The Tsunami House

For as long as I can remember, I have been a bit of a hypochondriac. I’m a chronic WebMDer and far too easily convinced that a caffeine headache is a sign of brain cancer. I’m constantly worried sick (quite literally) and often walk into the doctor’s office already bracing myself for my certain demise.

Besides this Achilles tendon in my otherwise fearless demeanor, I tend to take life as it comes. However, on a plane ride a while back I watched “The Impossible”. To make a fairly short story even shorter – it scared the crap out of me. The movie is about a Tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004. While in this movie (spoiler alert), the main characters are all miraculously reunited and safe, it came to my attention that if I was by any shoreline I should be able to outrun a 10ft wave at a moment’s notice. Needless to say, I’ve since conquered my newfound apprehension of the beach thanks to a few too many margaritas and the lure of seeing the occasional in-shape American. That being said, when I came across this architectural project called the “Tsunami House”, I had to research further.

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The Tsunami House, as it has been dubbed by its creator, is a concept house located on Washington’s Camano Island. Camano Island was part of a tsunami-like incident and resulting devastation in 1820. The actual disaster was a result of a landslide that occurred on Camano Island, which sent a large wave towards nearby Hat Island, destroying homes. Today, Camano Island is situated not far from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, one of the largest faults in North America. For this reason, the island is considered a FEMA velocity high flood zone. Today Camano Island has roughly 13,000 residents.

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Inspired by the town’s history, Dan Nelson of Designs Northwest Architects built an experimental “weatherproof” home. The home is located right on the waterfront and is comprised of 3,140 square feet. What is unique about the home? Well, for starters, it allows water to flow right through it. The ground floor is fondly called the “flood room” and is what gives the house a fighting chance against unfriendly waters. By having a floor that allows water to come through, it gives storms a chance to take “the path of least resistance”. The flood room will act as a multi-purpose room for the home’s owners and is furnished with durable outdoor furniture (as well as constructed of entirely waterproof materials).

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A steel frame supports the home, along with some strategically placed pillars. The gaps between pillars are then filled with clear glass instead of drywall, due to the fact that this allows them to break with ease in case of flooding. Thanks to the pillars, the main living area (including a kitchen, living room and dining room) is located about 9 feet from ground level and constructed in line with FEMA’s standards. Adding to its safety qualifications, all of the electrical, heating and plumbing are run five feet above ground level to prevent damage in case of a storm. There is also a sand filter drain carefully disguised on the exterior of the home. The house is predicted to be able to stand waves up to 8 feet tall, a 7.8 scale earthquake and 85 mph lateral winds.

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The home itself is about 30 feet tall, and features two stories (plus a small loft). When comparing the home to other weather resistant homes, Nelson says “…even though the buildings there use the same principle as the one we designed, they basically don’t do more than put a house on stilts. What we’ve shown is that you can make a home that can withstand disasters and also look beautiful.” After looking at a few pictures of the home, it is easy to see what Nelson is talking about. The main level features gorgeous porcelain tile floors and red cedar wood ceilings. The 7-year project also boasts beautiful views of Puget Sound.

Nelson specializes in waterfront homes, and has received a huge amount of interest after completing this project – which was brought to life by a team of 5 engineers, architects and designers. While no house is truly tsunami, earthquake or weatherproof, his house takes leaps in the right direction. Potential clients from New Jersey, looking to re-design their own home after experiencing Hurricane Sandy, have even contacted Nelson about potential future project plans.

Nelson is not the only one in the area bracing for the potential of a future storm. The coastal city of Westport has just voted to fund a project that will turn an elementary school into the first ‘tsunami-resistant’ shelter. By 2015, the school’s deck is anticipated to be able to hold about 1500 evacuees in case of emergency.

While a few margaritas may have me taunting the oceans, it is comforting to see that there is someone else who distrusts the notion that a few skinny stilts holding up a beach house should be accepted as a safety precaution. I think it’s safe to say that I would live in this house on a tsunami day…but preferably on a sunny day, overlooking the Puget Sound (*with a margarita).

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