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Tsunami House built to handle nature's worst


January 9, 2014

The decor is distinctly low-maintenance and industrial (Photo: Lucas Henning)

The decor is distinctly low-maintenance and industrial (Photo: Lucas Henning)

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From Hurricane Katrina to the Polar Vortex which has buried large swathes of North America under snow, we're frequently reminded that when extreme weather hits, the results can be devastating. Tsunami House, by Designs Northwest Architects, has been built to withstand the worst nature can throw at it: high winds, storms, and yes, even a tsunami.

Located in a flood-prone section of Camano Island, Washington, the recently completed two-story (plus loft) waterfront home sits atop 1.5 m (5 ft) high pilings designed to take abuse from a high velocity tsunami wave. The ground floor, dubbed the "flood room," is a multi-use space which sports walls designed to break away if a tsunami hits, thus leaving the integrity of the upper areas intact.

The main living area is on the second floor, accessed via tough bent plate steel stairs. It contains bathroom, kitchen and dining area, master bedroom, and a loft bedroom accessible via ladder. The decor is distinctly low-maintenance and industrial, with concrete and glass the order of the day. However, Designs Northwest Architects strove to add some warmth to the main living areas with the use of cedar wood and plenty of windows to assure ample natural light.

Of course, we'll only ever really know for sure if the design of Tsunami House is successful should the worst happen. Hopefully that day never comes.

Source: Designs Northwest Architects via ArchDaily

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Adam Williams Adam scours the globe from his home in North Wales in order to bring the best of innovative architecture and sustainable design to the pages of Gizmag. Most of his spare time is spent dabbling in music, tinkering with old Macintosh computers and trying to keep his even older VW bus on the road. All articles by Adam Williams

Ìt looks very nice.

I'm not sure if it would stand up to a "worst in recorded history" tsunami. I think the concrete pillars would be damaged from a boat hitting the house or something.

I basically don't think there is any way to defeat weather unless you live in a bunker.

I'm probably being over negative because I don't like to taunt nature.


The downstairs area with its rollup windows looks like a converted garage. If I was designing a house for these weather conditions. I would use the ground floor only as a garage.backspace, for a car and a boat. Any furniture get washed away in a severe storm.

There is no reason not to have a proper staircase. Who wants to climb up the ladder, every time they want to go upstairs?

There is such a large frontal area, which in the event of a tsunami would act like a sail and the whole house would get washed away. I would certainly make the sea-facing wall pointed like the bow of a ship. Hopefully the windows would be made of polycarbonate.

No doubt this house is very expensive, and to my mind not fit for purpose. Caveat emptor!


The ladder to the bedroom with no bath makes this otherwise excellent design impractical. I won't question the makers claim to storm worthiness but I believe future storms will be much more energetic than the past.


Small house. And yea, the ladder would be annoying. I would think a spiral staircase might be better suited, even though it'd have a slightly larger footprint.

In reality, this house is a modern version of a house built on stilts like you'd find down in the Keys.

I think the house would quell most storm surges, given it's concrete wall oceanside that would block the brunt of the impact and you'd have to remember to open the garage doors to let the water flow through.

The wind from a hurricane would be an interesting factor, though. I'm guessing the "wedge" built for the oceanside wall on the main living area is supposed to deflect some of that impact?

Not sure how well it'd go against a tsunami though, given the relatively recent images from Japan.


Totally agree with windykites1. Everything seaward should be ship's prow shape, including the pillars. Vertical posts should be structural steel pilings at every corner of the bldg, with diagonal bracing. Roll-up steel doors are mandatory. I'd make the "flood room" taller, as 5' headroom is pretty worthless, even if used for storage. I'd also have a seaward deck incorporating more tall steel pilings that would serve to block or divert incoming heavy debris.

Polycarbonate windows sound good but are visually fragile, i.e. scratch easily unless protected with replaceable ? film.

Another design would be a Noah's Ark approach - a v. sturdy ferro-cement hull made to float in high water, moored with cables for normal use.

Bucky Fuller talks about design for rare events in "No More Second-Hand God".


Nice house but not so nice for a storm shelter. Low level flooding proof yes, tsunami or hurricane proof no. You can see in the drawings where normal sea level is and also see the 2nd floor is only about 10-12 ft above high tide. Not so tsunami or hurricane proof if all it can handle is a 10-12 ft tidal surge. Nor does the 2nd floor appear to be built with materials that are reinforced and tied to the foundation. House looks nice and elegant but I wouldn't stay in it during any kind of significant storm surge. Good luck with that.

Matt Fletcher

I'm also skeptical of this design standing up to tsunami forces, in fact, I giggle thinking about it because of the immense speed and weight of tsunami force. The claim is really not to be believed.


Tsunami proof sounds definitely an overstatement. If the architect studied the aftermath of the massive Tohoku earthquake, they might think twice to call it tsunami proof.

-A few meters thick and 5-6m (15-18ft) high concrete wave breakers were broken completely at some places. The force hitting the concrete is literally tons, I understand. Many houses were swept away from the concrete foundation on up. Tsunamis can easily cave underneath.

-Washington State shows it was hit by a massive tsunami before humans settled there, and if I remember right, the height of the tsunami would have easily swallowed this house.

-There were many earthquake proof houses in Tohoku that stood gutted after the tsunami. Since glasses will be broken regardless of what they are made of, if the second floor is filled up with water, you have no chance of survival.


As a fellow washington coaster, I really like this house. I would want stairs to the loft, and a bathroom up there, too, make it a master loft. I'd also want either a roof deck, or a second floor deck for watching the ocean (camano doesn't have an ocean view, it has sound view). As far as height for tsunami protection, camano island is buried behind other islands, and already sheltered. I'm on the long beach peninsula, the only shelter I have from a tsunami is outrunning it.


The opening photo of the article makes it quite clear that the house in question IS NOT ready for nature's worst. Come on!

First, notice the clear material on the bottom floor.

Unless that clear material (possibly glass) is not ultra strong and ultra reinforced it certainly is NOT going to stand up to a wall of water moving at 50 miles an hour.

Get real. Write better, more honest, articles. Don't you care to have pride in your work? Please stop telling the masses falsehoods. Thanks, so much.

Dan Lewis

I would like to thank everyone for your comments about the Tsunami House.

I would like to offer further clarification about the Tsunami House design:

The house was designed to meet FEMA requirements for a V zone flooding event. The Army Corp of Engineers determined that there is potential for a tsunami type of wave hitting part of the north end of Camano Island, Washington if parts of the Whidbey Island, Washington (a land mass across Skagit Bay) breaks away and falls into the sound.

The house itself is designed to resist 85 mph winds but the lower level concrete columns are designed to withstand a 7'-8" tall wall of water traveling at high horizontal speeds. The height of the potential wall of water was determined by the US Army Corp of Engineers at the time we designed this house.The lower level exterior walls are designed to break away if this event occurs. All the materials used on the lower level are either water proof or water resistant. All electrical outlets and lighting is placed above 5'-0"

The lower level frame is designed as concrete piers sitting on a concrete raft foundation.

There was an occurrence of this type of event happening on the south end of Camano Island, Washington in 1820.

Here is the historical account: http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=cybertour.cfm&fileId=9151&frame=3

A village was reported to have been here, WHESH-ud ("splashing water") before the great slide of the 1820s in which a substantial portion of Camano Head (Xweshud) slid into present Possession Sound, causing a great tsunami. Although it has been speculated that the landslide was caused by an earthquake, oral history exists and none of the informants mention earthquake tremors. Tribal people who witnessed this event described how the landslide sent a large wave toward Hat Island, drowning many on its northern shore. An account of the tsunami is published in Colin Twedell's "Historical and Chronological Study of the Snohomish Indian People": "The bluff slid in. People at Hat Island in the early summer morning saw Camano Island bluff smoking; they couldn't see it for the smoke; and there was something black coming toward the, and then they saw it was a wave. They fled to high land. Some of the men and women and some of the children were drowned" (Twedell, 1974).

Washington Department of Ecology has listed the Camano Head landslide as the only known landslide on Puget Sound that generated a tsunami large enough to cause significant loss of life. (Shipman, TsuInfo Alert, Vol. 3, No.6 [ December 2001]). After the fall of Camano Head, the area was avoided by the older tribal people, except for seasonal clamming.

The steel stair the goes to the main living level has a standard rise and run, so it is very comfortable to walk up to the main living level on the second floor.

There are actually two bedrooms on the level with a shared bath.

The ladder folks are refering to is a ship ladder that goes from the main living level to a loft space that is sometimes used as a play area.

Thanks again for all your great comments.

Dan Nelson, Designs Northwest Architects

Dan Nelson

Mass produce & use local materials for use on all Hawaii. Huge demand for such homes on Islands Or form lava rock bunkers or offshore barriers too to housing projects. raise chimney to act as snorkel for home? Link home to other homes & or offshore sensors. Have test community in Hawaii: Oahu, Big Island, Maui, Kauai alone. & have hotel for tourists to tour project alone. Be awesome

Stephen Russell

Dan, Is a very pretty home that's taking advantage of all the wonderful views and natural lighting in the area. A few questions: Is each floor wired to individual boxes (for convenience) ie. if bottom floor floods would that pop the main breaker? If one floors soaked can power be turned on in the rest of the building? Is the wiring sealed or replaceable without tearing up the walls? Are there any roll down or folding shutters for the windows? If not, the folding shutters could be oversized so when closed form a point towards the oncoming water. No offense to the ACoE, but they give a minimum standard. I live in New Orleans, LA and, for example, in certain areas the Corp would require a 3ft elevation for the main floor and 7/16 sheathing nailed every 16in. Ok then we'll build at 5.5ft, use 5/8 sheathing nailed every 12in. Builders/designers have a really difficult product to produce. Make it work and make it attractive. If you didn't have to worry about looks this story would be about a windowless geodome with 18in concrete walls. Phileaux New Orleans


It would depend on the force of the storm, but I liked the design, and I thought that the first floor would make a well designed bungalow,


I have a tsunami proof house. It's in Vegas.


This design may be well planned for this particular location but would not work on most coastlines where extremely high winds would likely accompany the high water. There is far too much glass and frontal area. Heating and cooling would also be a nightmare in hotter or colder climates. While it looks nice, it does not look overly livable. Why not a regular staircase to the upstairs? If a wave sweeps through the lower house that ladder most likely will be gone. As far as adding warmth to the design, those hard chairs and modern furniture along with the straight lines of the architecture didn't make it for me. And one final thought, if you don't know when the wave is coming and you don't make it to the upper safe floor in time, this design is probably as or more dangerous than a regular well constructed house.


Overall I think it looks good, but as with others I'm a little uncertain about the amount of glass facing the ocean.

So how does the price compare with a traditional design?


Hi Phileaux,

All the electrical outlets and switches are located 5'0" above the floor, as is the mechanical system. The Tsunami House is located in a V zone, which is the most stringent flood zone to design for. The main structural design issue is to have walls that can break away when the house is hit by a large wave. The upper level walls and the lower level walls are designed to withstand 85 MPH winds, which is the maximum wind loading we can experience in our region of the country. There are no shutters on the water side but the glass area is designed to withstand 85 MPH winds as well. The exterior envelope is designed as a rain screen system, which is pretty common for our wet climate.

I agree with Bob that this design works well for this location and client. This house was specifically designed for this site and climatic conditions. There may be features that could be adapted to other regions however. As I mentioned before the main point of this house is that it will still be standing if an event like the Army Corp of Engineers describes ever happens, which we all hope never does.

Here is a bit more information about the project: he Tsunami House is a waterfront home located on a 3,140 square foot site in a high velocity flood (V) zone on the northern end of Camano Island. The building footprint was limited to a 30’ x 30’ pad. The 887 square foot main living level had to be located a minimum 5' above grade and the foundations had to be designed on pilings capable of withstanding high velocity tsunami wave action. The lower 748 square foot space had to be designed with walls that were able to break away in the event of a water surge. Our design strategy was to locate the main living level 9' above grade and leave the lower level to be used as a flexible multi use space dubbed the “Flood Room.” Clear glass overhead doors open up to the waterside deck facing north, and translucent overhead doors open to the entry courtyard facing south, allowing privacy from the road. The depth of the lot is only 50' deep and an above ground sand filter drain field directly in front of the house was the only feasible means of handling the septic. In order to integrate the sand filter into the limited site, it was encased in 3' high architectural concrete walls and covered with a pervious sun deck on top of the drain field. The drain field/sun deck also acts as a visual barrier between the road and the house providing privacy when all the overhead doors are open. A steel stair constructed of bent plate steel leads up to the main living area, which is designed as a great room with the kitchen, living, dining, and a 198 square foot third level sleeping loft facing the water. The master bedroom located adjacent to the great room has sliding translucent doors that let light into the space and open up to the water view. The exterior materials of the house are durable and low maintenance. The architectural concrete columns are left exposed and the exterior siding is a mixture of composite and galvanized standing seam panels and aluminum windows. The lower level floor is polished concrete with radiant in floor heat and the ceilings are covered with western red cedar to add warmth to the otherwise industrial feeling of the lower level. The upper level is more refined with porcelain tiles on the floor, western red cedar on the ceiling and a sculptured “wave” plaster panel and milled finished steel trim surrounding the fireplace. The interior ship ladder and loft railings are mill finish steel throughout. References to the natural world are made throughout the interiors.

Take Care, Dan

Dan Nelson

Tsunami wave comes with enermous chunks of debris. Even this house add considerable debris to the flood to mess next house. It has nothing to the with a tsunami. The house should be on 10m debris-flood resistant concrete footing. At least during havoc.

Orhan İrfanoğlu

Yes- "Nature's worst" should be more like "Nature's least"!

There have been tsunami s that were H-UG-E.

The one in Alaska during the Good Friday earthquake wrapped Army trucks around trees like pretzels far from the coast...

The one in Hawaii emptied the harbour before rampaging ashore....

which brings up this simple important point of Tsunamis-

it's not JUST the Water- It's the "Mix-master" effect of several successive waves churning millions of tons of debris.


I remember an old tv ad where the guy is walking up a spiral staircase... "It's a hurricane-proof house! We're not evacuating, we're throwing a hurricane party!"

He gets to the top of the stairs, the camera pans back... all that's left is the metal staircase.

The guy says, "Well,they were wrong. DEAD wrong.... all of them".

The only safe response in a Tsunami is to evacuate.

If you want to save your house, live in a fast boat and be ready to head offshore.

The Tsunami isn't really dangerous until it comes ashore.

As a wave, they don't break in deep water- they are just like a big vertical surge.

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