We All Live in a Concrete Submarine

I mentioned in an initial post that one of the remarkable aspects of the design and construction of the Diefenbunker was the use of practices acquired during the design and construction of submarines.

This is referenced briefly in the original Foundation Engineering Corp project proposal from summer 1959 which makes allusions to experiences acquired in this area in the US, UK and Europe.

I haven’t yet put hands on any further documentation supporting this argument but I’m sure I will come across more detail soon.

At first glance, this might seem an unlikely cross-germination of sleek underwater steel killers, and a large, wide, deep concrete thing block buried in the Ottawa countryside.

But I’ll offer some speculation for now, and hopefully improve on it in the near future with more precise information.

No comments will be posted which attempt to compare HMCS Diefenbunker’s underwater achievements with that of our other fleet.

If you are familiar with the Bunker and particularly with firstly its building systems, and secondly the concept of spending many days locked into a constricted space, the parallel with submarine design becomes evident.

The Diefenbunker was equipped with a myriad of integral systems. Building systems would have included heating, ventilation and air conditioning; drinking and utility water; waste systems; building electrical networks including emergency lighting and access control power; internal communications systems such as telephone and PA capabilities; fire prevention, detection and warning systems; and so on. I may have missed some, or identified others poorly, but you get the overall idea.

In short, a nightmare of pipes, conduits, wires, plumbing and electrical junctions, to be installed efficiently but at the same time allowing for inspection and maintenance access.

Given that for cost reasons the Bunker structure was limited in size to be the minimum to fulfill its role, it’s understandable that spaces for these systems (typically in internal walls, and in ceiling and sub-floor areas) would also be severely restricted.

Consider also that these building systems required huge machinery, such as alternate power start-up and main generating engines, air and water heating and chilling units, and fuel and water pumping and storage resources – all requiring floor space and support and control systems.

I’m hyperventilating just thinking about it.

The Bunker itself was designed to be able to withstand overhead blast effects by setting it in a large gravel foundation, surround and overhead, this material being selected to absorb shock. But there was also the requirement to protect internal systems from damage from shock that might be transmitted throughout the structure. This resulted in some equipment being mounted on some of the largest springs you will ever see (larger ones can probably be found in the NORAD Headquarters underground complex in Colorado, supporting the building itself), and others being protected by some combination of damping systems – springs, suspension, and so on.

The Bunker also used submarine technology in lighting systems, such as bulbs and housings manufactured for use in submarines as best likely to resist shock damage. Furniture was frequently secured to the floor, as it would be in submarines.

So – submarine design practices were used to jam miles and miles of conduit, wiring, piping, and the like into very limited interstitial areas, and to make sure all of that was subsequently accessible for inspection and maintenance. They were also used to select and install various fittings and furniture.

And now, what about the second submarine design area – the psychological one?

Remember the worst case scenario for the Diefenbunker. It was designed to accommodate about 500 people for up to 30 days in a locked-in and isolated structure, with military hard-rations for food, and a potentially limited water supply for waste and bathing.

Consider also that this population of 500 would be a diverse group of army signals personnel, senior politicians and the Governor General or representative, federal emergency management staff, CBC studio staff, and civilian and military administrators to support this group – all with vastly different cultures, practices and expectations.

Some very generalized calculations follow – I can certainly be corrected on some assumptions., but again I’m aiming to give a general idea of the situation.

Let’s think about the space issue as one example. The Diefenbunker is about 100,000 sq ft over four floors. Actually it’s less than that internally, as the outside walls are up to 4 ft thick, reducing internal area to about 76,000 sq ft, or about 19,000 per floor.

A significant amount of building space is dedicated to machine areas, storage (fuel and water tanks, rations, equipment spares, etc.), the medical facility, entry decontamination showers, specialized communications areas, etc . There is also a Mezzanine for the dining facilities which takes up about half a floor. Let’s round this off to a loss of the equivalent of one floor of area – we’re now down to about 60,000 sq ft.

Now we have 60,000 sq ft for 500 people, averaging out at 120 sq ft per person – for all purposes: working, eating, sleeping. Bunk spaces and toilet facilities were for the most part gang spaces. Sleeping arrangements were for most staff on the hot-bunk basis, although there were a few single rooms, and two grandly-titled suites – small bedroom, office and bathroom areas for the Governor General and Prime Minister.

When you tour the Bunker, have a look at these Suites – you’ll never again complain about your hotel room.

So for what it’s worth, compare our calculated 120 sq ft per person to what you have in your apartment, condo or house – always with the opportunity to “step outside for some fresh air”.

Consider that 500 stressed individuals would be living in these incredibly confined spaces, that they might have to be secured in the structure for up to 30 days, and most importantly that everyone would be separated from their families who would have been left above ground, enduring whatever had happened.

What could possibly go wrong?

I suppose the first line of security might have been to secure all scissors and knives, but you can imagine that more would have been required – and indeed much more was applied in the planning phase.

Internal colour schemes were chosen from a palette of other than institutional colours. Light and cheerful colours were used in most locations. The ubiquitous and unavoidable main vertical pillars (to support the massive 5 ft in thick roof slab and distribute shock loads throughout the foundation) are 4.5 ft in diameter, flaring out to 10 ft in diameter at the roof and base, and equidistant throughout the structure at 22 ft centres and were equally painted a light “cheerful” colour. They also have visible vertical striping, intended to provide a visual illusion of greater height than was the case (similar to clothing fashions which recommend vertical stripes to suggest greater personal height for those who might not come by it naturally).

Thus – many well thought-out efforts to design the Diefenbunker for maximum efficiency, utility and protective effectiveness, with a nod given to addressing psychological consequences.

Maybe Das Boot is a better measure of the situation than Hunt for Red October?


About ottawazoe

retired combat engineer officer, former provincial public servant, currently federal public servant, with an abiding interest in our fascinating local history
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