A pair of veteran boaters make life on the water a full-time gig, with a 24-hour wildlife show included.
By Marisa Spyker
1 of 8Photo: Lu Tapp; styling: Max Humphrey
Not many people can say they live on the water and mean it literally. But Bill and LauraLee Symes can, thanks to their shingle-style cottage that shares an address with fish, bald eagles, and otters on the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. It's part of a small floating-home community called the Oregon Yacht Club, which dates to 1900 and was originally a traditional yacht club with a clubhouse, sailboat races, and swimming events.
"We're both big sailors and had always thought it looked like an interesting place to live," says Bill. "But I think it was my wife's persistence that eventually sold us. She managed the Willamette Sailing Club across the river and would see these beautiful new homes being tugged to the community, so she just fell in love." Here, more on why they traded in their sprawling terrestrial home for a compact floating paradise.
Pictured: The two-story floating home sits in a slip along the Willamette River, with a red balau deck that doubles as a boat launch for kayaks and paddleboards.
2 of 8Photo: Lu Tapp; styling: Max Humphrey
Pictured: LauraLee and Bill share their cedar-shingle cottage with their bichon frise, Lucy. The door is painted Noir by Pratt & Lambert.
Q&A with Homeowers and Designers LauraLee and Bill Symes
CL: It seems pretty dreamy to live in a house that floats. What's the catch?
LauraLee Symes: Well, the most surprising perk is that you become an integral part of the environment and of the river itself. We're constantly surrounded by beautiful wildlife; there are a couple of families of bald eagles that live behind our house, and otters regularly swim up to our docks. It's the cutest thing. But you asked about the catch: The difficult part is when they decide to move in. We've had Canada geese laying eggs, and otters hanging around and eating shellfish on our dock. That can smell a little!
CL: In what ways is building a home on land different than building one designed on the water?
Bill Symes: It was actually surprisingly straightforward in terms of construction. Any material you can use on land you can use for a floating home. Ours is built on a log float and chained to pilings, much like a dock would be. We were limited in height and footprint, of course, because you can only fit so much on a float. Most homes here are around 2,000 square feet—some are pushing 3,000—but you can't get much bigger than that.
4 of 8Photo: Lu Tapp; styling: Max Humphrey
Sleek Cottage Kitchen
Pictured: A high-gloss ceramic tile backsplash reflects plenty of sunlight in the kitchen. The open shelving is stainless steel.
CL: How did you make the most of your limited space?
LS: We really wanted an open first-floor plan, not only because it makes everything seem larger but also because it means that everyone can be together when we entertain. For storage, we carved out several built-ins—including a wine fridge and a dining room buffet with drawers—and added a hidden closet underneath the stairs. And because we don't have a garage or basement, we put our utilities in the attic.
5 of 8Photo: Lu Tapp; styling: Max Humphrey
White and Blue Dining Room
Pictured: The lighting in the dining room is by Crate and Barrel, and the guitar is Bill's Martin D18. "He serenades me while I cook breakfast," says LauraLee with a laugh.
CL: Portland is anything but traditional in architectural style, yet the shingle-style design of this home is so classic. Where did your inspiration come from?
BS: In the course of our research, we came across a book showcasing the beautiful boathouses of Lake Muskoka in Ontario, Canada, and it became a huge inspiration for us. It seemed to us the perfect style for a home on the river. We are surprised there are so few others like it in the area. We're hoping to start a trend!
CL: The city is also known for being a bit gray, but this house is filled with so much light. What's your secret?
LS: That was a concern we had, especially because the design has this roofline that extends well past the windows, which I was worried would make the house dark. But Peter, the architect, focused on where the sun was going to be at different times of the day, and flared the eves in a way that would take advantage of that light. Plus, the windows bring in light from two sides, so it feels like summer in here even on the darkest of days.
6 of 8Photo: Lu Tapp; styling: Max Humphrey
River View Master Bedroom
Pictured: In the master bedroom, the owners awake to sweeping river views. The plaid reading chair is by Schoolhouse Electric Co.
CL: As owners of a flower shop just up the road [Sellwood Flower Company], is it hard to be without a lawn or garden to work in?
LS: It's funny because a lot of people here buy hundreds of plants and keep them in pots on their deck, but I wanted to do less of that because it's what I do every day at work. One thing we did, though, was install a planter that runs the length of the float that borders Fleet Street [a floating sidewalk residents use to get from land to their houses] and plant camellia and star jasmine. It creates a charming wall of greenery that provides a little privacy in the courtyard outside the kitchen.
7 of 8Photo: Lu Tapp; styling: Max Humphrey
Cozy Bunk Room
Pictured: A built-in guest bunk is tucked into the eaves in a small studio upstairs. The rug is by Rejuvenation.
CL: What's the most interesting waterbound vehicle you've seen from your house?
BS: We live on a channel right across from the sailing club, so it's become a part of our routine after work to just sit on the dock with a cocktail and watch the world go by. We've seen dragon boat races, rowing team practices, and a sternwheeler that gives tours right off our moorage. Sometimes it seems like it's about to come in straight through the front door!
CL: Have you ever had a "man overboard" situation?
LS: Thankfully, not yet. But our dog, Lucy, has: I think she was bummed I didn't take her paddleboarding with me, and she fell right in!