Portage Bay Float Home

Architect: Studio DIAA

Owner: Raanan Schnitzer

Location: Seattle, Washington

Category: One- and Two-Family Custom Residences

While the Seattle area has enjoyed a long history of floating homes and houseboats, a type of living romanticized in movies and television, the reality of building on the water is much less glamorous. For this 650-square-foot home on the north end of the city's Lake Union, the owners embraced the challenge because such a home meshed with their aquatic hobbies of sailing, boat building, and scuba diving.

The project began as a renovation but quickly shifted during demolition when the owner and general contractor opted for a new structure due to the deterioration of the framing and log float foundation. The home received a new floor plate, walls, and roof, all of which were erected within the existing home's footprint.

"Excellent scale and proportions. The interior materials have a highly tactile quality."- Jury comment

Following the owner's wishes, the team took a modest approach to the renovation, focusing on the qualities of light and space over an abundance of area. That resulted in a single-story home that responds to the houses surrounding it by preserving views of the water. Neighbors have expressed their gratitude for the home's modesty, while its generous openings foster regular connections between the owners and neighbors.

"The ability to live graciously in a small footprint is clearly demonstrated here—with an accompanying reduction in impact on resources and energy," noted the jury. "Excellent scale and proportions. The interior materials have a highly tactile quality."

By working within the envelope of the existing home, the team was able to adhere to the restrictions placed on Seattle shoreline developments, resulting in a modern home that sits on an existing float comprising four- and five-foot-diameter old-growth logs assembled sometime in the early 1900s. Additionally, the craft-focused home gathers and reflects light through its multitude of glass doors and skylights. It is wrapped by a five-foot-wide cedar deck accessible by openings in every room, allowing the compact home to feel more spacious.

Crafting a high-performing envelope while establishing a connection with the natural and built complex was also a critical design concern. The new home is clad in an open rainscreen adorned with blackened stained cedar siding, allowing it to blend into its surroundings. The deck encircling them will silver as it ages, amplifying the contrast between the dark exterior and light interior. The interplay of dark and light advances the home's feeling of lightness, a suitable quality for a home that floats on water.

"With more communities at risk of sea-level rise," asked the jury, "could this demonstrate a future market for floating production housing?"

Additional information

 Architecture and  Interior Design: Studio DIAA

Structural Engineer: Built Engineering

General Contractor: Dovetail General Contractors


Ceara O’Leary, AIA (Chair), Detroit Collaborative Design Center, Detroit, MI

Allison Anderson, FAIA, unabridged Architecture, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Kelly Beamon, METROPOLIS, New York, NY

Alex Salazar, AIA, Salazar Architect, Portland, Oregon

Roberta Washington, FAIA, Roberta Washington Architects, New York, NY

Image credits

A south facing deck opens to the adjacent garden.

Kevin Scott

A west facing eave provides an extension to living and shelter along the exterior.

Kevin Scott

A great room at the main entry presents kitchen, dining and living.

Kevin Scott

A skylight brings a wash of light down the face of a sculpture inlay while also providing ventilation to both the living space and bedrooms.

Kevin Scott

At the primary bedroom, a large pocket door slides into the wall and opens to the surrounding calm water garden and deck.

Kevin Scott