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

By Sally MacDonald
March 13, 2003
Michael Jensen

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

Houseboating here is changing. It used to be a venture in frugalliving-the dwellings more cabin than castle. But houseboaters thesedays 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 Americandollar buys more house, then float the finished product intoplace.

Before they built this new home, the Carlsons spent two yearstraipsing through grand houses with lawns. "We tried to imagineourselves in a traditional neighborhood," says Susan. "Then werealized what was missing: water. High-rises and land houses justdidn't have enough connection to it. The only thing that did was ahouseboat."

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

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

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

Researching design ideas, the couple found inspiration in theupscale boathouses on Lake Muskoka in Ontario, Canada. Thatcommunity, which also dates back a century, consists mostly ofsummer cottages tethered to the shore by docks. Many began ascovered moorages for the vintage runabouts of city dwellers whoused the lake as a getaway. Eventually the owners built livingquarters upstairs. Though the Carlsons' home doesn't allow amahogany launch to slip inside, it does reflect the crisp LakeMuskoka style-dark horizontal siding, graceful white deck railingsand lintels, plenty of peaks and gables. Nearly every cranny has aview.

Visitors step off the floating dock into a midlevel entryleading upstairs to a great room that incorporates living anddining areas, a library, and a kitchen. Sturdy white columns,rather than walls, keep interiors from feeling cramped. Downstairsare two bedrooms and baths, a workshop, a laundry room, andswimming decks. The house is wired with as many technologicalgewgaws as the Carlsons would ever want. During the design stage,the couple would climb out on the old houseboat's roof with acamera to document where the sun shone in various seasons and atdifferent times of day. It helped them determine window locationsin the new house to catch as much winter sunlight as possible. Theyalso measured the wind that sweeps across the lake to help themplace decks for maximum protection.

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

What hasn't changed is the neighborliness the Carlsons toastedthat April day their houseboat arrived from Canada. While one crewwas docking the new house, their old one was being floated toanother dock to become the home of Ozell Gaines, who lost hishouseboat in a fire. With this donation, he just needed thenecessary permits and a saw to trim the deck to fit the footprintof his old place. "It was very fortunate for me the Carlsons camealong when they did," he says. "I know things change. But whathappened to me was really a miracle."