Recently I purchased 40 acres of desert land in the remote Arizona desert, and my only real plan for it was to build myself a little RV base where I could hang out and not be bothered by anyone while I host friends and do random art projects that I thought were entertaining. The original plan is well underway and I should be done by late this summer.
But now I have 40 acres of desert land, and I realized it would be even more fun to build something really cool on it. I wasn't exactly sure what that should be, until I started joking around on Twitter about making a supervillain compound. People replied with hilarious suggestions, and soon the idea started taking on a life of its own for me.
Then I started thinking... well, if I were going to build something as ridiculous as this, how would I do it? People who know me well know that I do very crazy things because I think they're fun and because I can, and also that I have a flair for the dramatic (also because it's fun). If I'm going to consider something, I'm going to actually consider it... right down to calculating the costs and effort involved.
So I'm not saying I will build this (and definitely can't finance it at the moment), but here's how I would if I could... and what I would do with it.
Why Would Someone Do This?
So trade that typical for something colorful
And if it's crazy, live a little crazy
- "The Other Side", The Greatest Showman
Why not do this? Haven't you always wanted to have a secret supervillain base deep down inside? Wouldn't it be cool? We could all use a little more whimsy in our lives, and we so rarely see real vision in the world today. Why not build something incredible just for the sake of building it and giving people something cool to see?
The design for the base should inspire creativity, excitement, and awe, transporting the visitor or viewer into a realm of fun and imagination analogous to Disney's Magic Kingdom or Wonka's Chocolate Factory. We're going to jump the shark and then jump back over the shark again and then ride the shark. Basically everything we do here should be governed by the Rule of Cool to be as excessive as possible.
The ultimate vision for a practical reason to actually build this would be to invite other artists to come and use it as a launchpad and incubator for their own fun and amazing art projects and entertainment in a mutually supportive setting. Musical theater. Visual art and sculpture. Wild parties. I want to encourage and enable other people to make things as amazing and crazy as the things I'm willing to make just because it's fun. I'm trying to channel P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney here (without the anti-Semitism) and give people something to get excited about.
Designing the Base
So what exactly should the ultimate desert supervillain base have in it? Here are my guiding principles for an actual self-sustaining desert base capable of hosting other people (because I'd want my secret lair to be functional as well as cool). Anything I'd build like this should have:
- Self-sustaining power, water, and at least a supplementary food source.
- Functional work and living areas
- Supplementary entertaining areas
- Outdoor and indoor work and recreation areas
But those are just the basics of a functional space in the desert. Let's get to the fun stuff!
The main compound should basically be a large, multi-room building with lots of natural light and tinted windows to reduce the heat from the desert sun, powered by a serious PV roof system for the care and comfort of the henchmen/artists. Because the desert gets very hot, it will need to have its own cooling system that can withstand 120-degree AZ summer temperatures, but also be well-insulated enough that it doesn't get too cold at night. Ideally this place should be able to support about 16-20 people at a time in 2-4 person bunk rooms.
If you have a large building with a master bedroom and four additional rooms that can each host four people in bunks plus sufficient bathrooms, living, and recreation space, that would probably do the trick. My research indicates that's about a 6000-sq-ft building (example plan). Average cost to build a home in the American West is about $131 per square foot (source), so let's call that $750k and tack on $90k for a serious PV system to power it (more than adequate with negotiated discounts and includes installation) and another $20k for septic systems and excavation. You need reliable water for that many people, and out here in the desert drilling a well can cost upwards of $40k (variable and hard to predict until you actually start drilling). Then assume $100k to adequately furnish this for the residents.
That puts us at a cool $1M. Already steep, but not too bad considering the scale!
Villain Lair Features
We're just getting started, though. You'd hardly call this a secret lair yet. Here are some important additional features of our compound:
- A war room, complete with a long, black, shiny table with impressive chairs for house meetings and discussions on general villainy.
- A massive shark tank behind the head of the table, ideally with having the sharks mounted with laser-beams.
- Underground barracks for evil minions and party guest accommodations.
- Roving security robots.
- An attached vehicle hangar with some kind of cool ship and work benches.
- A hallway with criss-crossing laser beams (illuminated by smoke) that must be carefully navigated.
- A dungeon for holding hostages or intruding heroes until we decide their fate.
- A shooting range for testing experimental weaponry.
- A secret security monitoring panic room with a wall of screens that shows every camera on the property.
- A botanical garden for growing food and rare and beautiful plants.
- Walls, moat, and lookout tower armed with sentry turrets.
The War Room and Laser Hallway
The war room is easy because the long, shiny table can probably just be dropped into the middle of the main living space and double as a dinner table (which is covered in the cost of the furnishings already). This is also true of the laser hallway which is just a regular hallway outfitted with some laser sights and a smoke machine to highlight the beams (less than $250 for gear and setup).
It would be even more fun to use Alexa smart plugs and lights and a custom-coded Alexa voice command with smart house software (trivial to set up, I could code this) so that we could activate the lasers and smoke machine with an Alexa code word and also have the house announce "Hostile Intruder Detected" from a set of connected speakers. You could also connect a motion sensor to trigger it and encourage unsuspecting guests to walk into the hallway and activate it.
The Menacing Shark Tank
The totally-necessary shark tank that goes behind the war room table is a little trickier because there's not a lot of info out there about how to set one up (shocking, right?) or the costs involved. I found the primary wholesaler of worldwide sharks online, but they don't publish pricelists or talk to you unless you're serious. This WSJ article suggests you can do one for under $60,000, but even then apparently upkeep and maintenance is terrible ($2000/month), and those prices are only for a 9-foot tank with small 2-foot sharks which isn't really the sprawling great white shark wall we're all imagining (and that's even before the costs of mounting lasers to them).
I thought robot sharks might be an option but apparently those aren't real (yet), so our next best option is to fake the shark scene via something like Damien Hirst's famous shark art where he suspended a tiger shark in formaldehyde. But this is even more expensive. The piece was sold for $8M and the preservation was $100k alone.
We don't need real sharks, though. As it turns out, you can buy 3D lifelike shark replicas designed to be mounted in the air for about $2-$3k each. If we stick those behind a concrete and acrylic reinforced viewing wall like the kind you see in zoos (which we could fill with blue-dyed water) we could get the whole project done for under $20k based on quotes from projects at this company I found that does custom acrylic and glass siding for pools. If we wanted to really have fun with this, we would back this onto another raised pool constructed into the back of the building and separated from our sharks by a second acrylic pane, making guests feel like they're swimming with sharks and visible from inside the compound. This would roughly double our costs to $40k and seems totally worth it.
Panic Room and Secret Monitoring Station
What good is your secret base if you can't retreat to a secret panic room when you're being invaded? And even better if you can monitor the intruders from the safety of your panic room. Fortunately, we need a far less custom design than the sharks for this feature thanks to a booming interest in security shelters in America.
There are several dealers for panic rooms you can buy from where they'll sell you a panic room and installation right off the shelf, which we can do at the same time we build the compound at no additional cost if it's baked into the initial building plans.
Underground Barracks and Dungeon
While the upstairs, more permanent rooms are perfect for the lieutenants and captains of your evil army (or for display rooms of your prized possessions), you're going to need an underground bunker for your expendable henchmen and rotating guests, neither of which will be staying for very long. Fortunately, we can once again plan this feature directly into the initial construction of the base to save cash and buy it off the shelf.
You can go as fancy as you want here: a $250k underground military shelter with two entrances, a little 10' x 13' 23' culvert that sleeps 4 with an attached bathroom for $50k, or a ridiculously ostentatious $780k underground 2600-sq-ft compound-beneath-the-compound complete with grow rooms for food and multiple living areas.
You can also build one yourself just like Colin Furze did if you're feeling ambitious, have the skills, and don't want to drop quite as much cash. Regardless, an appropriate installation (including excavation) is going to set you back roughly 30% of the cost you paid for your shelter. And of course you're going to need a shed up top to cover the entrance since you don't want your henchmen tracking dirt into the main compound: Assume at least another $15,000 for an appropriately intimidating shed entrance to the underground barracks, which you can customize however you like.
If we assume the installation of a modified second one of these we can use it as our underground prison and dungeon, so let's assume we go with the smallish size and add another $70k for that off the main compound.
Roving Robot Security Guards
What secret supervillain base would be complete without security robots roaming the property to monitor for intruders? We already discussed the costs of setting up a CCTV monitoring room, so now you just want wandering robots to look for anyone hiding where the regular cameras aren't pointed.
Fortunately, the future is now: If you want the real deal, just grab a pair of the Boston Dynamics robo-dogs for $75k each and set them loose to wander on your property each day. The robot dog, called "Spot," even comes with a custom API SDK so you can code your own wandering routines for the robots.
One of the coolest things you could do here if you had the cash to burn would be to code the dogs to approach humans that are moving around your base and scan them for the presence of a passive ultrahigh-frequency RFID transponder badge which can be read from 10 to 20 feet feet away and which you could issue to visitors. If it doesn't detect a badge, the dog's governing code could notify a custom Alexa command over wifi to turn all the lights in your base red and announce "INTRUDER DETECTED" in a menacing voice. This is not science fiction. I could absolutely set this up myself if I had the cash, and I half-wish I did just because it would be awesome and hilarious.
But if you're not interested in dropping $150k on a gimmicky and fun joke, you can still do robot guards on the cheap with a simple, fun, and much lower-tech hack: Get yourself a pair of Roombas for $500 and just glue a little $30 robot toy to the top of them. It's not nearly as cool as the robot dog idea, but it will leave your floors cleaner and your bank account fuller while still being a cute robot guard joke.
Plus, if you buy the right robot to glue to the Roomba, you can use a remote control to fire rubber suction darts at your pets when they go to check it out.
What good is having an army of evil henchmen if you can't A) address them from a pavilion and B) throw lavish parties for them at said pavilion. There are lots of good reasons to have a large outdoor space for events of all kinds and a stage is equally useful for rave bands and sinister speeches, so that's what you'll need.
You can furnish it however you like, but you'll probably want to make this a large, flat, cement area in the middle of your compound with a stage against the far wall. A 40'x40' area is probably good enough to start. Poured concrete is roughly $5 per square foot, so your 1600 sq ft pavilion is gonna cost you $8k. Assume another $15k to get some nice awnings and outdoor furniture for people to lounge on, $5k for some landscaping around it, and another $5k for a nice-looking wooden platform to serve as your stage.
Audio equipment for concerts or voice boosting can get extremely pricey, but honestly you could probably get away with a low-quality outdoor sound system that would get the job done for under $3k if you shop around and you're not trying to produce major villain events. If you are, the sky's the limit.
Finally, you're going to need a podium to give morale-boosting speeches from, and a nice-looking one will run you about $400 and probably another $100 to get it customized with your villainous logo.
Vehicle Hangar and Workshop
Any supervillain worth her salt needs to have an appropriate battle vehicle and a place for her and her henchmen to work on it, along with other various mechanical tasks like bringing your robot dogs in for maintenance and repairs. We could build a big metal garage for this, but we're going to call it a "hangar" because that's much cooler. This one is very straightforward because their isn't a ton to do that's unusual.
A 40' x 50' x 14' standard metal garage should be plenty of room to store and modify your battle wagons, expensive cars, and construction tools. It'll cost you about $30k and another $10k of poured concrete, plus the cost of whatever workbenches, tools, and cameras you'd like to stick inside of it (let's say another $10k to make it easy).
Botanical Garden / Desert Greenhouse
Because you're in the desert, you don't actually want a traditional greenhouse. You want to provide your plants with plenty of shade and water to protect them from the harsh desert climate. But you can grow some beautiful tropical plants. I found this wonderful how-to guide written by another Arizona greenhouse enthusiast who discusses some appropriate modifications for the climate. Other sites recommend including a drip irrigation system and shade cloth instead of glass panels (which would fry your plants). This site suggests that a geodesic dome design might be ideal for your garden (and looks pretty), and while you can probably build your own for a bit cheaper, you can also just buy their 18' kit for about $12k. Add another $3k for tools, plants, and some light landscaping and you have yourself a lovely botanical garden for your secret desert lair.
The University of Arizona College of Agriculture has also published this handy desert plant guide so you can select a wide-range of attractive and useful plants to pepper throughout your desert base to make it both attractive and intimidating (because everyone respects a well-landscaped lair). I haven't personally checked it out, but the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden sells another landscaping guide that might offer additional perspectives for $80.
If you're willing to commit to watering them, you can also decorate your desert property with a variety of citrus, fig, and pomegranate trees, all of which grow well in hot and arid climates.
Well-trained henchmen are happy henchmen, because they're living henchmen, and everyone needs to keep their marksman skills top-notch when a secret agent could attempt to infiltrate your base at any moment.
There's no need to be fancy here. You're literally setting up a place to store bullets. Bulldoze yourself a long corridor and make a sizable dirt mound, maybe shoring it up along the back with some old packed-dirt tires for additional security. Cost is less than $1000 once you include a few safety features. You could add some high-tech gizmos, lane markings, a pulley system for targets, make it look nice, and even add a little dry bar shed for serving drinks next to it for under $5k.
(That is a joke, don't mix guns and alcohol, I'm annoyed I even have to add this disclaimer but I know you guys are going to nerdsplain all over me if I don't say it.)
Walls, Moat, Lookout Towers
Finally, you don't want just anyone wandering into the middle of your secret base. To keep intruders out, you're going to want to wall in your compound with high walls and a lookout tower at each gate (of course you need two gates in case of an escape route situation).
Walls can get expensive fast, and especially desert compound walls which will obviously need to be tall (6-8' minimum) and thick (concrete or cinder block). If you assume that your compound covers roughly a 5-acre perfectly square area, then you're looking at about 1,870 feet of fencing to cover all 4 sides. Cinder block walls are about $10 per square foot of wall (including labor), so multiply 1,870 * 6 feet height * $10. That's $112k to wall your compound in (and you only get 6-foot walls). Ouch.
To save cash here, we can take a page from the Earthship community and build our wall out of rammed-earth tires which is basically the cost of the tire transport if you can find a place to offer free tires (which they need to pay to dispose of anyway). This is cheaper, but you still have to finish it and it's extremely labor intensive to pound tires! These seem to be very solid and stable with each rammed-earth tire being very heavy (300lbs) but I haven't been able to find much data on how well they do as a standalone 8-ft structure (here's one paper on using them) and I'd be slightly nervous about wall stability without some testing.
That's also a LOT of tires to pound. Some people recommend alternatives like earthbag construction, rammed-earth or adobe bricks, but I'm really struggling to easily find good and clear cost and building resources on those (surprisingly, locating a shark dealer was much easier).
You might be better off just paying for the proper concrete walls if you want them, are just starting your supervillain career, and don't have unlimited henchman labor handy (yet). There's really no cheap way to do proper walls for your base, so if you want them, you'll have to pay one way or another.
Next you need security gates and guard towers at each entrance. You can purchase and install a standard security gate for about $3000 per entrance. Passive security towers are as cheap as standing up a few obelisks from found materials and sticking a camera on them, but I'd bet you could build a solid tower from the aforementioned earthbag materials fairly cheaply and anchor a ladder on the side to create a raised platform. Make it 8 feet tall with a small parapet and you can probably do it for less than $1000 and a weekend or two of work. Put one at each entrance. Then you just need to secure some mounts for rifles in place (these are definitely the wrong ones but I have no idea where to even look for these).
Finally, we sadly won't be able to easily maintain a lava moat, but there's nothing stopping us from digging a dirt trench around our little 6' concrete wall to make it a much more intimidating 9' wall. This calculator suggests that we could trench around the entire 1600 ft of our wall for less than $20k. This has the added benefit of protecting your desert base from flash floods by putting the whole area onto a raised earth platform and creating channels to divert the water. That's a very cheap way to add 3 feet to our wall height and protect our base from one of the more likely desert natural disasters when we're near mountains.
And voila! Your desert base is done.
So now that I've laid out exactly how to build the secret desert supervillain lair of your dreams (well, my dreams), let's take another final look at the cost breakdowns here. To recap:
- Main compound living building (6000 sq ft) - $750k
- Full compound furnishings - $100k
- Self-sufficient photovoltaic (solar) system for base power - $90k
- Desert well construction - $40k
- Septic systems - $20k
- Faux intimidation shark tank + backing pool - $40k
- Secret interior panic room + monitoring system - $15k
- Secret interior underground dungeon/prison - $70k
- Underground henchmen barracks + shed entrance - $80k
- Roaming robotic guard dogs w/RFID intruder detection - $150k
- Speech and party pavilion, furnishings, audio system - $40k
- Vehicle hangar + workshop + tools - $50k
- Botanical garden / desert greenhouse - $15k
- Shooting range + dry bar - $5k
- Compound 6' concrete walls (5-acre square) - $112k
- Two compound electric gates - $6k
- Two compound guard towers made from earthbags - $2k
- Moat/trench construction around wall exterior - $20k
So it seems like for a cool $1.6M, I could build a totally tricked-out supervillain desert lair with all of the stuff any proper Bond villain could ask for. I have to admit, in spite of the price tag, that is much lower of a total cost than I was expecting for this wild of an idea.
I don't personally have $1.6M lying around to throw at this (yet), but that number seems surprisingly achievable if I really decided to go for it and seek funding. At a minimum, you can be sure I'll be building out some of the cheaper portions of this just for fun (and because I had intended to anyway).
There are lots of things we could do to move these numbers up and down, of course. I didn't even get into some of my grander ideas like an excavated quarry area with natural rock sculptures for paintball training exercises, a dirtbike ring around the exterior, a mystical berm with native desert plants for working desert chaos magick under the moon, or a rammed-earth 2-acre maze to force prisoners into.
I suppose we could also move the numbers down if we had to. You might ask, "Do we really need $150k worth of Boston robotics patrolling guard dogs?"
But the answer is obvious: Yes. Yes we do. Shame on you for even asking that.
So now that I've laid this all out, I guess I have to get started on building at least some of it. It's too cool not to. And even though I'm not really interested in going and begging for funding, if you happen to be a rich eccentric who just thinks this base idea is too freaking cool not to do it and want to fund it, I'll stand by the original Twitter promise I made earlier today.
As with most of my projects, I'm left asking myself only one thing when I consider doing this: Why the hell not?