Building ocean ambitions

Building ocean ambitions

Grant Romundt, CEO of Ocean Builders, believes we can set sail, permanently, from our homes on land, opting instead for a lifestyle of unlimited freedom, endless adventure, and eco-positive sustainability at sea.

Ocean Builders, a start-up of staggering ambition, wants you to leave land and live on the sea – free of society’s constraints, free of commotion and congestion, free to do what you want to do in a spectacularly innovative, sleek and self-contained Seapod.

These futuristic units - somewhat akin to giant, floating Earpods – are seasteds; homes on the ocean for people that want to trade in hedges for horizons, and traffic for tranquillity. With a master bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and living room (not to mention optional extras of water patios and landing pads) these predominantly fibreglass pods offer 73 square meters of living space, up to 54 sq. m of panoramic windows, desalination systems, waste incinerators, wearable ‘smart rings’ to control pod systems and unlock doors, and deliveries from autonomous drones and unmanned surface vessels (USVs) should you need medical supplies… or a pizza.

At our current production rate we can make three pods a day

CEO Grant Romundt, is the epitome of calm as he runs through detail after detail. In fact, he’s almost surprised to elicit surprise as he explains what, to him, seems like the next obvious step for mankind.

Grant Romundt, CEO of Ocean Builders
Grant Romundt, CEO of Ocean Builders

“Oh,” he adds, as he squints out the window at the Ocean Builders manufacturing base in Linton Bay, Panama, “we’re just looking into buying a flying car.”

Thai takeaways

Ocean Builders was established by Romundt and his business partners Chad Elwartowski, a software engineer and cryptocurrency trader, and Rüdiger Koch, a retired aerospace engineer. Koch had originally designed a floating platform for launching payloads into space before seeing potential to repurpose the technology to a smaller scale for life below the stars. Elwartowski, a seasted evangelist, helped provide vision and, at a later stage, financial backing.

The first step was made in 2019 when Koch’s semi-submersible design – essentially steel, air-filled tubing that sits below the water, with a conventional anchoring system and central spar holding the unit three meters above sea level – was tested off the coast of Thailand cradling a prototype pod. Elwartowski and his girlfriend promptly moved in.

Unfortunately, a number of weeks later, so did the Royal Thai Navy.

The navy’s belief that this was a sovereign infringement could have, potentially, ended in the death penalty for the seasteders, if they hadn’t escaped in the nick of time. A hasty relocation to the more understanding waters of Panama quickly ensued.

“I’d like to tell you more about this,” says Romundt, who also spent time on the Thai pod, “but I can’t. We’ve signed an exclusive book deal about what unfolded, so there’s only so much I can say.”

Diving in

Looking back out the window at Linton Bay, about two hours’ drive from Panama City, Romundt points to large steel tubing – the central spars are 1.6 meters in diameter, the outer components 1 meter, while the length of the piping is 10 meters – and a finished platform. The platform is for the newly unveiled Ecopod model, a flatter, rounder version of the main Seapod.

“At our current production rate, which can easily be scaled up once we’re complete with testing and so on, we can make three pods a day, and between one and three of the steel frames a week,” Romundt says. “We haven’t fully assembled them and built the interiors as yet, so I won’t make any promises about the final production rate there.

“We’re obviously ambitious, but also honest,” he adds. “The waiting list of interested customers for these is huge, but we’re not going to sell them until they’re ready. We have all the development capital we need, so we’re not selling an idea, we’ll sell the finished product.”

The first completed Seapod will be launched in the bay by the factory, giving interested buyers the chance to climb onboard (there’ll be a walkway to land for easy access to what is essentially a ‘show home’) and, for the lucky ones, stay a night or two.

The waiting list of interested customers for these is huge.

“At the moment a lot of people love the idea, but seem more open to buying them for use on land – and that’s why we’ve launched a land version called the Greenpod,” Romundt explains. “However, as soon as they step foot on one at sea I think it’ll open up a new world of possibilities and freedom for them. There’ll be no going back. And believe me, I know, I lived in a floating community for three and a half years in Toronto and I’m hooked.

“At the moment we work all year for one or two weeks by the sea. Why not reverse that? Go diving in your ‘coral garden’ – come face-to-face with all the ocean life that is attracted to these eco-sustainable seasteds. With the ability to work from anywhere now, as we’ve seen in the pandemic, this is possible. So, why not?”

Romundt says it’s an oceanfront property dream that, with the right pricing, will be accessible to more than just the elite few.

The power to progress

However, it’s worth remembering that utopias are imagined. How can something so seemingly appealing, such a fine balance of the futuristic and simplistic, work in the real world?

Even if Ocean Builders can design and deliver these pods, and they’re as secure as possible (designed stability is for waves of up to 5 meters, although Romundt says they would always recommend installation in calm waters) how can practical everyday challenges be solved? For example, these homes demand power, especially if they’re going to be inhabited by digital nomads and cryptocurrency traders, and you can hardly plug into the nearest coral reef.

At the moment we work all year for one or two weeks by the sea. Why not reverse that?

“Each unit needs 32 kilowatt-hour per day to run and, initially at least, solar power is the way to go as we have off-the-shelf products,” he explains. “However, the panels impact the look of the station so we’re aiming to limit their use and develop a mix of solutions. For example, we’ve just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a partner delivering wave energy. They have a basketball size unit that will hang off the bottom of the pod and create supplementary power. At present, they only produce around 4 watt a day, as its early-stage R&D, but we’re going to collaborate with them to scale-up. That’s how we work – partnering with other pioneers to solve problems, rather than letting them hinder progress.”

The team has taken the same approach with the wearable smart rings (partnering with Looptronics) and smart showers (developing with ShowerLoop to create a system with 90 percent less water use), while it taps into in-house and opensource expertise to tailor its own solutions for the AI-enabled air and surface drone systems. It seems like nothing, not even the Thai Navy now they’re in liberal Panama, can get in their way.

But Romundt’s idealism is tempered by realism. “We have to take this one step at a time,” he cautions.

Future developments

Romundt says that some of his clearly libertarian-orientated customers would like to position the Seapods “1,000 kilometers out in the ocean”, but that isn’t on the horizon for these early generation developments.

Initially, he reveals, while confidence and future regulatory acceptance grows, the pods will be installed in communities relatively close to land. The first pod will be just meters from the shore, as noted, with the next few nestling next to an island around a kilometer from the factory. Another local Panamanian island, set to host around four or five units, will follow closely after. All of these will be served by the drone systems, which can offer secure deliveries of everything from groceries to defibrillators, via a paid-for monthly scheme. 

Romundt reveals that plans for a “mega-development” approximately 5 km from land are currently underway, but that it’s too early to reveal details at the time of writing.

Unlimited horizons

And these further afield locations are where the flying cars come in?

Romundt counters the obvious sense of disbelief with his easy, trademark ‘anything is possible’ mentality:

“Yes, I can’t think of a better user test case for flying cars than Seapods,” he states. “They can land on the platforms we offer for deliveries and bypass any regulations that stop them flying over land. They could work as an enabler for this new way of living. A way of living that opens up another 70 percent of the Earth’s surface for us to inhabit. And inhabit sustainably. Something we need now more than ever.”

Romundt smiles one last time, eyes narrowing in the sunlight pouring in through his window by the bay.

“Look,” he says with a small laugh. “If I told you how many people I think will be living at sea within the next decade you’d think I was mad – so, I’m not going to give you that number. But let’s just say this is happening. This is a new beginning.

“Step onboard a Seapod soon and you’ll understand.”

Seapods: Home away from home

  • Construction: Fibreglass, gel coating, foam, with a steel and concrete spar and foundation
  • Living space: 73 sq. m over two and half floors
  • Rooms: One master bedroom, toilet (with methane powered jet incinerator for waste), kitchen, living room, with optional outside water patio (increasing living space by 20 percent)
  • Energy and consumption: 2 kwh per day requirement, initial generation through solar power/mixed ‘Invisible’ wireless charging installed, integrated energy-efficient marine-grade IP-67 LED lighting
  • Water: Desalination for drinking water, intelligent water recycling reduces consumption by up to 90 percent compared to conventional systems. Storage capacity of 1,400 litres
  • Windows: 360-degree panoramic windows, UV-tinted, mirror effect from outside
  • Architect/aquatect: Koen Olthuis
  • Eco-restorative: Intended as ‘fish aggregation devices’ to help attract wildlife to subsurface structures
  • Available models: Seapod, Ecopod and Greenpod (land-based)

See Ocean Builder's website for more details.

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