All they needed was a storage shed for life jackets and oars. So how did this Washington family end up with a waterside cottage?

By Abigail B. Millwood
September 11, 2008
Roger Davies; styling by Donna Pizzi

At their family home overlooking Washington's Henderson Bay, Sue and Mark Hoffman enjoy a little slice of paradise. They're right on the water and they can see Mount Rainier from their lofty living room. On sunny days, the couple and their three grown children―Elizabeth, Nick, and Amy―trek down to the bulkhead for a relaxing afternoon by the bay. For years, there was just one drawback: the 50-foot climb from the platform back up to the house. "Whenever we'd get settled by the water, someone would have to go to the bathroom or get something from the fridge," Sue says. "It was always our dream to have something [close to the water] so we could spend the whole day, or even the night if we wanted."

The plan was simple: All the Hoffmans needed was a basic storage structure. Nothing fancy, just a place to keep life jackets, sails, and a few cold drinks. Instead, the project grew into a waterfront cottage―complete with a kitchen, bath, and sleeping loft―that the family built with their own hands. "The time it took to build it should be measured by carbon dating rather than a calendar," Sue says.

With all three children in college at the time, Sue and Mark wanted to stick to a tight budget. They set a goal to build the boathouse entirely from on-hand materials. Thanks to Mark's business as a contractor and their 19 acres of wooded property, they faced no shortage of supplies. When the family needed wood for rafters and framing, they simply cut, skinned, and sanded logs from their land.

The available supplies weren't always as glamorous as Sue had imagined. "I envisioned beaded board, but we had all this plywood around," she says. The Hoffmans used the plywood throughout the house, staining the floors dark to hide imperfections. Mark and Nick gave the walls a board-and-batten look, and Sue painted them bright blue. "When I proposed blue for the interior walls, the whole family said it was crazy," she says. "But bright colors are so cheerful, and they counterbalance the gray weather we can get."

To spotlight the cabin's spectacular location, Mark and Nick designed a sliding barn door that opens half of the bayfront wall to the deck―perfect for relaxing on the couch and taking in the view. "We have such great weather in September when it's cool," Sue says. "We like watching football with the door wide open and the woodstove blasting away."

More than a decade after they first dreamed of the boathouse, the Hoffmans can appreciate the fruits of their labor. Whether sailing or fly-fishing, watching wildlife or hosting a party, the family always finds a reason to while away the hours over the water. "The kids and their friends really enjoy having the boathouse as an outpost to spend the night, and we have so many friends who live on the water and come by in their boats to have a glass of wine," Sue says. "But maybe best of all is sitting on the deck, just reading and enjoying the quiet, and then hearing a boat slow and the boaters say, 'Look; isn't that a cute boathouse?' And then we can pat ourselves on the back."

Although the family no longer faces the dreaded uphill hike to the house, one problem remains. "Trying to store all of the sailing equipment and life jackets is still a challenge," Sue admits. "Next time we'll have to build a storage shed where we actually store stuff."