Artsakh Shelters: Feasibility Study

Z. S. Andrew Demirdjian, Ph.D., Los Angeles, 13 August 2016
In a previous article we pointed out the lack of Artsakh shelters against the backdrop of Azerbaijan’s increasing raids  on Armenian farmers along the line of contact. A number of Keghart  readers have expressed great interest in pursuing the idea of shelters for civil defense/protection. In a more recent article, we talked about various survival shelters. Drawn upon extensive experience and scientific evidence, we proposed underground shelters for Artsakh civilians. Although underground shelters have proven to be the best, they are expensive to build compared to other kinds of shelters. As a result, second-hand shipping/sea containers were proposed to mitigate the high cost of building underground shelters.
In this article the focus is on a resource feasibility study of building underground shelters with shipping/sea containers. Therefore, we shall look into what resources (human and material) and what facilities (transportation and equipment) will be required to launch an underground shelter project prepping for survival, say, for the traumatized Talish village farmers.

In a resource feasibility study, the inclusion of perspectives on price for accomplishing the various major tasks are essential in order to inject realism into the overall project. Based on consultations with individuals in Yerevan, estimated prices of  building materials were obtained. For the sake of simplicity, the unit of analysis is just one container even though it would take several containers to accommodate the Talish community members. The following plan is to build a temporary shelter, not a plush five-star hotel, until rescue will arrive from the mainland.
In the event the outcome of the feasibility study indicates that it would take less resources than anticipated by most on account of being creative in solving some problems inherent in the construction of such a shelter, more individuals would be willing to help promote the realization of providing much-needed shelters to our precariously and dangerously exposed farmers in harm’s way.
Therefore, with that in mind, how can we find ways to build artillery-proof shipping container underground shelters safely and efficiently? With or without the help of architects and engineers, we should use the following plan based on many years of experience in building shelters out of shipping containers.
Procurement of Shipping Container (Total Cost $1,300):
1. Empty Containers. Many containers are delivered to Armenia because of imported merchandize. However, not too many containers leave the country full  since not too many goods are exported from Armenia. Therefore, the price of a second hand container is quite reasonable. For example, in the United States, second hand containers come in 10 to 40 ft. long, 20 ft. being average size. A 40 ft. long containers sell anywhere from $300 to $2,000, depending on the condition of the unit. In Armenia, a 20 ft. container fetches around $700, plus an additional $400 for a trailer truck to haul it to the desired site.
2. Container Suppliers. There are also competitive sources for container sales. Here are two specialized sources outside Armenia from which to buy containers: Tavush and
Structural Reinforcement (Total Cost $500):
1.  A Cautionary Tip. As you well know, containers are made not for human habitation, but to transport merchandise by sea. While they look strong made of steel or aluminum, it is wise to add additional reinforcing material to the interior and the exterior of the container to ensure that it can handle the weight of earth on the top and sides of it after being put into the ground.
2. Anti-Corrosion Sealing.  While the structural strength and integrity of the shelter is the core focus during the construction phase, using the correct sealant and paint is just as important. It would be wise to repaint and waterproof the shipping container to ensure that it is resistant to corrosion. A gallon of anti-corrosion seal would could cost anywhere from $50 to $60. The same effect could be had by applying rubberized paint to the container roof and sides at much lower price of $30 a gallon. Unbelievable as it may sound, there is even paint available that can shield an underground bunker from radiation, radar and cell phone signals.
3. Reinforcing the Roof. Usually, the roof of the container is reinforced with rebar and six inches of concrete. Then, topsoil is laid on top of the reinforced concrete and grass and local plants are installed to camouflage the second hand shipping container as a shelter against the surrounding natural landscape.  Since Artsakh is full of oak trees, a cheaper way would be to treat the wood with a special sealant against humidity and termites, lay them down across the roof for reinforcement.
Basic Amenities for Living (Total Cost $2,500):
1. Kitchen, bathroom, etc. One can literally construct almost anything in the container, from kitchens, bathrooms and accommodation, including firearms storage in case of self-defense. However, these items will be expensive to build, especially underground. To beat gravity, the container could be placed against a hill as a lean storage and thus water, gas, electricity, sewer lines easily be extended from the village to the shelter.
2. Utility Pipes. The container should include piping for utilities (power and water) which will be linked to underground storage tanks and where ever your electrical generator is located. Plumbing could be linked to an external septic tank and running water. All of these difficult jobs could be avoided if the container is installed at the foothill of a mound or a mountain just like the image shows the door of a bunker (which, incidentally, needs to be camouflaged as well). In this way, there will not be the time-consuming deep digging, necessity of sump pumps, etc. to install the utilities. Instead, pipes would be tied from the container to the village sources of septic tank, tap into the electricity (instead of using a generators heavily), etc.
3. Air vents.  To provide the underground shelter some form of air circulating, ventilators must be installed. It would be cheaper to install air vents to avoid the purchase several ventilators and the consumption of electricity or the use of the generator. However, we should make sure that these pipes are hidden from the view of the enemy by being camouflaged by tall grass and other plants. Otherwise, they will give away the location of the secrete bunker.
4. Doors and Windows. Entry and exit doors to the bunker are important, especially when it is underground. If the bunker is set into a hillside, one may be able to use the original Cor-Tent steel (requires no painting) doors that open outwards, but these will not work if the container is buried underground. This would require modification of the doors so that they can be easily be opened from below ground and can open inwards. Generally speaking,  this is done by sealing the doors, and creating a new door on the other end that can open internally. To avoid the expense of sealing existing doors and opening a new one, there is an efficient solution. Artsakh’s terrain is hilly and mountainous, the container can be installed against the foothill of a mound, hill, or a mountain. In this way, one can use the existing door for entry and exit on ground level and also obviate the use of sump pumps to drain the rain water from the shelter if it is not built against a hill or mountain foothill.
Installation of Container (Total Cost $700):
1. Digging a Hole. For an underground bunker, we need to dig a large hole where it is planned to install the shelter. The hole must be deeper than the container. Ideally, one needs to lay a concrete foundation at the base of the hole. This will stop the shelter from sinking into the ground. To avoid the expense of laying concrete, gravel would do almost the same job and yet it would be inexpensive. In fact, village volunteers would gather the gravel for the foundation and feel proud that they contributed toward the building of their own shelters. As for the heavy excavating equipment, the government should provide a backhoe for digging the hole.
2. Installing the Container. A crane can be used to lower the container bunker into the hole. Renting and getting a crane to the border village would be very expensive.  To avoid the added expense, it would be cheaper to use the container transporter to lower the unit into the pre-prepared hole. In this way, two birds are killed… and expenses are kept low.
3. Reinforcing the Sides. To reinforce the sides of the container would require lots of rebar (steel poles), cinder or concrete  blocks and concrete around the sides of the container. This is a necessary step, without which the walls will eventually cave in under the weight of the surrounding earth. Instead, for the sides,  Gabion baskets (Gabion is a basket or cage filled with earth or rocks and used especially in building a support or abutment) can be filled with stones found in  the landscape of the village just like the Phrygians used to strengthen the sides of their tombs with a mound of local stones, which lasted for more than two thousand years.
4. Building Steps. Building concrete steps would  be expensive. Instead, slabs of stones can be used, of which Artsakh is aplenty. Moss covered stones can be laid around the entrance to the bunker so that they would serve a defensive position instead of lining up the entrance with expensive imported cinder blocks which would give away the hidden shelter.
5. Camouflaging the Shelter. The shelter must be concealed from easy identification in order not to defeat its main purpose.  Integrating the container in the landscaping design is crucial. Therefore, native plants should be grown on the roof and around the shelter to blend it with the rest of the rural environment.
In sum, second hand shipping containers make a great starting point for an underground bunker project, as they are cheap, easy to find, easy to transport, easy to modify, and, to crown all, they are safe from enemy shelling. They make great shelters against war and natural disasters.
This is not just the paranoia of some conspiracy theorist. This kind of shelters are being used in Australia and have saved lives. As recently as 2009, an Australian family took refuge in a modified second hand shipping container and survived deadly bush fires during the infamous “Black Saturday” calamity, while everything else was destroyed around their house.
Limitations of the study consist of rough estimation of prices and the assumption that Yerevan and Stepanakert will provide assistance in this project. Adding up all the expenses, it would cost roughly $5,000 to build a survival shelter out of one container for Talish farmers.
As for the lamentable story of Talish, this is what Mr. John Evans, the former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, had to say when in late June he visited Artsakh: “Talish has been entirely abandoned because of the risk of shelling; in fact, further shelling did occur there on June 30 when Azeri soldiers attacked three farmers in the fields. Many families, some of them grieving over their losses, are now internally  displaced, still terrified from what they experienced and fearful of the future.”
We have rung the wake-up call to stop endangering the lives of the border communities by neglecting to provide them with survival shelters. Without a wave of voices supporting the idea of shelters for border farmers who depend on our help, everything could be lost — lives, village, and ancestral lands.  We ought to protect our vulnerable farmers from the brutal attacks of Azeri shelling by providing them with shelters for survival.
Due to fear of attacks and lack of survival shelters, the border communities will resort to self-imposed exiling from their ancestral villages. If our homeland leaders continue breaching and shirking their responsibilities, should the Armenian Diaspora stand on the sideline and only shine the spotlight on the problem without doing something to make, for example,  the Talish farmers feel less “fearful of the future” and return to their homes?
Note: If anyone is interested in sharing ideas, forming or joining a group, or contributing resources, contact the author of this article through
1 comment
  1. Non-currupt government needed
    These are great ideas which should be implemented on a wide scale.

    But a non-corrupt Armenian government is required.

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