High-end home security technologies in 'SAFE' - the world's safest house.
Before you settle in to reading this article on high-end home security, you really ought to check that your front door is locked and the porch light is on. While you're at it, why not set the alarm, test the secure phone line and turn on your exterior CCTV? Finally, arm the mantrap, prime the gas chamber, close the bulletproof windows... and relax.
You can't be too careful, right? Al Corbi, president of Los Angeles-based security company SAFE (Strategically Armoured and Fortified Environments), is just the man to soothe away your concerns. 'Security is not just about bad guys with guns,' he says. 'There's a higher security, above mere safety, that leads to peace of mind. And peace of mind is a very elusive commodity.'
'Elusive', of course, is LA-speak for 'expensive'. SAFE's showroom (and Corbi's home) is a multi-million dollar 32-room mansion perched high above Sunset Boulevard, looking down on the smog of the city. Every door, window and architectural detail has been designed to resist burglary, gunfire, home invasion and even nuclear, biological or chemical attack. There is a bunker in the basement and a helipad on the roof. This could very well be the safest house in the world.
And yet I can see no bars on the windows, no alarm keypad, no cameras on the walls or locks on the doors. The open-plan living, dining and sleeping areas have enormous picture windows that look out onto a peaceful garden and trees. Where are the rabid Dobermans? Did I miss the razor wire and armed guards?
'No one wants to live in a prison,' explains Lana Corbi, Al's elegant wife and business partner. 'An alarm may give some comfort but it quickly becomes a hassle - the thing's beeping, you have 10 seconds to disarm it and you get all these false positives. At the end of the day, it has detracted from your life and hasn't given you peace of mind. Guards are very intrusive in your life and bars that might actually work against a home invasion are ugly.'
SAFE's philosophy is constructed around onion layers of security. The more relaxed outer layers give way to gradually more serious inner layers until you reach the ultra-hardened SAFE Core. The first system might be nothing more than motion-activated surveillance in the garden. 'You want the outer layers to be relatively soft and benign because a lot of times it will just be a neighbour or a passer-by,' says Al. 'Maybe it just says, 'Good afternoon, you're on private property, can we help you?' Something very nice and polite.'
The next layers are hardened but passive: bullet-resistant polycarbonate windows and ruggedised entry doors. These are designed to buy you time and feed you information from hidden video cameras. 'Your outer layer lets you know what's coming,' says Lana. 'These things can happen in the blink of an eye. You can't rely on the police or a neighbour to come to help: you have to be self-reliant.'
Ultimately, that means retreating to your home's SAFE Core, a suite of rooms hidden behind twin steel-plated doors and walls, floors and ceilings reinforced with ballistic tiles made from Kevlar-like para-amid fibres. Every pane, panel and brick has been test- hammered, shot and blasted at SAFE's own firing range. In the Corbis's home, the SAFE Core encompasses almost an entire floor, including a master and two smaller bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchenette.
'If someone got to this floor. I have a refrigerator and a microwave and can keep months' worth of food in here. It's not like a panic room where you have to fetch a sleeping child and rush into a separate part of the building,' says Lana. The limitations of traditional panic rooms were illustrated earlier this year when an Islamic extremist broke into the house of Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who had drawn the prophet Mohammed as a suicide bomber. Westergaard managed to get himself safely into his panic room but left his five-year old granddaughter outside with the knife- and axe-wielding would-be assassin. Thankfully, she wasn't hurt.
'Here, you go to bed at night and you're not locked into anything,' says Lana. 'You can get up, take a shower and your kids can move around. You're living like you want to.' Well, as long as you want to live on reheated ready meals and never crack a window. Every door into the SAFE Core has 12 chromium steel bolts, a biometric (fingerprint) lock and a built-in video camera and screen, allowing the family to see what's happening outside. The cameras also feed into a touchscreen command and control centre located in one of the en-suite toilets that is toughened, Al claims, 'to the point of insanity'. From here, the family can check cameras all over the house, lock or release doors electronically and communicate with the outside world over secure Internet and phone links.
They can also activate the house's tactical systems. 'Mantraps sound kind of ominous but they're really not,' says Al. 'They're nothing more than a way of keeping harm from getting to the family using architectural details that are normally part of the building anyway, but set up intelligently.' In most cases, that simply means a hallway or alcove with steel-plated doors that automatically slam shut behind any intruders. Just like peeling an onion, the layers of SAFE security can bring tears to your eyes. An innocuous dressing room looks like just the place a prudent householder might store valuable jewellery and documents. But once an intruder ventures inside and the outer door is secured, the homeowner is able to activate a concealed Fog Shield system, delivering a cloud of dense, blinding fog. Although the standard gas is a harmless mixture of water vapour and glycol with a 'pleasant mint smell', Al reveals that tear gas cartridges can be fitted - and even hints at lethal options.
With so much technology to be monitored, no multi-millionaire wants to be tied to their command centre screen (especially if it's located in a windowless toilet). All of SAFE's systems can be controlled remotely via mobile phone or from a touchscreen in a car or yacht. 'If someone rang your gate in LA and you're sitting in your second home in Paris, it can notify you on your cellphone. You can speak to the person and open the door to the guest suite, but leave the master suite and office locked,' says Al. 'You feel comfortable because your office and SAFE Core are blastproof and impenetrable. If you lock those down, you can let Osama bin Laden into the house. Those areas are going to be safe.'
Various measures are in place to prevent criminals simply stealing a phone and disarming the systems. SAFE supplies small wireless key fobs with a built-in biometric scanner and four programmable 'soft' buttons. The correct fingerprint will activate the fob, and the buttons can be set to perform a range of tasks; unlocking cars, opening front doors or warming up your private jet.
The wireless technologies also work in reverse. Family members carry small RFID tags so that the main home system always knows where they are, complete with a panic button that can summon help - or just a top-up for their iced tea. The system stores all the audiovisual, location and lock data, allowing authorised users to rewind activity by the hour or day. 'It's like a black-box recorder for your whole life,' says Lana. 'This kind of control and convenience, embedded in your lifestyle, is something that has been overlooked for way too long. People want it and once they have it, they wouldn't be without it. It's like air conditioning.'
Air conditioning that costs a million dollars, that is. Although the Corbis are unwilling to divulge precisely how 'elusive' their systems are, the SAFE show home is currently on the market for $6.9m (£4.5m) in a neighbourhood where similar homes sell for several million dollars less. Al admits that his clients are spread throughout world and tend to be 'at the higher end of the food chain'. At the moment, China is 'a booming market' and SAFE is also busy creating a new breed of toughened super-yachts.
'Someone may purchase a yacht and want to know that everyone on it is safe - that all the staterooms are secure, that they'll be notified if anyone tries to board when docked and that they can see 12 miles out when we're at sea,' says Lana. 'We can do that. If they're going by Somalia once a year from the Middle East to the Med, and want to make sure they're protected against a rocket launcher, we can do that, too.'
No peace of mind
But do all these layers of security really buy peace of mind? Once protected from bullets, burglars and home invasions, some of SAFE's customers find other things to worry about. 'Pandemics and dirty bombs are fairly indiscriminate about how wealthy you are, your position or bloodline,' warns Al. 'People of means want to know that they will have enough clean air, water and food to sit them out.'
'Some people want a full nuclear, biological, chemical shelter inside their home - or outside, somewhere on the property, with a tunnel to it,' adds Lana. The Corbi's own bunker nestles beneath the 20-seater home cinema in the basement, 30 feet underground. With the solid clunk of another steel-reinforced ballistic door closing, a purified air system kicks into life. It uses the highest level of HEPA filters (fibreglass filters originally designed for the Manhattan Project) to trap the smallest bacteria, viruses and radioactive particles. Water is treated with ultraviolet light and food comes courtesy of compact, dehydrated 'gourmet' meals that have a mind-boggling 25-year shelf life and can be reconstituted with just a cup of hot water.
The bunker has several bedrooms, a bathroom, three months' food supply for seven people - and a well-stocked wine cellar. Sealed off from the outside world, surrounded by vintage Bordeaux and freeze-dried chicken a la King, it seems like an appropriate moment to ask Al if there's anything that SAFE can't protect against. He thinks for a moment then flashes a smile: 'If a nuclear bomb hits this house, we're toast.'