'We Live in a 6,000 Square Foot Underground Nuclear Bunker'

Our first house was in Niagara Falls, New York. My wife and I bought it with cash and we were pretty happy because it meant we didn't have a mortgage. Then, around 8 or 9 years ago, we started thinking that city life wasn't what we wanted. We were living in Peachtree City, Georgia by then. If you love suburbia, Peachtree City is a suburban paradise. It has 90 miles of golf cart paths so most families own one, and we shared a neighbourhood pool with just two other streets. We have four children and I work for myself in online marketing and building websites, so we could live anywhere with an internet connection. We started brainstorming, and as wild as it sounds, a nuclear bunker was probably the least crazy of all our ideas. We thought about whether we could live on a boat, on an island or in a submarine. Then, we discovered that some people were taking former communications bunkers and renovating them into homes.

There is evidence that a number of these former AT&T nuclear-resistant communications bunkers were built across the U.S. in the '60s to keep the line of communication from the east coast to the west coast open, through coaxial cables, in the case of nuclear attack. There were different lines and we believe our bunker was part of what is referred to as the "L3" line. Our understanding is that most of the bunkers were sold in the '80s and '90s after fibre optics replaced coaxial lines.

We fell in love with the idea and that was it; the past 7 to 9 years have been focused on making it happen. We finally bought our bunker in June 2020 and we have been here ever since.

We are located right in the middle of the U.S., and we paid less for our bunker than the current median price of a house in the U.S. which is between $330,000-$370,000. It's very difficult to get a loan from a bank to buy a bunker, regardless of how good your credit score is. I know, because I tried. Eventually, we provided a sizable down payment but the seller provided the mortgage note for us directly. That's how we were able to do this.

The bunker is primarily made up of four large rooms that all have 16.5ft ceilings. As you enter, you reach the smallest room. Then you get to the second biggest room, and turning to the right from there is the largest room. Circling back from there, you come to a smaller room at the back. There is also a mezzanine and a pump room and a small fan room. The first room was originally an office space, the second largest room was the telecommunications equipment room and the largest room was the battery room. That one room is 1,700 square feet.

There is only about 4ft of earth above us, but the whole structure is built with two feet of reinforced concrete, and I have heard that rebar is as thick as a human arm. It's also electromagnetic pulse (EMP) shielded; the whole structure has a copper mesh around it in case there was an EMP burst, in order to protect the electronics. We have a 3,000lb blast door at the front, a 2,000lb blast door at the back and an escape hatch. The escape hatch leads to a full stairwell that you can go up and leave through. My understanding is that the bunker can withstand a near-miss nuclear explosion. As long as we are not vaporized in the crater, we should be OK.

Underground former nuclear bunker
Ruben Romero bought an old nuclear-resistant bunker and lives there with his family. Ruben Romero

We are living in a renovation at the moment, but we were fortunate that there was a fibre optic line that went right along the road where we are, so we could have high speed internet right away. Getting water to the bunker was an ordeal, though. The water went to a hydrant outside and we had to go up with buckets and we used compost toilets for a while, but we do now have a working toilet and running water.

Right now we're in the stage of deconstruction. We have to take down a lot of the metal in the ceiling, but there is a balance because we want to keep the integrity of the structure. When you're living in, and renovating, a space that wasn't meant to be a home, there are compromises. There are things we need now for functionality, and there are things we need eventually for the renovation. The largest room is where we have got most of the work done. We have taken down all the metal from the ceiling, put up lights and moved our belongings into that room so we can renovate the rest of the bunker. More recently, we have been setting up an Energy recovery ventilation (ERV) system which will keep the flow of air coming in and out of the bunker without losing too much heat.

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My wife and I have taken the mezzanine area as our room, my son sleeps in the smallest room, and my other daughters sleep in the largest room, one in a tent and one in a bunk bed. I have easy going kids, which makes it much easier to take on a project like this. People have asked what my kids think about moving underground, but this has been a 7 to 9 year process and they were little when we started talking about this. If anything, their reaction has been: It's about time!

We have a makeshift kitchen in the largest room, using cabinets as an island and with some basic equipment, like an induction hotplate, a microwave, an instant pot, a toaster oven, an air fryer and a blender. The next stage is to get the bathroom in and then build a proper kitchen. When we install the bedrooms we will take advantage of the 16.5ft ceilings and build a second story in both of the smallest rooms for them.

When you walk in, the smallest room is on the left, so we're going to make that into a really large pantry and create a second storey with two bedrooms. There will be another door on the right that will lead to the second largest room which will have a dining room area with a kitchen in the back left hand corner and then a lounge area on the right. It will be an open area with a big concrete pillar in the middle. To the right will be the largest room, which will become a recreation room, and will also retain the original ceilings. The furthest smaller room will also have a second storey built in with two additional bedrooms and the generator room will become my office. If we end up spending $300,000-$500,000 I would not be surprised. I'm doing a lot of the work myself and I really want to do that. It seems fitting that if you have a bunker you should know how it works and runs.

Underground former nuclear bunker
The above ground view near Ruben Romero's underground bunker in central U.S. Ruben Romero

People ask me if I am a doomsday prepper. It is hard to have a bunker and not have a little bit of prepper come out in you. But the motivation for buying the bunker wasn't being fearful of the future. I don't like the idea of doing things out of fear. If something happens, of course, I will be happy to have a bunker, but we fell in love with the space. I'm not preparing for any doomsday scenarios.

At the same time, we have always had food storage in our homes, when you work for yourself there are ups and downs and there have been times where we weren't making enough and used our food storage. My wife is probably more of a prepper than I am: she wants the giant pantry! She would love to only go to the grocery store once a month. But we're only about 20 minutes away from a town with big stores, so it's not hard to buy items we need.

The best reaction to the space we have had is when a friend came with their daughter and told her it was a sacred space. I love that because I see that too. My vision of the space is perhaps grander than what it is now because we're at the beginning of a renovation, but I see the potential of it and I do see it as a sacred space for us.

I'm excited to get to the point of making design decisions instead of air quality decisions. I talked to a company who were bunker experts, but I think they were used to people within the doomsday prepper space; people who want to build defence systems. But in my mind, our biggest enemy here is nature, not people. Nature will likely destroy this place much faster than people will. I want to keep it safe from mould and mildew and get good quality air in the bunker. This company also wanted way too much money.

It's been such a long process that I've had time to research everything myself. I'm not using any wood or drywall; anything that is prone to mould or mildew. Of course, wooden furniture is fine. But I don't want to be fearful of the place moulding or deteriorating if we spent some time away. It's really sad to me that a lot of these bunkers are being lost to time, neglect and abandonment.

People are curious about how they can find these communications bunkers, and you can find them. They are on eBay and other property sites. Some of these former communication facilities are 60,000 square feet. But we don't need to build a small city. This is just for me and my family.

People have suggested we get more light in and cut out a skylight in the ceiling. If there really was a nuclear war, I'd feel pretty stupid to be 95 percent of the way there and have ruined it because I wanted a skylight. We have to be true to the bunker too. I like to reuse anything I can. I want the flavour of the bunker to remain. I like minimal, industrial, monolithic design. If I wanted a traditional home, I would have bought one.

My dream, as my kids start to grow up, is to have a place where they and their families can come for family reunions. We're kind of in the middle of nowhere but that doesn't bother me, I'd rather just sit and talk with them. That's my dream and everything I do to the bunker revolves around that vision: bringing my family together in the future.

Ruben Romero is a marketing and web consultant and is currently renovating a 6,000 square foot former nuclear communications bunker. You can follow him on TikTok @undergroundliving or on their YouTube channel UndergroundLiving.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

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