Sleep in a Translucent Cocoon for $495 a Night

Designed with the help of Harry Gesner, the Autonomous Tent provides a luxurious camping experience in Big Sur, California.
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When Phil Parr wrote a letter explaining to Harry Gesner, Malibu’s famed surfer-cum-architect, that he wanted to build a transportable, five-star boutique hotel, he wasn’t expecting an answer. Parr had worked in the software industry for 20 years and wanted to pursue a project that combined his passions of architecture, art, and nature. He had read an article about Gesner in Dwell some eight years prior. "I was blown away by it," says Parr. "I still have [the issue] and pull it out." To his surprise, Gesner called him the day he received the letter and said he’d love to be involved in the project. Not only was Parr about to fulfill his dream of meeting Gesner, but he would be collaborating with the iconic designer to bring his vision to life.

One of the tenets of Treebones Resort is to build shelters that perch lightly on the land. The Autonomous Tent doesn't require a foundation, instead resting on a deck that is held to the ground with screws. "You look at where you want to point the tent," says Parr. "Then you just draw a line in the dirt and start putting in ground screws."

The two sat in the kitchen at Gesner’s Sandcastle home and lobbed ideas back and forth, focusing first on the foundation and structure before determining size. Parr tended to logistics while Gesner conceptualized the form. "My background is in scaling and automating processes," says Parr. "Harry is the visionary: here’s the shape, here’s the curve. It was a lot of fun."

Years of experimentation and planning have resulted in the Autonomous Tent, available in a Cocoon or Tipi shape. The mobile structure shields inhabitants from the elements with a high-tech, translucent fabric that can withstand hurricane-strength winds and heavy snow. The tent rests on a raised deck and can be dismantled and moved with ease, leaving no trace on the site it occupied. When it was ready, Parr contacted several vacation spots for a place to showcase the tent. In April 2016, the first Cocoon was installed at Treebones Resort in Big Sur, California, a community run by John Handy, his wife Corinne, and their four children. The "glampsite" offers camping, yurts, a human nest, and now the Autonomous Tent, whose arced silhouette seems both futuristic and organic on its hillside perch.

The tent fabric guards against the torrential wind and rain that can sweep through Big Sur. Parr customized the entryway with glass to maximize the oceanfront views. 

"Tents seem to bring out the inner child in people. There’s a sense of freedom that comes with them." -Parr

The Autonomous Tent runs on Treebones Resort's water supply. Solar panels power the LED lights, pumps, water filters, and a composting system.

"It was the greatest opportunity we could have ever hoped for," says Parr, who recruited his friends from Denver, Colorado, to help build the shelter. In many ways, Treebones Resort is the perfect location for the world’s first Autonomous Tent, which shares the lodge’s ethos of minimizing impact on the land, embracing innovation, and cultivating community. "[The Handys] treated us like family. It took a tremendous amount of trust to allow me to do this."

The tent fabric is similar to that used for the Denver International Airport and the San Diego Convention Center. For less temperate climates, Parr is researching translucent insulation.

The Handys had recognized how extraordinary the Autonomous Tent would be, and their guests confirmed this, booking the Cocoon for months in advance as soon as it appeared on the site. Set in a secluded area, the tent’s front deck provides grand views of the sea and a fire pit around which to linger. From here, you can hear whales exhaling spouts of air.

Parr has other projects in the pipeline, and he says that a fascinating part of the process is hearing about his customers’ ideas for the tent, whether it be size or the style of the entryway. Perhaps there is something inherent to the structure that inspires creativity. "Tents seem to bring out the inner child in people," he says. "There’s a sense of freedom that comes with them." 

"As we talk to more people, more ideas come out of the process," says Parr. Though many factors determine price, Cocoons generally cost $100,000 while Tipis are in the ballpark of $200,000. 

The Autonomous Tent is available to book for $495 plus tax per night. To make a reservation, visit the Treebones Resort website.

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