House Out of Water

Former houseboat gets new life on land
| Updated: December 13, 2021

The biological record is teeming with examples of interesting creatures that have crawled out of the water and grown useful appendages. Architectural amphibians are much more rare, but such an example can be found near Lake Union in Seattle’s Madison Park neighborhood.
This home’s traditional bungalow exterior belies its exotic past as a home on water.

Much of the structure’s early history is lost, so it’s not known whether it started out as a boathouse (built primarily as a garage for boats, perhaps with living quarters), a houseboat (a self-propelled home) or a floating home (a non-propelled home tethered to land or a dock).
In any case, it’s well anchored today, thanks to an ebony and ivory reimagining spearheaded by the Seattle firm Best Practice Architecture.

It is believed that the home was built about 1911, moored in north Lake Union and moved to its present location sometime in the 1930s, perhaps the victim of encroaching industrialization. If that timeline is correct, the home would have seen the heyday and the worst days of Seattle’s floating-home history.

Floating homes began appearing on Lake Union in the late 1800s as inexpensive housing for loggers and fishermen, according to architectural historian Sarah Martin.

It became fashionable for the wealthy to build vacation floating homes in the early 1900s, thus igniting a class struggle that would simmer for decades (spoiler alert: the wealthy won).

During the Depression, floating homes on the lake became Hoovervilles for the destitute.

By the time Justin and Dean Armintrout purchased the home in 2018, it had undergone a series of unremarkable remodels that left it in a state best described as a gentle nod to Northwest nautical.

There were other problems. “It had a white picket fence, and we’re not white picket fence people,” Dean says.

The house was also much too small for their family and Justin’s business, executive search firm The Grady Group. Existing windows didn’t allow a view of the backyard, one of the home’s best qualities.

All this is on a tight lot. Where to put the addition? And how best to express the couple’s love for modernism without ticking off the neighbors? Shortly after buying the house, Dean and Justin reached out to Best Practice Architecture coprincipal Ian Butcher.

“Over the years, we’ve really gotten to know him, and he got to know us,” Dean says. They carefully mulled the problem over the years-long design process. “We knew this was kind of our forever home.”

The solution was the architectural equivalent of the mullet: business in the front and party in the rear. The white picket fence stayed, and a modern two-story addition was constructed in the freshly landscaped back yard. The main structure is quaint, white, wood and low-slung. The addition is sleek, black, metal and tall, but unobtrusive when viewed from the street.

“A gable is about the only thing the two structures have in common,” says Butcher. “The addition is an abstract representation of a residential home.”

The interior was gutted, exposing a hodgepodge of building materials and practices, as was common in boathouse construction.

The new open floor plan features a spacious gourmet kitchen and cedar ceilings.

There are no doors on the entrance to the 500-square-foot master bedroom so Justin and Dean can chat back and forth when one is in the kitchen. Closet space is distributed throughout the suite to maximize the roomy vibe.

The front door was replaced with Dutch doors at the behest of the architect, creating a breeze and a welcoming atmosphere.

“I love Dutch doors,” Butcher says. “I put them on every project I’m allowed.”

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