Austin Fleming's winning design from the 2011 competition was a backpack module that wraps around you and one other person to disguise your location from the zombies.
Zombie Safe House Austin Fleming's winning design from the 2011 competition was a backpack module that wraps around you and one other person to disguise your location from the zombies.

Shea Trahan, co-founder of the Zombie Safe House Competition
Shea Trahan Shea Trahan, co-founder of the Zombie Safe House Competition

Following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., and other acts of mass violence in 2012, Shea Trahan, Assoc. AIA, and his partner Steven Domingue, Assoc. AIA, have decided to call off their Zombie Safe House Competition. That’s the popular competition that asks architects to design a safe house to use during a zombie apocalypse—a contest that would have entered its third year this month to line up with universities’ spring semesters. ARCHITECT caught up with Trahan to learn more about their reasoning and what they might be planning for the future. 

Why did you decide to call off the Zombie Safe House Competition?

The role of the competition in the public sphere has been an ongoing discussion. We like to focus on security and sustainability issues—that’s really what the competition was about. The zombie culture that it was placed in was just an easy set of rules that people could jump into and understand. But I have two young children and I was deeply affected the morning of the shooting [in Newtown, Conn.]. And then I got a call from Stephen to let me know that he wasn’t comfortable continuing with the competition due to the weaponry involved. The competition has been indirectly linked with assault guns and directly linked with other weaponry. While we’re not out there advocating either side of this political fight over gun control, it did become a question for us of where we were investing our time. We decided we want to leave our children a better environment. 

No one wants the competition to continue on more than we do. It’s one of my favorite things that we do, actually. I don’t think the competition is gone; I think we just need a little bit of time to figure out what it is we are doing and how it fits in with everything. We hope to launch a new variation of our competition in the early summer.

How much was violence and weaponry a part of the competition? 

It really wasn’t a major component of the competition. Never was the competition promoting violence. Weaponry was a tertiary element at best. That was never something we felt guilty about—promoting the use of weapons. But it’s hard to be in the zombie culture without … well they kind of travel hand-in-hand. There were situations where prize donations had a more weapon-based focus, or weapons were somehow brought into the mix of the competition.

What type of feedback have you received so far since announcing that you would discontinue the competition? 

Our sponsors and the people we’ve worked with—Archinect/Bustler, Gensler Chicago , Max Brooks, Scott Shall of the International Design Clinic, and Trahan Architects, among others—they all gave similar responses saying that they understood and respect our decision. As far as fans, particularly on social media, a lot of people immediately jumped to political conclusions and assumed that we were taking a stand on gun control. We really weren’t, I don’t even know where I stand on the issue. There were some fans who were angry, but we also received a lot of support. 

When we talked back in August, you mentioned that sustainability was a big theme that arose organically out of the ZSHC. Do you plan to explore this theme in some other way, something presumably that does not involve stylized violence?

Absolutely—100 percent. Those are really the things we’re interested in, and that’s what the project has been focused on in the past. The zombie setup, the zombie program, afforded us an easy way to jump right into that. But it’s not the only situation that could warrant such a response.

No doubt, zombies are really popular right now and lent to the success of the competition. How will you replicate that success in a future competition?

We were really lucky in our timing. Max Brooks [author or World War Z, a post-apocalyptic novel and upcoming movie featuring Brad Pitt] has worked as a judge for us. We don’t have an answer for how to replicate the popularity we gained through the zombie element. If we can find a way to tap back into the zombie culture with a better set of positions, that’s something we’d like to do. We don’t regret the work we did. We still love the zombie culture, we just want to make sure as we head forward were clear on where we stand and where we don’t stand. 

In our November issue, we profiled a San Francisco-based architect who advocates stopping architects from designing prisons because he believes it’s inhumane. But on the flip side of the argument, was a duo who designed prisons to ensure that they were built humanely. To what degree do you think architects should be held socially responsible for their work?  

One of our fans who was frustrated with our decision critiqued us saying that our line of reasoning could lead anyone not to do the things they love and not to pursue their profession because of unintended circumstances. To that my reaction was that each profession and each professional has to define for themselves what that is, and I think architects are in a special position because I think we do have a referenceable code of ethics that clearly promotes uncompromised professional judgment, which calls on us to raise standards of excellence and to promote and serve the public interest. And so the onus lies on us to fulfill that requirement by taking the high road on these issues.