How can you survive the Apocalypse? Part One: Shelter

Well, according to the Mayan Calendar (allegedly–this is such a prevalent meme this year it’s hard to know the truth), December 2012 will herald the Apocalypse. What form this is going to come in isn’t exactly clear, but with some basic science under your belt you’re sure to increase your chances of survival!

Now, apocalypse survival is no walk in the park–although, you know, a walk in the park might be exactly the kind of thing you need to do from time to time in this situation–so I’ve decided to break down the focus into several distinct areas. Today we’re going to look at shelter.

First you’ve got the issue of where to locate your abode. You don’t want to make a hash of this choice, because you–and maybe your descendents!–could be there for a while. Civilization, including the concept of property rights (yah!) and the existence of estate agents (boo!) will probably take a while to re-establish.

Urban areas are best avoided on account of failed sewage systems and toxic chemicals contaminating the water table, limited access to allotment/grazing patches, and psychos bolting down in Superdrug. Out in the wilderness proper will lower the chances of Mad Max style encounters, but here you’ll have to worry about lack of DIY resources, medicines and healthcare expertise, and a hostile environment. On balance if things aren’t super competitive I think I’d head for fertile land with good fishing in a nearby river and not too far from a small town for a post-apocalyptic social life and the ear of the local Doc!

So, with the location sorted it’s now time to put some thought into your humble shelter itself. A clue is in the word itself. Shelter. Keeping out the nasty stuff. Keeping in the good stuff. Beyond the basics of a stable, waterproof home, a grasp of thermal physics will hold you in good stead in this regard. Not too hot in summer, and not too cold in winter. How can I do that without my aircon/central heating system/electric blanket I hear you asking? Without too much difficulty if there isn’t huge clouds of radioactive fallout blocking out the sun actually.

Passive solar heating is the name of the game. By making sure your shelter is effectively insulated, both Heat and Cold can be “trapped”. Tyres from all the abandoned vehicles, packed tight with dirt and gravel, then stacked and covered from the elements would make excellent insulating structure. For the Northern Hemisphere, in the winter double-paned glass windows set in south-facing windows will maximize the amount of solar energy coming into your cosy abode. After being absorbed in the wall, floors, and other objects at short IR and visible light frequencies, these things emit longer wavelength IR radiation that cannot pass through the glass. Hey presto you’re kept warm! And in the summer, by shading the windows the sun shouldn’t add too much extra heat (the sun is higher in the sky in the summer months too). In short, your House should be longer on the East-West axis than the North-South to maximize exposure to the sun.

Home-made radiators? No problem! Materials with high specific heat capacity–a barrel of water or earth would be perfect–can absorb solar energy in the sun through the day, then be brought inside at night where they can radiate this heat over the course of several hours. For cooling in the summer, wing walls–short vertical walls placed outside between adjacent windows–will force air currents to circulate and create a nice breeze!

So, now your home’s all sorted isn’t it time for a drink? Find out next week how to make sure that water is safe!

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