Designer builds floating off-grid "tsunami-proof" shelter in his backyard


March 25, 2014

The Tsunamiball is the sole work of designer Chris Robinson (Photo: Chris Robinson)

The Tsunamiball is the sole work of designer Chris Robinson (Photo: Chris Robinson)

Image Gallery (52 images)

Following the tsunami that hit Japan in March, 2011, designer Chris Robinson was inspired to create an escape pod to ensure he and his family could survive if such a disaster were to occur in his home city of Palo Alto, California. After some two years of painstaking design and construction, his floating off-grid shelter, dubbed Tsunamiball, is nearing completion.

The Tsunamiball brings to mind both the Tsunami House and the Exbury Egg, but while both those projects were designed with input from specialists in their respective fields, Robinson had no prior boat building experience and fly solo on the project.

The planning process began slowly and involved lighthearted conversations between friends, concerning what a family would need to survive during a tsunami. Eventually, Robinson settled on the idea of a floating escape vessel that essentially works as a simple – and hopefully very tough – boat.

The actual construction has so far largely involved a process of trial-and-error, with Robinson learning as he goes. The structure measures 6 x 3 x 2.5 m (22 x 10 x 8.5 ft), and the main building material is plywood, as steel was deemed too difficult to work with.

Since the biggest challenge is not the vessel's buoyancy, but ensuring it can withstand the impact of debris, the outer hull comprises 6.4 cm (2.5 inch) thick marine-grade plywood. This plywood is covered by an abrasion-resistant polyester material and joined with epoxy to offer a toughness that Robinson likens to Kevlar.

The floating shelter includes a captain's window and several portholes, and once construction is complete, will feature a total of 60 layers of wood in a bid to ensure durability. Though standard screws were initially used to bring the wood together, they were then removed in favor of plastic staples designed specifically for boat building.

The Tsunamiball is still very much a work in progress, but Robinson informed Gizmag that future plans include flexible solar panels which will be hooked up to an array of seaworthy batteries, an electric motor, and a compostable toilet. In addition, the interior will feature bench seating with five point harnesses that fold into beds, plus some hammock seating. There will also be a small electric stove, kitchen area, and ample storage.

Robinson expects to complete work later this year, and will then test Tsunamiball's efficacy as thoroughly as possible by first floating it in a swimming pool, then dropping it into the ocean for a few hours, moving the structure with the help of a crane and flatbed truck.

Once testing is complete, the plan is for the Tsunamiball to be installed above Robinson's garage, ready for use should the admittedly very unlikely scenario of a tsunami hitting Palo Alto occur. Until then, it will serve as a guest-room and perhaps an AIRbnb too.

We'll check in on Robinson in a few months once he's finished the project. In the meantime, the image gallery details the construction step-by-step, and there are plenty of great blog posts detailing the project on the source link below.

Source: Tsunamiball

About the Author
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

Well . . . at least he's not sitting on his couch watching re runs of the Gong Show.

Jimmy the Geek

This thing is round right? Capsule shape. I would like to read more about how the designer thinks this vessel will respond when it is hit hard by waves and debris. Clearly this thing won't remain upright when it is shoved along by water over a debris field.

It is likely to roll and tumble along, pushed under even although hopefully the buoyancy will keep it float on top of the churning water.

Benches won't cut it. The inhabitants will be smashed to pieces inside the intact capsule. I imagine strong tight fitting seats are needed with 5 point harnesses because the occupants will be in for a hell of a ride.

A good test would be to throw the capsule into the surf on a beach with 2 meter waves. Let it be pushed and rolled along a bit.

No lose items inside and if they test it this way. Please put a GoPro camera inside. Love to see the effect. Ha ha ha

Paul van Dinther

A tough conventional boat looks like a better option but a submersible bunker looks safer as well even if digging out is problematic. just make sure the door opens in and you have good cutting tools.


Another option is to move to a higher place, or be prepared to drive towards higher area.


kitchen, toilet, beds,... how long is he planning to drift with tsunami? ridiculous design :) Drop it from Niagara Falls with some G-force sensors mounted inside, that would be interesting. I would rather prefer something more like space capsules rather than this tree house :)


If he had used all that time and money to build a BOAT instead of a helpless floating tube he might have actually had something that was useful for the 99.99999% of the time when a tsunami is NOT hitting.

Anyone inside that thing he built would be killed or severely injured after rolling around and banging into everything inside. The only way I would ever consider going into something like that would be if it had race car harnesses built into the sides so I could strap myself in -- and of course everything in it would have to be securely attached to the structure as well so it doesn't break off and kill me while I am stuck in the harness.

This is one of the most ridiculous wastes of time, money and energy I have ever seen on Gizmag. I sure wish I had had this guy's money to build a boat because I could have built a great one for what this guy has invested already.


A sphere would be the best design

Leonard Foster

Do people actually read before they criticize? "bench seating with five point harnesses". The back seats of ordinary cars are bench seats.

Robinson deserves credit for his ability to translate an idea into (hopefully) functioning reality, but it's taking the long way around. It would be easier to accomplish the same thing by starting with a commercially available life raft & reinforcing the hull.

That leaves the question of why someone would want something so specialized to begin with. Palo Alto is located on the Bay side of the San Francisco Peninsula.


it will take so trial and error, I can see where it may need some add weigh to lower the center of gravity. And could be incorporated to a building design

Reggie McNair

You are a master craftsman, the detail is outstanding....a yellow paint and play the "Beatles" "yellow submarine" and we're all set ! LOL just kidding, Truly impressive build.


Interesting project.

One problem he'll certainly face (should this prove more than an excuse to build an unconventional guest room outside zoning controls) is that, even if he ballasts the base of the vessel, without some sort of stabilising strakes or keel the thing will roll like a whale. The occupants may survive but after a few hours they'll certainly WISH that they hadn't!


This is quite an interesting design and looks very sturdy. I'm sure it cost a fortune and took many hours of hard work. Still it looks more artistic than practical. For the intended purpose, a buried underground tank with a sealable door would have been cheaper and would provide shelter from several types of disasters. This project looks a little more suited for Noah. But then most of the world laughed at Noah and we know how that ended. Hopefully, he won't be five seconds late if a tsunami does come.


While most are keen on pointing out its inability to stay upright in water, I'll point out that most boats that got hit by the tsunamis were obliterated;

But my concern is whether or not anyone would like living in that.


Haha, what happens to the AirBnB customer when the tsunami comes? That would make for a pretty negative review ...if they survive.


@ Nitrozzy7 Most the boats weren't occupied. There is a big difference in a boat being controlled and one just drifting.

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