Billionaire Bunkers: Beyond the Panic Room, Home Security Goes Sci-Fi

Forbes — Nov 27, 2013

Elevating staircases reveal hidden secure rooms with the click of a button. Click to enlarge

Al Corbi’s residence in the Hollywood Hills has the requisite white walls covered in artwork and picture windows offering breathtaking views of downtown Los Angeles, but it has more in common with NSA headquarters than with the other contemporary homes on the block. The Corbi family doesn’t need keys (thanks to biometric recognition software), doesn’t fear earthquakes (thanks to steel-reinforced concrete caissons that burrow 30 feet into the private hilltop) and sleeps easily inside a 2,500-square-foot home within a home: a ballistics-proof panic suite that Corbi refers to as a “safe core.”

Paranoid? Perhaps. But also increasingly commonplace. Futuristic security technologies–many developed for the military but sounding as though they came straight from James Bond’s Q–have made their way into the home, available to deep-pocketed owners whose peace of mind comes from knowing that their sensors can detect and adjust for, say, a person lurking in the bushes a half-mile away.

“If you saw this stuff in a movie you would think it is all made up,” says Corbi, whose fortress-like abode doubles as the demonstration house for his firm, Strategically Armored & Fortified Environments (SAFE).

It’s not hard to see why such cutting-edge technologies would appeal to high-profile homeowners. “We had an assessment done three years ago from a private security company,” says John Paul DeJoria, billionaire founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems. “They said … that every now and again you get a real kook, and what if they came to your home and tried to do something stupid?” Now his main residence has security “similar to that of the White House.”

He’s far from the only one. Chris Pollack, president of Pollack+Partners, a design and construction advisor based in Purchase, N.Y., says that while security has always been a given in building homes for his ultra-high-net-worth clients, the spending for home defense has increased markedly over the last five years.

It starts with a property’s perimeter. “The exterior has always been the holy grail because you could never really protect it without 24-hour guard service,” says Christopher Falkenberg, a Secret Service agent turned security specialist for high-net-worth families with New York-based Insite Security. Cutting-edge technologies have strengthened that fence.

For example, FLIR Systems, based in Wilsonville, Ore., manufactures infrared cameras that can read the thermal heat signatures off everything in their sight lines regardless of time of day or atmospheric obscurants such as smoke. Human beings throw off more energy than trees or small animals, so the devices can pick someone out even from a hiding place, from a kilometer away in the lowest-end models to as much as 15 kilometers away in the premium versions.

Biometric technologies are becoming more prevalent, too. Moving beyond a fingerprint scan, some programs don’t require a homeowner to touch anything at all. Former Israeli major general Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, onetime head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, has spent the past three years with his company, FST21, creating a software product that merges facial, voice and behavioral recognition technology into a keyless entry system. “It transforms you into the key for your building in under two seconds,” he says.

Windows remain an obvious and vulnerable entry point into a home. Glass-break detectors can operate within a 15-foot range, allowing them to be unobtrusively installed in the ceiling or on a wall near the window. The size of a silver dollar, they can be camouflaged in their surroundings, important when dealing with home finishes like gold-leaf ceilings or silk wallpaper. Some urban town house owners add a blast film to their windowpanes, which makes them nearly impenetrable, even if struck with a hammer or a pipe.

And don’t forget the smoke. The Corbis have a system that billows out fog screens that range from a harmless smoke meant to disorient intruders to a noisome gas with disabling effects lasting up to 24 hours. Then there is the Burglar Blaster Decintegrator, a relatively discreet ceiling-mounted device that, when tripped, showers pepper spray.

Such smoke systems can even be laced with a “DNA code”– SelectaDNA, for example, comprises a series of unique, synthetic DNA chains that attach themselves to a fog-shrouded intruder. The invisible, harmless forensic code lingers on skin for weeks, shows up under UV light and, thanks to unique markers, can be traced directly back to a specific home.

The panic room has also undergone a high-tech evolution that makes the old Jodie Foster movie look quaint. A prominent author who declined to be identified has had his South Florida home jerry-rigged with a physical perimeter alarm, motion sensors throughout rooms and stairways, and a heat sensor that detects room temperature differentials caused by a sudden change in body heat. If worse comes to worst: The third-floor master suite is outfitted as a 2,500-square-foot safe haven. Switches installed throughout the house will encapsulate the space, locking down its three entrances with reinforced doors while alerting local authorities. Taking it further, the space’s bathroom doubles as an inner panic room, protected by “a silent home defense system with sufficient armament.” Fortunately, it has never come into use. “The best system in the world is the one you never use,” says the homeowner. “But there is a lot of peace of mind that comes with it.”

And there is more to worry about all the time. “Recently we have seen, especially in New York City, clients worried about dirty bombs,” says Pollack, meaning chemical weapons. Air scrubbers can suck in fresh air from outside a space and filter it indefinitely. He recently oversaw one project that would allow the client to camp in his bathroom suite turned panic room for as long as a week, hopefully long enough to wait out the worst of the chemical attack.

Gary Paster, founder of Sun Valley, Calif.-based American Saferoom Door Company, has been carving out safe rooms for wealthy homeowners, corporate headquarters, and international organizations like the United Nations (Paster recently outfitted its New York headquarters) since 1981. His kevlar-lined, bullet-resistant doors utilize automatic electromagnetic locks so the homeowner doesn’t have to turn a knob, and they typically hide behind traditional everyday-use doors. Paster sells between 50 and 75 custom doors per year, at a starting price of $20,000.

Gilbert, Ariz.-based Creative Home Engineering specializes in a different kind of portal: secret passageways. Started by an ex-Boeing engineer, the company custom-crafts clandestine entrances that double as bookcases or wardrobes or walls. It builds about 45 portals annually for security purposes. Last year the company installed multiple passageways inside a king’s Middle Eastern royal palace.

Continues …

This story will appear in the Dec 16 issue of Forbes.

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