Almost every day, Brian Camden gets a call from someone full of angst.
The worry might be about nuclear attack. Economic collapse. Widespread anarchy.
Camden is head of a Virginia Beach-based company that builds all sorts of reinforced structures, from underground bunkers to fortified homes.
No matter what clients fear, Camden said, his company, Hardened Structures Hardened Shelters LLC, can build something to help them feel safer. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Nostradamus prediction or the Book of Revelation. A lot of times the protection plan is largely the same.”
The 57-year-old civil engineer started building shelters as a side business 20 years ago. For worriers, those two decades have provided plenty of fodder: terrorist attacks, wars in the Middle East and a slew of natural disasters including hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes.
As a result, Camden and experts said, a growing number of people these days are preparing for the worst.
“The prepper or survivalist mentality is not a large percentage of the U.S. population, but I think more and more people are waking up and paying more attention,” said Janet Liebsch, co-author of a manual on preparedness called “It’s a Disaster!”
“The people now who are looking at building shelters, it’s because of the saber-rattling going on with Iran and North Korea and fears of terrorists getting access to the smaller nuclear devices,” said Liebsch, who is also a member of the American Preppers Network, a survivalist organization.
Survivalists, or “preppers,” have garnered more media attention in recent years. Last month, the National Geographic Channel premiered a new reality TV show called “Doomsday Preppers,” which profiles people preparing for disasters.
Camden said that sort of attention has also helped stoke the niche industry. But his company doesn’t build safe rooms or sell rations or Geiger counters. It caters to well-heeled preppers who can spend tens of thousands of dollars for a greater sense of security.
“A typical U.S. private client is college-educated and somewhat wealthy,” Camden said. “Due to a variety of reasons, they generally believe the current economic and societal system cannot be sustained, and they are taking steps to protect their family. In a nutshell, that’s what these facilities are: family insurance.”
Typically, a fortified home costs between $250 and $350 per square foot to build, Camden said. That cost increases to between $300 and $800 per square foot for reinforced concrete bunkers.
To give an idea what one of the homes might look like, the firm’s website depicts a large underground bunker complete with five bedrooms, four bathrooms and large living and storage areas. All of that is set underneath a fairly typical-looking home built on the side of a mountain. Camden said some of his projects have included entrances disguised to look like boulders, and many clients opt for military-grade air-filtration systems.
In recent years, Camden said, his firm has worked on projects ranging from a $14,000 storm shelter to a $60 million survival community in a mountainous area in the western part of the country.
Of course, you have to take Camden at his word. He declined to give the name of any individual who has hired his firm to build a bunker or fortified home. However, he does offer media the chance to tour one of his projects outside of Asheville, N.C. – as long as they agree to be driven there blindfolded and without any sort of GPS tracking device.
“One of the first things you learn in this industry is never to reveal the location of a client’s shelter,” Camden said.
Long before he ever had to worry about his clients’ secret bunkers, the Hampton Roads native spent years in the local construction industry, working jobs ranging from a surveyor to structural inspector.
The idea for the survival-shelter business came in 1991, while he was working for a construction management firm. The economy was bad, and his company had just lost a bid to build a large church.
As Camden recalls, he left work early that day to blow off some steam and reflect.
“The idea came to me while I was jogging on the beach,” he said. “If the world’s economies got worse and more wars happen, what kind of construction would still be in demand? People would be buying hardened structures.”
His firm started advertising that it could build survival shelters, but business was slow initially. A year or two passed before he got his first couple of orders, he said. One was from a woman in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., east of Nashville. She wanted a basic bunker. The other was an order for a new fortified basement addition for a resident in Williamsburg.
As the economy improved, Camden turned his attention back to his primary job with Powell Management Associates, which specializes in construction management for municipal projects.
By 1997, he had incorporated Hardened Structures and launched a website. He said it was around then that his first large project came along – a survival complex in the Adirondack Mountains in New York.
Then things quieted down a bit until the terrorist attacks on 9/11, followed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those events spurred a resurgence of individuals considering ways to protect themselves from man-made and natural disasters, Camden said.
Over the years, he estimated, the company has worked on about 100 projects for shelters and hardened buildings, including at least a couple in Hampton Roads.
Along the way, the business has spawned several affiliate companies in other states and in Europe. Those companies use the Hardened Structures name and designs but manage the projects themselves, paying Camden’s firm a royalty, he said. A businessman and former Navy SEAL operates an affiliate firm in Virginia Beach that handles defense-related and classified projects.
The company also recently began building structures for foreign governments, including fortified aircraft hangars in Kuwait and earth-covered magazines in the United Arab Emirates, Camden said.
These days, he said, his firm works on about eight projects annually. He declined to give sales figures but said 2010 was Hardened Structures’ biggest year. He attributes part of that boom to people trying to finish their preparations before any doomsday events that some fear will happen this year.
While his biggest seller is a $40,000 steel bunker that looks somewhat like a boxcar, Camden said his firm has subcontractors that can build just about anything, even a survival ark like the one fictionalized in the 2009 disaster movie “2012.” However, Camden declined to comment on whether his firm has ever built such an ark.
In the past year, business for the bunkers has slowed somewhat. That gives his 12-person firm in an unmarked building on Lynnhaven Parkway more time to focus on municipal projects as Powell Management.
Camden hopes the business for shelters continues to grow, but he doesn’t want to be known as a fear-monger.
“I’m a family man,” he said. “I sincerely hope nothing ever happens.”
But if it does, Camden said, he’s ready. Someplace out in Western Tidewater is his own safe area – a bunker he calls “the farm.”