Saturday, July 18, 2009

Praxis: Shipping containers and HESCO gabions -- The elements of a 21st Century frontier station.

A frontier blockhouse. Note the overhang of the second story. There were firing slits cut into the outer perimeter of the floor in the second story, covered from the inside by hinged shutters. The shutters could be moved aside, allowing defensive fire to be directed from above on the heads of anyone seeking shelter from fire along the first story wall beneath.

For most of human history since we emerged from caves, man surrounded his dwellings with walls designed to keep out predators, two legged as well as four legged. Defensive fortifications became more sophisticated as populations grew, technology for defeating them spread, the need for them ebbed and flowed as civilizations grew, declined, fell and rose again.

Stable societies, run by the rule of law backed by the means of credible deterrence of criminal and invader alike, have little need of walls and fortifications. We are blessed that we have lived in a time when that is the usual way of things. Yet one of the many lessons of Katrina is that law enforcement can run away from a storm, and those who are left can loot on a par with the best street criminal, if they're not trying to disarm the otherwise law-abiding population at the same time.

Give the entire country a natural, economic or military disaster event and is there any reason to think that the outcome would be different than New Orleans? It is anecdotal but incontrovertible that crime is now on the rise. The country is infested with more criminal gangs, by percentage as well as gross numbers, than at any time in its history. The government, at all levels, is experiencing shortfalls of income that are causing police departments to shrink. Criminals of all types sense opportunity.

If, as may be, this country experiences a semi-collapse as a result of economic, political or natural disasters (or a combination thereof) the citizenry will be on its own. Walls and defensive works will once again become popular, even necessary.

As I reported in this post in April:

I have been studying for some months the question of what John Robb's "resilient communities" might look like in the wake of an economic collapse. I have come to the conclusion that they could very much look like the pioneer "stations" of our early frontier.

The heart of most stations was the blockhouse, described here at the
History of Campbell County Tennessee website in an article by Dallas Bogan entitled BLOCKHOUSES, OFTEN CRUDELY BUILT, VIGILANCE WERE SETTLERS' DEFENSE AGAINST INDIANS.

Various ways were used in the construction of a blockhouse. The stockades were built with posts or logs solidly set in the ground and sometimes sharpened at the top, and arranged so as to enclose a region. The stronger blockhouses were generally built conforming to each angle, and the lines between them filled with stockades or with cabins, one connecting the other, thus completing an enclosure. The heavier built fortifications were constructed of heavy hewn timbers and were sometimes of two or even three stories. The smaller stations were built to accommodate fewer families and had a single blockhouse with cabins close-by, and sometimes were without pickets.

The secluded blockhouses were typically crude buildings made with nothing but the common ax. The materials consisted of straight round logs, notched at the ends and hewed on the upper and lower edges to lie close together.

One identifiable characteristic of the blockhouse was that the upper part of the structure above the height of a man's shoulder was extended outward for about a foot or two over the lower part. Re ason for this was that rifles could be thrust into the openings and defense of the blockhouse/station could be stabilized.

One historian describes life in the stations. He says:

"Each party erected a strong block-house, near to which their cabins were put up, and the whole was inclosed by strong log pickets. This being done, they commenced clearing their lands and preparing for planting their crops. During the day, while they were at work, one person was placed as a sentinel to warn them of approaching danger. At sunset, they retired to the block-house and their cabins, taking everything of value within the pickets. In this manner they proceeded from day to day and week to week, til their improvements were sufficiently extensive to support their families. During this time, they depended for subsistence on wild game, obtained at some hazard, more than on the scanty supplies they were able to procure from the settlements on the river.

"In a short time, these stations gave protection and food to a large number of destitute families. After they were established, the Indians became less annoying to the settlements , as part of their time was employed in watching the stations. The former, however, did not escape, but endured their share of the fruits of savage hostility. In fact, no place or situation was exempt from danger. The safety of the pioneer depended on his means of defense, and on perpetual vigilance.

"The Indians viewed those stations with great jealousy, as they had the appearance of permanent military establishments, intended to retain possession of their country. In that view they were correct: and it was unfortunate for the settlers that the Indians (did not lack) either the skill or the means of demolishing them."

Simple blockhouses made of timber will simply not serve against the possible threats in the 21st Century. But what will? Some of the techniques used in Iraq and Afghanistan to create Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs, are certainly applicable.

Standard Shipping Container.

Here's one, from Wesley Rawles Survival Blog, describing the use of a shipping container to create underground housing and storage. My thanks to my friend Pete of WRSA for forwarding me the link.

Burying a Shipping Container or CONEX, by Danny Papa

Back during the first Gulf War we used excess shipping containers for underground storage and protection. Out first few attempts to make use of these containers met with disaster. Although they will support a huge amount of weight, in the range of 400,000 pounds directly on top, It must be place directly over the load-bearing corners. The sides and top are vulnerable to flexing, if they flex they can and will collapse. With all of this in mind let’s go through how to bury one the right way, so that it will be ready and usable when the time comes.

First let us start with container preparation. Most of these containers have spent years at sea covered with salt water. This means rust. Very simply the rust needs to be removed as best as possible. A drill with a wire brush does this well.

This is a time consuming job but it will add years of life to your container. Grind off all of the rust and then paint everything [with specially-formulated rust-resistant paint], and I mean everything. Don’t forget underneath. For safety, I have rolled these containers over on their sides to do this step, it would creep me out to jack it up and crawl underneath one. A little grinding and paint will help protect your investment. Once the container is ready be sure to let the paint dry for a couple of days before burial.

The hole needs to be 16 feet wide 55 feet long and 8 feet deep.

Think about this if you dig a hole it will eventually fill up with water.

So we either need to build a sump in the bottom or trench it out to day light. I prefer the latter, since it requires no electricity or manual labor to pump it dry.
Let’s presume we have trenched it to daylight and go from there.

Line the bottom of the hole with foundation plastic, heavy duty black plastic. At least two feet up the sides. Place French drain pipe with silt shield in bottom of hole and out to daylight. Stake it in place where it will not be directly under the edges or corners of the container. Drive a t-post every 8 feet around the edge of the hole through the plastics within 6 inches of the sides. Place 6 inches of gravel in bottom of hole.

Now comes the hard part, getting the container in the hole.

You want the container centered to the back of the hole within 42 inches of the back wall. A big track hoe can move these containers but make sure with the owner when renting one that it can pick up at least 8,000 pounds if not you may need a small crane. I could go into many different ways to get it into the hole but the key is to get it onto the gravel with out it digging in, where it needs to be and level.

Next, we will discuss Gabions or HESCO baskets. This is basically a wire basket with a liner to hold rocks and sand that will bear the load for the sides of the container. This wire basket wall will be built completely around the containers to support the sides from both lateral pressure and water. To save time and explanation, see the Wikipedia pages on gabions and HESCO bastions.

Here is a shopping list for "do it yourself" basket materials. Please realize that this is that this is the Army way which means expensive. I will go over alternatives later.

24 - Hog panels. These are welded wire 34 inches tall by 16 feet long.
34 - Cattle panels these are welded wire 52 inches tall by 16 feet long
20 - 8 foot long T-posts which are used in the bottom of the hole
Hog ring pliers and a large sack of heavy gauge hog rings (these are to hold the baskets together).
2,240 square feet of chicken wire with 1/2" size mesh
56 - 3 ft. pieces of 3/8 rebar, with one inch bent down on each end.
28 - 3 ft. pieces of 3/8 rebar, with one end bent into hooks

The hog panels are the bottom middle and top support for the baskets the cattle panels. Place hog panels over t-post and let them to ground where panel is flat on the ground. Line them up end to end with one across the back of the hole.

Place the cattle panels in between the T-post and the wall of the hole. Use the hog rings to tie the bottom together at least one every 6 inches. Take the hooked rebar and drive into the ground every four foot between t post. Now place a cattle panel on the other side of the hog panel and tie them together along the bottom.

Do this all the way around the container. Here is where a little experience is helpful. Build the one in the back first. Put the bottom and the sides and cut a hog panel to the right length for the ends of the basket. Nest do the long side this will be 48 feet long. Now do the other side but we will do it a little different.

Once you are four feet past the end of the container cut off the cattle panels and hog panels and build end for the basket. Then build another small basket that goes at a 90 degree angle to the middle of the hole forming an "L" for the doorway.

Now you have the baskets. Cover the outside cattle panel with landscape fabric to keep silt from filling between the rocks then line the entire inside of the basket with chicken wire--use the 1/2" inch mesh variety. Make sure the basket walls are straight up and down. Use the rebar with the bent ends to tie the sides together. Now fill the baskets with rocks any rocks will do as long as they are packed in and do not leave a bunch of gaps I like rocks about the size of a baseball, the key is that they have to be big enough to not go though the wire mesh. Now put the top on the basket which will be the bottom of the next row. And then build the next layer of baskets. Once the wall of baskets is built then use what ever you have to reach from one wall of baskets to the other. In Saudi we use these wood floor pieces that they made for our tents which were a sheet of 1/2 inch plywood on a 2x4 frame it took two of them to get across but once we put them in place and covered them with plastic we would pile a layer of sand bags on top of them at least three sand bags deep. Then cover the whole thing with another sheet of plastic and top it off with a layer of sand.

On the end where the door is I had you build an L shape this is a basic entrance for any bunker over this end you need to use heavy timbers to support the sand bag covering we used old cross ties from one basket to the other not sure if this is a good idea considering the creosote on the ties.

Now this would take a squad about two days to build but once completed right they will last for decades. Before rotating out of the country, we had a bull dozer drive across one, just to see what would happen. Other than crushing the wooden panels supporting the sand bags there was no damage to the container. Now, to do this the way a civilian could do it...

For the Gabion/HESCO baskets there are many alternatives, such as:
55 gallon drums filled with sand and anchored together with metal strips.
Old tires stacked and filled with sand but keep these at least 8 inches away from the side of the container.


Sandbags are very labor intensive and again need to make sure there is a gap between them and the container they have a "slide" effect that is hard to overcome without experience. You can even just use packed sand in the basket if you line it completely with landscape material or fabric that will keep the sand in the basket.

Another point of experience: I have had people ask why not use bailing wire or concrete ties to hold the baskets together the simple answer is that rust will eventually destroy this light-gauge wire. You can use this but I would advise that paint the wire after it was twisted it together and don’t expect it to last as long as the hog rings.

Also remember that many things can happen when you are underground, so always keep equipment in the container that can be used to break your way out. Ax, saws, a pick ax, and a hydraulic jack.

To sum it all up you just have to remember three key things. Rust removal and prevention, keep it dry, and alleviate any lateral pressure.

HESCO bastions referred to in the above piece are commonly used in erosion control, flood control and other uses by most state and municipal road divisions. Thus, like shipping containers, they are easily available in a breakdown situation. Here is an article in Progressive Engineer describing HESCO bastions' civilian applications.

HESCO Bastion: A simple approach to flood protection and much more.

As Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans in August 2005, local officials needed something besides sand bags to fill existing gaps in their levee system. They placed HESCO Concertainer© units atop a roadway along the 17th Street Canal. The wall survived Katrina’s winds and surge while an adjacent concrete wall failed.

Workers fill Concertainer units atop a levee in New Orleans

Then as Katrina passed New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had to make quick decisions on how to secure numerous breached levees. With Hurricane Rita entering the Gulf of Mexico just days after Katrina’s landfall, USACE deployed Concertainer units in major levees as an emergency flood control measure.

As a project onsultant, Dennis Barkmeyer oversees installations around the country

Just what are these Concertainer units? “It’s a very simple product,” says Dennis Barkmeyer, a project consultant for HESCO Bastion USA in Hammond, Louisiana. Bastion is a European term for fortification, and a Concertainer unit is a square steel-mesh cage-like container filled with earthen material. Stacked in modular fashion, it sees use all over the world in a host of civil and military applications. Government and private customers include municipalities, levee districts, city governments, emergency managers, beach projects, and private highrise condominiums suffering beach erosion.

The Concertainer was invented 15 years ago in England by Jimmy Hesselden to protect U.K. shorelines against erosion and for flood protection. A former coal miner, he did this as a backyard project, and it eventually led to the formation of HESCO Bastion Limited based in Leeds. It didn’t take long for the British military to see the potential for the product in force protection. They started using it in Bosnia during the first Persian Gulf War, placing it around the perimeters of camps and bases to protect aircraft and other machinery as well as personnel.

Then about four years ago, seeing the problems of flooding and erosion in the United States, the company decided to open HESCO Bastion USA. USACE began investigating their product for flood protection, and the East Jefferson Levee District in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana used a couple miles of it on top of an existing earthen structure. During Katrina, “The water actually came up to a foot and a half against three-foot units in some areas. And it held back the storm surge. So that was kind of the real life test, proving that it could withstand storm surges,” Barkmeyer recalls. “At the same time, we were doing a lot of coastal stabilization projects, some up in Alaska, and some sand dune reconstruction in the Florida panhandle.”

In this country, sandbags have long been the product of choice for temporary flood barriers, as they are readily available and familiar to most people. But they are labor-intensive and time-consuming to implement, and USACE has long sought to develop a better solution. They have tested the Concertainer along with sand bags in a controlled laboratory setting under conditions that simulate real-world flood fighting.

Cells serve as protection for military installations

HESCO Concertainer units consist of a steel mesh framework lined with non-woven geotextile material and filled with locally available material such as rocks, rubble, sand, gravel, or soil. Each set of Concertainer units comes with joining pins for connecting individual units. When filled, the cellular structure results in a sturdy wall. The standard unit size is three feet square and comes in a set of five to create a wall 15 feet long, and in turn, these can be linked to create a wall of unlimited length.

The wires comprising the panels are welded together at an outside plant. Panels are hinged together with a helical coil system. The geotextile is a heavy-duty non-woven polypropylene material or a PVC-coated welded mesh. HESCO’s England and Louisiana facilities both assemble the units.

The units fold flat when empty, so that several fit on a standard pallet or skid. On site, Concertainer units can be quickly installed, since they are fully assembled during manufacturing and use standard backhoe loaders or similar equipment for filling.

With a construction management background, Barkmeyer oversees installations of the Concertainer units. “I meet with contractors, engineers, and users to help give product support and technical data. I’ve visited most of the major projects in the U.S. during construction.”

Coming from St. Bernard, a town south of New Orleans, Barkmeyer understands and appreciates the concept first hand. “My home had over 15 feet of water from Katrina, so to go back and do the rebuilding of the levees and have the product go into my hometown community levees is rewarding. It’s great to see the product helping slow or stop natural disasters.”

A fuel oil spill is contained

While HESCO doesn’t do the actual design of projects that use Concertainers, “We have typical drawings we provide in our brochure. We have pictures of past projects,” Barkmeyer explains. They often advise on how high the cells can be stacked. They can also supply engineering test data gathered by third parties such as USACE or engineering firms. Contractors that install their product typically have engineers on staff or hire an engineering firm. “There’s a lot of opportunity out there for engineering firms.”

Besides flood protection and military protection, many other uses have evolved for the HESCO Concertainer. They can shore up sea-ravaged coastal shorelines, stabilize embankments, and serve as mass gravity retaining walls. For fuel spill containment, the standard geotextile fabric is replaced with a fabric that contains polymers to solidify hydrocarbon on contact. They provide protection from blasts, small arms fire, and fast-moving vehicles, improving the security of major facilities such as oil refineries, power plants, or ports. Because Concertainers are conducive to earth retention and permit the growth of natural vegetation, they work well for garden landscaping. With the correct fill, they can be used to create architectural features.

In addition, Concertainer units provide wetland protection against everyday wave fetch and erosion. By serving as a natural sediment barrier, the units allow wetlands and marshlands that have been lost over the years to revitalize. They can also be planted with aquatic vegetation to help capture passing sediment.

It doesn’t stop there. In consultation with non-government organizations and aid agencies, HESCO Bastion has developed R-House, a semi-permanent building based on the Concertainer unit. R-House shelters provide protection and living space for up to eight people against the after-effects of a disaster. Using salvaged debris, they can also serve as essential buildings such as medical centers, command centers, food stores, community centers, and schools.

Adding to the list, Barkmeyer comments, “We’re starting to see a lot of residential work -- homeowners that want to stabilize an embankment they may have. It’s a quick and easy way to build a retaining wall.”

Reflecting on this, Barkmeyer adds, “We’ve seen extreme growth and demand for the product since introducing it to the U.S. It’s becoming more and more popular the last couple years.”

You can even make a building out of the units

But he realizes that flood protection comprises the core Concertainer application. “As hurricane season approaches once again, we have the Corps looking to elevate low points and armor existing flood control structures in their system.” USACE has continued to test the Concertainer units and recently decided to develop a strategic plan for stockpiling units across the United States. This new program will offer rapid flood protection to residents in a state of emergency. The future looks bright for HESCO, as they may have found a better sand bag.

Company: HESCO Bastion
Type: Assemble and distribute wire-mesh cells filled on-site with earthen material for use in civil and military applications.
Location: Headquarters in Leeds, England with a facility in Hammond, Louisiana

Seabees align HESCO barrier in Iraq.

An OP bunker made out of HESCO units.

Of course, you can improvise a gabion structure like the HESCO out of elements commonly available:

Dumpsters, large and small.

Industrial wire baskets.

Sipsey Street will have more discussion on this topic as time goes by. For now, look around you and determine the ground you wish to defend. Make sure you think in community terms, like the pioneer stations of old. In a disaster, what will you be faced with? Try to think it through. One certainty will be members of a community residents extended family and close friends who will refugee to the comparative safety of the station. How will you provide for housing? Food?

Look around also to locate elements for building defensive structures. What does your local state transportation yard hold? Your industrial park businesses? Trading safety in an emergency to the local head of the State Transportation Department in return for HESCO units and the equipment to set them in place would be a good bargain.

The one certainty is this: Macro-disasters, be they economic, political, natural or pandemic, will once again make walled communities a necessity. Some time spent working out the possible responses to such threats wouldn't be a bad idea.


The Charlie Q factor said...

Before the gabion, engineers built reinforced earth structures using "withies" of willow. these consisted of fresh willow branches layed accross the line of the wall in layers.

The same effect could also be achieved with woven hurdles of willow branches.

The beauty of using green willow is the things will take root and grow.

Joe said...

You can build hesco type baskets out of chain link fencing. Cut chainlink to size and tie together with galvanised wire. Make sure you cut a "roof" section and tie it in to keep the basket spreading.

Platoon Sergeant said...

You will notice in the Hesco barriers that the ends are re-enforced with a coil of wire on the four sides where the wire from one side meets the other. It is important (if you are going to manufacture these yourself) that you make sure the ends are haled tight together. It would suck if you did all of that work and see all of that soil fall apart a week later.

Ken said...

I note, for what it's worth, that there are a lot of "garrison colonial"-style houses in Northeast Ohio; I bet elsewhere as well.

Also, long as one's digging a big hole for a shipping container and HESCO barriers, one might want to go ahead and dig a nice big cistern or two as well.

Michael Dukes, said...

Being a visual learner, I found this video gave me a better picture of how the 'interlacing' of the units work.

Pretty nifty little 'root cellar'.