The notion of living by the water is, for many, irresistible. But over the past few years there has been a growing fascination with the idea of living on it, too. The design of a new breed of floating homes is sophisticated and photogenic, overthrowing the image of the traditional houseboat with spacious layouts, plenty of natural light, strong connections to the waterscape and an abundance of outdoor terraces and decks. These floating houses boast striking and original architecture, combining modern exteriors with beautifully crafted interiors every bit as desirable as those in their land-locked counterparts. Their construction borrows expertise from boatbuilders and shipmakers, yet they are highly accomplished in their own right.
In Holland, architectural designers Piet and Karin Boon have created a floating house for clients who had already commissioned residences in the Netherlands as well as on the Caribbean island of Bonaire. Piet Boon describes the building, clad in vertical strips of red cedar, as a “wooden jewellery box” moored in a seductive waterland, surrounded by greenery and yachts.
The walls of the main living spaces – with their organic, crafted finishes and containing bespoke sofas and furniture – fold back to give a sense of connection to the natural beauty of the location. The bespoke building has a lower‑level hull that allows for bedrooms in the hollow basement, partly below the water line, while the living spaces and kitchen benefit from the light and vistas up above. An adjoining terrace has been created on land, and the family boat is moored alongside.
“Materials, colour and the shape of the house were selected to be in harmony with the natural landscape,” says Boon, who has worked on other floating homes. “When the windows are open you can really enjoy nature.”
The owners call the house their “summer heaven”; the family love to sail and row, and “summers in the Netherlands are the time of year to spend close to the water”. Says one: “We are spoilt by the design. It does feel like a little jewel box – cosy, intimate and almost Japanese in style.”
In Seattle, there are about 500 floating homes and houseboats moored on the shores of the city and its surroundings. Few are as impressive as Tim Carlander’s design for a three-storey houseboat, berthed on a dock of eight waterborne dwellings. Carlander collaborated with a naval architect, a structural engineer and a float builder to ensure the house would be both stable and watertight. The hollow concrete flotation base forms a storage and service basement, with bedrooms at water level and living spaces above, plus a generous roof deck supplemented by terraces on the lower floors. The house is clad in hard-wearing, low-maintenance aluminium and fibre‑cement boards.
“I think there is a lot of potential for floating homes,” says Carlander, who lives in one himself. “Architecturally, I am pleased with the coherence of the design, and the quality of natural light in the main spaces is wonderful – for most of the year you don’t need to turn on the lights.”
On Lake Huron, in Canada, advertising agency CEO Doug Worple and his wife Becca, a photographer, commissioned an extraordinary floating home and boathouse from New York-based architects MOS. The family, who live and work in Barcelona, had been holidaying on the lake for many years and decided to buy a small island with two derelict cottages and a crumbling boathouse. Changing water heights on the lake made the idea of a static replacement for the boathouse difficult, but a floating structure could easily accommodate the shifting levels. The project grew to include decks and living spaces on an upper level, including a lounge, galley kitchen and bedroom. Now it serves as the main family base while they are on the island – a place from which all can make the most of the water.
“We boat, tube, waterski, swim, fish, canoe, kayak, sail,” says Doug Worple. “We love being on and in the water. The boathouse has an amazing living space, but the building started as a place to keep the boat, which is an absolute necessity of living here. It is amazing – the sounds, the breeze all work together to make this the most relaxing place in the world for our family. Waking up to an amazing sunrise is hard to beat.”
There is also a main house on the island and a guest cottage, but the boathouse is where the family spend the majority of their time. The basic structure of the house was built off site using custom-made pontoons and then towed to the island. The exteriors are clad in a rainscreen of western red cedar, giving the house an organic quality that blends with the landscape.
In western Ontario, 5468796 Architecture has also played with the boathouse idea with its Guertin Boatport, creating a contemporary open dock at water level with a lounge space and elevated terrace above that can be used for entertaining and barbecues, as well as a sheltered zone for drinking in the scenery.
But most of the new generation of floating homes are designed to be used as permanent bases rather than as holiday houses. They may look picturesque, but they also help address some more serious concerns with waterside locations, such as flood risk and rising water levels caused by climate change. In the UK, Baca Architects has been working on concepts and designs for floating houses for the past eight years. It has planning consent for 25 luxury floating homes in Essex, but has also just started building a hybrid floating house by the Thames, near Marlow, replacing a derelict riverside bungalow.
The Amphibious House is a bespoke, three-storey home, which, rather than being moored by the river, will be fixed in place inside a snug-fit dock excavated within the riverbank site. During high water or floods the house will begin to float upwards, while held in position by four guideposts, but will give the owners the feel of a contemporary, land-based home. It’s a way of neatly managing the hazards of living by the waterfront and overcoming planning restrictions on flood-risk locations. Baca began developing the idea of amphibious homes while working on a design for a flood-proof community in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, and suggests this will be the first “can-float” house in the UK.
“We have always dreamed of living in a house by the Thames,” says the Baca client, who expects to move into the floating home next year. “The beautiful setting convinced us that we could build our dream home and that we just needed to find a solution. That led us towards floating technology and the Amphibious House. We’re looking forward to sipping our first glass of wine on our terrace and watching the rowers go past.”
In Holland, where floating-home design has progressed rapidly, Dutch architects are becoming increasingly ambitious. Whole floating communities are now a reality, and harbours and docks are being seen as a way of adding to the stock of space available for new homes.
Architect Marlies Rohmer has designed an entire village of contemporary floating houses at Steigereiland Ijburg in Amsterdam, peppered with jetties and boat docks. The development consists of 75 houses, completed last year, some fixed on the banks of the dykes and some floating, pushing out onto the water. The houses are three storeys, with basement levels partially under the waterline and terraces on the upper floors. The floating homes were fabricated offsite and then towed into position by barge and hooked up to mains services that run along the mooring jetties. There is plenty of glass to the front of the buildings, creating a strong connection with the water vistas. In the warmer months the harbour becomes an aquatic playground.
“It’s one of the largest developments of floating houses in Holland completed by a single architectural practice,” says Rohmer, whose work was influenced by a period living on a houseboat. “I don’t think we should build these structures on the outskirts of cities like Amsterdam, where they could create traffic problems, but we should create more floating homes in urban areas, like former harbours.”
Architect Koen Olthuis has become known as “the floating Dutchman” after setting up Waterstudio in 2003, specialising in floating buildings. In addition to water developments in Amsterdam’s Ijburg district, it has designed 600 floating homes for the Dutch city of Westland, with construction under way. Olthuis is also working on an ambitious floating villa resort in the Maldives, with houses made in the Netherlands and transported to the site. There are plans for another floating hotel as well as a separate floating golf course here, where rising sea levels are a worry.
“I think the challenge is to minimise the difference in look and feel between houses with a normal foundation and ones with a floating foundation,” says Olthuis, who has seen growing interest at the top of the market, as well as in larger scale developments. “It is much more exciting to design buildings on water, not because the architecture has to be different but because floating buildings can be relocated, added to, reused or resold. It provides the opportunity for dynamic communities that can react more easily to change.”
As Olthuis suggests, existing floating homes and houseboats can also be reinvented. That’s exactly what Denise Draper did with her own house in Portage Bay, Seattle. She bought a floating home 12 years ago but found it lacking in style and too dark inside for her tastes. So a few years ago she turned to Ninebark Studio, which completely remade the house in contemporary fashion. Ninebark recycled the existing cedar pontoon floats – which were around 80 years old – but the rest of the house was “deconstructed” and the remaining raft towed to a working dock to be reshaped in its new image.
“The contemporary design that emerged between Denise and us was more a product of the space that she wanted to live in, with open, well-lit areas and an easy flow from room to room,” says architect Ryan Mankoski of Ninebark. “Aesthetically, we were most pleased by the sense of connection that you feel with the lake when you are in the house, not only visually but also the sounds and movement of the structure in the water.”
The new house has the feel of a floating pavilion, with large banks of glazing at front and back protected by an envelope of Cor‑Ten steel and cedar, with space enough for a rooftop deck. Draper’s home suggests that if you can’t build a floating home from scratch, then reinventing some of the existing stock could be a great alternative.
“The view and the light are wonderful and it feels very spacious,” says Draper. “I enjoy just looking at it and I am simply drawn to water. I will always visit the beach, the river or the docks wherever I go. Here on the houseboat I love the nearness of nature as well as the continual parade of interesting things, such as boats and barges that go by. And I can’t leave out the motion – there’s nothing quite like being gently rocked to sleep.”