The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1576] Seattle's Houseboat Community: Merging History with Design for the Future

United States

I hear the crunch of pebbled gravel as my red fiberglass kayak scrapes the shore. Pushing off the bottom with my paddle I head out to the open water. It’s raining, and the sun tries desperately to break through the overcast grey sky. This is typical weather and though it might appear dreary to others, it is oddly comforting to me and to many who live here. My kayak glides easily over the calm water, which is reflecting the same color as the sky. Everywhere on the land around me, there is green and it is the year-round lush greenery of the land, which punctuates the grey and makes our region so beautiful.

I have called this city, Seattle, home my entire life. It is located on the Puget Sound, which emerges from the vast Pacific Ocean and snakes through the land, creating a unique network of islands, canals and interconnected landmass. Bordered by the grand Olympic and Cascade Mountain ranges to the East and West and surrounded by the waters of the Puget Sound, we are in constant cadence with our environment. That is the essence of Seattle; we are a port city that is both enclosed by nature and open to the rest of the world. This bountiful landscape was the reason that Seattle’s location was chosen by the Native Americans who first lived on the land and later by pioneers who moved west for the lumber and fishing trades.

I dip my paddle into the water in a rhythmic pattern that propels me foreword, making sure to avoid the center of the waterway, as it is there the small seaplanes land. I cling to the shoreline in the shadow of towering sailboats in slips, large warehouses, small parks and the occasional condominium. It’s clear from this vantage point that the water is the center of life. We work, play and live on and around it, and in that way, not much has changed since Seattle’s beginnings. Skimming across the surface of Lake Union I round a bend and spot my destination: a houseboat colony on Eastlake. It is hard to miss. The bright colors of many of the homes contrast dramatically with the predominately grey surroundings and reflect off the water in oscillating bands. They range in size, shape and state of repair. Some are flashy modern buildings, with contemporary art clearly displayed, while others spill over with houseplants and eclectic mixes of junk-turned-art. A mid-90’s home has a playful spiral staircase to a roof deck on its third level, while another home sports bright red buoys contrasting its simple log and wood plank float and one story gable roof. Each home is unique and individual, but shares common elements. Every houseboat is tied up to a network of docks that extend from the shore; some are short walkways, while others extend almost three hundred feet into the waterway. They are arranged like a crazy quilt, with each unique piece added over time to create a rich layering that reflects Seattle’s history and culture.

In the mid- 19th century the interconnected bays and lakes within the Puget Sound became the center of industry and transportation. Along Elliott Bay, Lake Union, Lake Washington and the Duwamish River, loggers and fishermen set up their mills and processing plants. During Seattle’s early beginnings men flocked to the city to work and required inexpensive places to live that allowed easy access to the waterways. Because it was fashionable at the time to live near the city center and the waterfront, the upper and middle classes built their homes on the hills closest to the water. This left thousands of workers in a housing crisis. Where could they live frugally, while still remaining close enough to the water and their work?

The answer came out of the ingenuity of the workers themselves. They built their own homes out of leftover industry materials atop the boats they already used daily, creating an inexpensive house that was as close to their work as possible, and free from taxes and rent. Others used the same concept, but built small homes atop substantial logs from the port mills that served as floating foundations. These live-aboards and houseboats were quite meager in their beginnings but functional, and the idea caught on.

The construction of each home was reflective of the available materials and therefore quite diverse, but the same general techniques were commonly used. The floats were built of wood planks held up by cedar logs, up to about 5 feet in diameter. Atop this floating foundation a very simple dwelling was built. Four walls supported a simple sprung roof with a beam or two at the peak of the structure for support. Shiplap, an inexpensive wood board, was stretched over the top of the beams to create a roof. The method of construction was part simple residential construction and part boat fabrication. Methods were borrowed from dock and boats construction to keep the structure afloat and the inside dry. These homes moved like any other boat, so their interior echoed boat craftsmanship more than residential. Every inch had to be functional in some way and the balance and buoyancy of the structure could not be compromised.

Creating a hybrid of residential and marine architecture was a creative solution to the housing problem and was crucial to the workers’ survival. Most of the workers made their living on boats and were quite familiar with marine architecture so drawing from their knowledge, experience and skill set was a natural answer. The economic situation and housing shortage was not much different than it is today, across the globe. The need for low income housing that is well designed, but affordable, is a constant issue, and new and creative solutions are there to be discovered, or rediscovered. The ability to see potential in the simple and the awareness to find unconventional solutions is indispensable in design for the modern world.

Currently, the eclectic houseboats are seen as romantic and whimsical homes, but few realize the role they once played, or the ways in which they reflect Seattle’s history and cultural transition since its pioneer days. The Seattle houseboats have gone through change after change in their occupancy, and with each transition their reputation and design have changed with it. Homes can be seen that reflect each major movement, war, decade, law, etcetera, that Seattle has experienced. When the families of industry workers began to move to Seattle, the houseboats as a community began to truly take shape. Homes were built larger to accommodate more people and they were improved aesthetically as well. But they still remained small, most totaling between just 600-700 square feet. Few examples of these “classic” houseboats exist, but some remain in close to their original form. Other older homes show distinct signs of their date of construction through architectural detail. Many of the older houseboats still have trap doors, which were used to store alcohol by bootleggers during the Prohibition of the 1920’s. During World Wars I and II, houseboats grew in popularity as a form of low-income housing because war-ships were built in port in Seattle and just across the Puget Sound at the Bremerton Naval Station. They were again simple, to be built cheaply, but many had the charm of attached floating victory gardens and classic pitched roofs, popular in the 1940’s. Houseboats began to gain respectability as students at the nearby University of Washington, artists, and bohemian middle-class individuals took up residence in houseboats. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the artistic craftsmanship of the houseboats blossomed with these new tenants. Stained glass work, murals and the incredible interior and exterior wood craftsmanship that could rival any high-priced vessel were abundant.

Politically and socially the houseboat communities developed an unsavory reputation early on, especially during Prohibition. This coupled with the prejudice against low-income tenants caused the upper-class citizens living on the hills overlooking the water and the city’s lawmakers to fight constantly to have the houseboats abolished. The conflict between houseboaters and the city of Seattle was ongoing for sometime, and their future is still uncertain in terms of historical preservation. At the peak, there were over two thousand houseboats lining the waterways in Seattle. Due to political and economic pressure and water dependent commercial development just under five hundred remain. As city officials fashioned new laws, which taxed houseboats and changed property rights, the houseboats became fewer and fewer in number. Terry Pettus, a houseboater, political figure and reporter, led the fight that saved houseboats from extinction at the hands of city officials, partly by creating the Floating Homes Association. His lobbying and eventual push to have the houseboat communities connected to the sewer line in 1965 was crucial. This solidified their right to exist, but they have continued to shrink in number over time.

The position of the houseboats in such a beautiful natural setting, and their proximity to the city center puts them in a prime location. Their pop-culture attraction also grew with the release of the movie Sleepless in Seattle in 1993, in which Tom Hanks’ character lives on a Lake Union houseboat. What was once a place for people to live well inexpensively has turned into high-priced real estate. The houseboats now range in assessed value from a few hundred thousand dollars to over two million and they are constantly growing in scale. Space for the homes is limited, so new construction is replacing the smaller older houseboats. This is not to say that new houseboats should not be built, as the appeal of the community is its heterogeneity, but the older originals and examples from throughout time, should be preserved. Only one Seattle houseboat is currently on the National Register for Historic Preservation; the rest are unprotected from development. The older homes were not constructed for longevity, so their restoration in a timely manner is critical. To destroy the older homes and build a houseboat community that looks increasingly like floating suburbs would be a tragedy. It is a unique experience to be able to walk down the docks in the heart of Seattle and see the contrasts between time periods through the architecture of a single community, and it should not be lost. Vintage houseboats and those that genuinely reflect important time periods for Seattle should be preserved as residences and as places for people to visit, for what is the point of preserving architecture if not to be able to teach about the past and reflect on its importance for us today?

The houseboat community in Seattle not only has the potential to preserve historical examples, which teach about the past and possibilities for the future, but they can again become a viable form of housing. They also have the potential to do so sustainably and affordably. A houseboat is one form of architecture which is required to be in tune with its surroundings, and is all the better for it. Commonly today, land-based homes are plopped down wherever there is space, with little consideration given to its surroundings or environmental impact. Houseboats are the opposite; their position amongst their neighbors, their connection points to the shore, and their ability to move with the water when appropriate is of great importance to their feasibility. To adapt in order to suit the existing, harmonious balance of the surrounding site instead of fighting against it is steadily becoming more critical as we learn about the negative effects that ignoring these factors can have on the earth. This is especially true with architecture-where building are known to be the number one contributor to global warming, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The houseboat has the potential to be the model for sustainable living, and houseboat communities such as those in Seattle need to preserve their heritage while continuing to add to their quilt of a community with structures that respect the past and future needs of the earth as residence.

That is a tall order to be filled, but it is possible. In the Netherlands, a country that is surrounded by slowly sinking land and higher and higher water levels every year, designers and planners have always needed to fight against the rising water with systems such as hydraulic pumps. However, they began to embrace working with the water after WWII, when new housing was desperately needed. Currently, over 20,000 Dutchmen live on some sort of floating home and the numbers are growing at a substantial pace. Entire communities of houseboats are popping up all over the Netherlands. Projects like the amphibious floating homes in Maasbommel along the Maas Dyke adapt to rising water levels by their floating foundations and flexible hoses which connect utility lines. Architecture firms like the Netherlands Waterstudio.NL, who are focused solely on water-based architecture, have realized the growing need for floating housing. They are dedicated to the sustainability of the structures, with many providing their own system of water collection and cycling, and limiting energy consumption.

Conceivably, floating home can be even more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than other homes. On land, the terrain must be disturbed to make way for a home’s foundation, but on water that is not the case. Being able to adapt to the environment, such as rotating a structure based on the position of the sun and winds to make a home more efficient in heating and cooling costs, is significant. Houseboats are traditionally smaller, and designing for what is truly necessary and purposeful in an elegant way is what makes a sustainable home effective. To survive, houseboat residents must be more aware of and respectful of their surroundings. This is seemingly where the Netherlands future is headed: towards a greater number of sustainable houseboat communities. But they are more often then not starting from scratch and creating homes that all look similar to one another. Seattle is a different case.

The Seattle houseboat community needs to be respectfully maintained to preserve and celebrate the houseboats of the past, while creating a new dialogue about sustainable houseboats of the future. Cohabitation with the water has always been a part of life for Seattleites, as well as our challenge and inspiration in living here. Houseboats exemplify this fierce connection and harmonious adaption to the environment. They are a rare example of Seattle’s social and cultural history in its entirety and they are decreasing in both number and variety. They illustrate the story of Seattle’s history through their layering of architectural style and detail, and epitomize the type of ingenuity that once provided solutions to problems such as the need for quality low-income housing. A unified effort must be made to ensure the continued existence of these Seattle treasures.

Works Consulted:

Droker, Howard. Seattle’s Unsinkable Houseboats. Seattle: Watermark Press, 1977.

Rijcken, Ir. Ties. "Floating neighborhoods as they were and will be". Department of Building Technology, Delft Technical University, 14 October 2005.

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