Apocalypse housing: Life in converted bomb shelters
In the early 1950s, the British government commissioned secret bunkers around the country to serve as control centers in the event of nuclear war. One of these bunkers was constructed in a secluded suburb of South-East London, and equipped with a map room, advanced communications equipment, and an independent fuel supply, all encased in a shell of concrete five feet thick.
Today, the site is a luxury home on the market for £3 million ($3.94m). The concrete has been replaced with a retractable glass roof, while the lower floor now houses a swimming pool and five extravagant bedrooms.
Life in the converted shelter has a niche appeal, according to the agents marketing it.
"It's a very individual type of property that is not going to suit everybody," says Steven May, of JDM Estate Agents. "This is for someone looking for something a bit different in a quiet location."
The combination of a housing shortage in London, and loosened regulations on converting non-residential properties, has led to ever more unusual buildings becoming homes, says May. He expects that abandoned military complexes will increasingly be seen as housing solutions, particularly as techniques to make them liveable evolve.
"All those kind of facilities that have fallen into disuse will be reused," says May. "With the development of architecture you can do far more with metal and glass, which enables you to be more flexible with what you can build."
The appeal of converted bunkers extends beyond Britain.
Luxury missile silos have become a growth market in the United States, and a spectacular refurbished nuclear shelter in Georgia currently has a price tag of $15 million.
Germany has seen some of the most extensive and creative uses of shelters, with a spree of development following the government's sale of around 2,000 of these properties in 2007.
Architect Rainer Mielke has created over a dozen apartments in Bremen from abandoned concrete blocks, while property developer Stefan F. Höglmaier recently designed himself an elegant home in a Munich air-raid shelter.
"I love complex locations," says Hoglmaier. "It starts with an intellectual process ... how much of the energy and history you can use, (and) then the technical approach."
Höglmaier had windows cut through the two-meter thick concrete, installed a glass roof, and transformed a sparse interior with stylish 1960s decor. The developer believes that both housing market pressures and historic value make it important to find uses for abandoned shelters.
"We have to think about (housing) solutions, and the idea is obvious to use these relics from the past that are just sitting around," he says.
"Also, we should have a memory of history ... these buildings are truly necessary so we don't forget the past."
While bunker development in Europe and the U.S. has typically served the luxury end of the market, in the dense sprawl of Beijing this mode of housing represents basic subsistence.
Around one million people -- dubbed the "rat tribe" -- are believed to inhabit adapted shelters under the Chinese capital.
Professor Annette Kim, director of the Spatial Analysis Lab at the University of Southern California, studied these properties for a year.
"I imagined they would be horrible," says Kim. "But knowing the conditions of the alternatives above ground for lower income people in Beijing I realized they were not the worst housing in the city. We saw apartments that were clean and well lit, with one or two people per room, with kitchens, bathrooms and Internet, and a property manager that collects the trash."
Kim acknowledges problems with the underground shelters, such as a lack of ventilation and natural light, but feels these issues could be easily addressed.
"All global cities are overcrowded and space is so expensive that the lower classes end up isolated and have to commute long distances, which is costly," she says. "What is incredible about the underground situation is people can be located in prime locations of the city and walk to work in 10 minutes."
The most populous cities are increasingly looking to expand their underground housing into ambitious development projects, says Kim.
"Particularly in Asia, this could represent the future of urban planning. China is starting to develop guidelines for planning underground cities."
From relics of a forgotten age, bunker living may yet represent a brave new world.