A Poetic Quality of Light
Portage Bay floating home embodies a feeling of spaciousness
By Sean Meyers July 14, 2023
Suzanne Stefan rides a housing bubble that bursts many times each day.
Stefan, a cofounder of Seattle architecture firm Studio DIAA, combined light, sound, and materials to create a bright, 650-square-foot floating home on Portage Bay (the eastern arm of Lake Union) that reverentially reflects its idyllic surroundings.
Bright, but not dazzling, as glare, contrast, and excess cargo are bitter foes of the seafaring home remodeler. Stefan designed the home for herself, her young daughter, and partner, Raanan Schnitzer, an avid boater and the longtime owner of the residence. “I’m a big fan of living in small spaces,” Stefan says.
The couple are members of an increasingly exclusive demographic. Houseboats and floating homes along the shores of Lake Washington, Lake Union, and the Duwamish River began popping up in the 1890s and numbered in the thousands in the 1930s, the heyday of Seattle water squatters. According to the Seattle Floating Home Association, the first floating homes were “crude, one-story buildings built on rafts” for workers of logging camps. The buildings followed the logs down rivers. In the 1920s, wealthy residents began building houseboats for summer homes.
For the past decade, however, environmental safeguards have hard capped the total at about 500, according to Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty. Seattle, however, still boasts more floating homes and houseboats than any other city in the United States.
The Portage Bay home sits on an original log float foundation from the early 1900s. Its dock rests at the end of a path that drops through a lush garden anchored by a tall cedar and curly willow. Tree roots creep into the placid, reflective water, creating a bayou vibe. At the confluence of Lake Washington and Lake Union, Portage Bay sees plenty of boat and overhead road traffic, but doesn’t attract a lot of the summer party boat crowd.
“It’s a pretty tight-knit community,” says Stefan, who is both an architect and an interior designer, common in Europe, where her studies included a pivotal stint at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio, Switzerland. “It set my heart on fire.”
Whitewashed pine and oak in combination with custom skylights, windows, and glass doors ignite her floating home design. She is a concrete form admirer and plaster sculpture artisan, both passions of which are represented here, albeit in very light doses.
Floating home construction is complicated by the fact that plumb bobs and other leveling tools used by terrestrial carpenters don’t work on water. Adding a heavy object to any quadrant of the project can require a Kafkaesque recalibration of the float and leveling systems. Add too much weight, and the floatation system can begin to fail, which is common in remodels.
This home was built in the early 1900s on old-growth logs of up to five feet in diameter. A dive team bolstered the ancient timber, which is thought to be an important component in the ecological network that guides spawning salmon. Not much else was salvageable. “The best bones were the logs,” Stefan notes.
Current floating home building codes would have allowed the couple to add a second story, up to 18 feet, as well as to expand the footprint to the edge of the current five-foot wraparound deck, more than doubling square footage. Total cost of the project was $938,000.
“I see a lot of people building large homes because they want room for family to stay,” Stefan says, “but they might get only two or three visits a year.”
House guests here are squired to the living room, where a large retractable curtain provides privacy and separation from the kitchen and other shared spaces. Two elfish bedrooms are tucked into the southwest corner to further accommodate the airy floor plan. Scotch-Brite was used on stainless steel surfaces to reduce glare, while aluminum sky vessels keep weight down. To emphasize the light interior, the exterior is clad in dark cedar. Exterior soffits and fascia are Richlite, a low-maintenance, resin-impregnated composite.
With an ancient mariner’s eye for detail, she crafted a design by calibrating the movement of the sun across the sky, the light filtering through the trees, and the reflection bouncing off the water and the nearby University District. Even so, Stefan remains fascinated by the kaleidoscope of color and shadow that crashes the many openings.
Floating homes weren’t on her original short list of dream architecture. “I gravitate more to the mountains, but this has been a really lovely surprise.”
Interior design: Studio DIAA, studiodiaa.com
General contractor: Dove GC, dovetailgc.com
Exterior and interior finish: Forest Taylor and Geoff Gamsby
Structural engineer: BUILT Engineering, builtstructural.com
Casework: Oxbow Fabrication
Metalwork: Helve House