Docksiders

For this coast-loving couple, a short drive from suburban Seattle wasn't close enough to the water--they prefer to live atop it.

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Carlson Houseboat

Michael Jensen
 

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One sun-drenched April morning, fishermen did a double take at a two-story house being towed into Lake Union, its owners waving and enjoying champagne. The on-deck couple, Rune and Susan Carlson, toasted their gleaming home, corking along as though it were a schooner. Then they raised a glass to friends in this Seattle community.

Houseboating here is changing. It used to be a venture in frugal living-the dwellings more cabin than castle. But houseboaters these days are doing what people in the suburbs have done for years: building as much house as legally and financially possible. Some, like the Carlsons, build off-site in Canada, where the American dollar buys more house, then float the finished product into place.

Before they built this new home, the Carlsons spent two years traipsing through grand houses with lawns. "We tried to imagine ourselves in a traditional neighborhood," says Susan. "Then we realized what was missing: water. High-rises and land houses just didn't have enough connection to it. The only thing that did was a houseboat."

Seattle's houseboats first appeared around 1895. The mostly flimsy stick houses on log floats served as inexpensive housing for fishermen, mill workers, and loggers. But by the early '70s, shoreline uses were restricted and the number of houseboats limited. That's when prices began to soar.

Today, 487 permanent Seattle houseboats remain, most on Lake Union, which laps against downtown. Many retain vestiges of the quirky shanties from which they evolved, and some have been remodeled so many times that buyers feel they've lost all sense of proportion and usefulness. "It was like, instead of being planned, they just rose up from the version they had before, like sourdough," says Rune.

Because there are no more slots available for building, the Carlsons bought a fixer-upper and lived in it until they could float their new home into place. They mixed easily into the close-knit community and began drawing up plans.

Researching design ideas, the couple found inspiration in the upscale boathouses on Lake Muskoka in Ontario, Canada. That community, which also dates back a century, consists mostly of summer cottages tethered to the shore by docks. Many began as covered moorages for the vintage runabouts of city dwellers who used the lake as a getaway. Eventually the owners built living quarters upstairs. Though the Carlsons' home doesn't allow a mahogany launch to slip inside, it does reflect the crisp Lake Muskoka style-dark horizontal siding, graceful white deck railings and lintels, plenty of peaks and gables. Nearly every cranny has a view.

Visitors step off the floating dock into a midlevel entry leading upstairs to a great room that incorporates living and dining areas, a library, and a kitchen. Sturdy white columns, rather than walls, keep interiors from feeling cramped. Downstairs are two bedrooms and baths, a workshop, a laundry room, and swimming decks. The house is wired with as many technological gewgaws as the Carlsons would ever want. During the design stage, the couple would climb out on the old houseboat's roof with a camera to document where the sun shone in various seasons and at different times of day. It helped them determine window locations in the new house to catch as much winter sunlight as possible. They also measured the wind that sweeps across the lake to help them place decks for maximum protection.

The changes in Seattle's houseboat community haven't been lost on Peter Longwood, a U.S. representative for the Carlsons' builder, International Marine Floatation Systems. "People used to build houseboats out of anything they could fish out of the water. Nowadays people want to live on water but they don't want to put up with the damp and cold."

What hasn't changed is the neighborliness the Carlsons toasted that April day their houseboat arrived from Canada. While one crew was docking the new house, their old one was being floated to another dock to become the home of Ozell Gaines, who lost his houseboat in a fire. With this donation, he just needed the necessary permits and a saw to trim the deck to fit the footprint of his old place. "It was very fortunate for me the Carlsons came along when they did," he says. "I know things change. But what happened to me was really a miracle."

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