn’t an ideal shield from radioactive fallout, filling the cases with books and magazines would help immensely.
A pair of wide BILLYs would serve as my shelter’s first two walls. The glass-fronted model may be more elegant, but, as much as I value aesthetics, I must prioritize the avoidance of hundreds of glass shards cutting me to shreds. At $322.00 a piece, I’m spending far less on these BILLYs than I would have on four-inch-thick concrete walls. Should I survive a nuclear attack, I may have a little spending money left over to throw around in the barren California wastelands. I could even be a post-apocalyptic warlord if I happen to find the BILLY on sale.
As for other walls, I headed to the wardrobe and armoire section for inspiration. The PAX is big and utilitarian, and it comes in varying widths so I could use one as a pivoting entryway to my shelter. If I pair my PAX with the MARNARDAL hinged door, I would be able to fill it with life-saving insulating materials. (Plus, the MARNARDAL door has a rose pattern that looks like pretty wallpaper.)
As for that insulation, few materials surpass good old-fashioned dirt. “The denseness of dirt is [great], that’s why the best place to be is underground,” Liebsch told me. A clever way to mimic this effect is to stuff pillowcases full of dirt. A couple dozen FÄRGMÅRAs should do the trick. Luckily, IKEA also sells potted plants, so I wouldn’t even need to leave the store to obtain the required dirt. Shove all that into the FÄRGMÅRAs, and I’d be in business.
For my roof, I examined IKEA’s collection of countertops. Sadly, most of these were too thin, but if I assembled a patchwork of KARLBY countertops (which are particleboard) and piled a few MORGEDAL mattresses atop this layer, I could have a roof that, while suitably protective, wouldn’t crush me to death in the event of a cave-in.
Liebsch was bullish about mattresses and futons. “You’re going to want those anyway, so you could put them on the inside of the walls,” she said.
“So it could swing down, like a Murphy bed?” I asked.
I’ve always wanted a Murphy bed, and if a rogue nuclear state has its way, I may be getting one soon enough. Because of this, I’d have to up my mattress order, adding a few twin-sized MINNESUNDs, as they are thinner than the MORGEDAL, and my shelter walls will already be full of adequately protective books and dirt.
As I walked past the decorative knick-knack section, a display of ceramic jugs brought a particular kernel of Liebsch’s wisdom to my mind. “Make sure you have a bucket for your toilet situation,” she told me. “When people are nervous, they’re probably going to have loose bowels.” I added two YPPERLIGs to my shopping list.
IKEA is an astonishing place, and it soon became evident that, not only would I be able to build a fallout shelter with materials obtained there, I could also sufficiently stock my rations with IKEA products. Near the cash registers were bottles of water, winter fruit drinks, and various snacks—including jars of delicious-looking lingonberry jam. IKEA also sells hanging herb gardens, which means, in the event of a civilization-altering nuclear attack, I could be eating seasoned food. Toppen! (That’s great!” in Swedish.)
With teeny golf pencil in hand, I took inventory. Just how much would this IKEA shelter set me back?
BILLY wide bookshelves: $322 (x2) = $644
Hundreds of IKEA catalogs to fill bookcases: FREE
PAX wide wardrobe frame: $100 (x5) = $500
PAX narrow Wardrobe Frame: $90 (x1) = $90
MARNARDAL wardrobe doors (with hinges); floral pattern: $80 (x11) = $880
FÄRGMÅRA pillowcases: $2.49 (x32) = $79.6
HIMALAYAMIX potted plant (for dirt): $2.99 (x96) = $287.04
KARLBY countertops for roof: $269 (x5) = $1345.00
MORGEDAL mattresses for roof insulation: $299 (x2) = $598
MINNESUND mattresses for Murphy beds: $89.00 (x2) = $178
YPPERLIG vase for toilet (brown): $19.99 (x2) = $39.98
BITTERGURKA hanging herb garden planter: $9.99
SYLT LINGON (Lingonberry jam): $3.99 (x12) = $47.88
TOTAL: $4,699.57 (add 7.25 percent California sales tax) = $5,040.29
I value my life, but five grand is a lot of krona. And I certainly wouldn't have the post-apocalyptic kick-around cash I'd hoped. I needed to think this over.
In the cafeteria, I ordered Swedish meatballs, and as I sat down to think about the feasibility of my IKEA bunker, a soft, almost sultry cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” played overhead. It got me thinking about what I had learned regarding fallout shelters. Ideally, you’d want to be in a windowless, sturdy structure, one that is sealed off from the outside world and can sustain you for at least 48 hours. That, my friends, is an IKEA showroom and warehouse.
Biting into my mashed potatoes, it became clear that, while building a fallout shelter with IKEA furniture is fine, I’d do much better if I just happened to be inside an IKEA during a nuclear attack. They have food and comfortable seating, and—when it comes time to rebuild society—there are more than enough hexagonal wrenches inside those walls to take on the job.
Hopefully America’s early missile detection systems are in working order; I want to get to IKEA before my fellow survivors finish all the meatballs.
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