In 2005, I was approached by a marina owner in Flagler Beach, the next town south of St. Augustine, to engineer and design some houseboats to fill his marina. It seemed like a wonderful concept, and we started with the smaller green houseboat with the rounded roof as a prototype.
Together we worked out the way to easily build plywood and fiberglass barges on which they could build traditional looking houses—that is, looking more like a house than a boat. The marina property was within a residential neighborhood on the east side of the Intracoastal Waterway. Across the waterway on the other side was another neighborhood of private homes. Two lots to the south, the owner had a restaurant building no longer in use, and this was where the houseboats would eventually be built.
We learned the building techniques on the first house, and during the building of the second houseboat, a larger two-story design, I refined the stability calculations and the structural requirements. There are only a few voluntary design standards available in North America for the design and construction of houseboats, and they are not nearly as comprehensive as some boatbuilding standards. You can build pretty much anything you want to as there is little authority to tell you what to do.
Immediately, there was controversy—some people in Flagler Beach did not want to see houseboats in the marina across the way, and certainly they did not want a manufacturing plant in the middle of a residential neighborhood. There are lawsuits being pursued to this day by both sides, and no more houseboats were built for that marina.
But at the time I thought this could be another opportunity to expand Sponberg Yacht Design into vessels of a different sort. Many people who came to me through my stories on my website asked for marketing and price information on the houseboats. But I was only the designer, I was not involved in the business of marketing the houseboats or the marina; that fell to my client, and he was being hamstrung by the lawsuits. And one of the caveats that came out early in the litigation was that if any houseboats got built on the property, they were to be for that marina only, not for sale elsewhere. So if anyone wanted a houseboat like the ones in the photos, but wanted to place it elsewhere—and there were many—they were out of luck. Because of the pending lawsuits, we couldn’t build them anyway.
At the 2011 IBEX Conference (International Boatbuilders Exhibition), the sponsor, Professional Boatbuilder magazine, held a Pecha Kucha design seminar in which speakers present their designs in a fixed time frame, in this case about 7 minutes—20 seconds per PowerPoint slide, 20 slides maximum. I proposed a topic on “Modular Catamaran Houseboats”, which was accepted, and then PBB’s publisher, Carl Cramer, decided, that I was to present my design first. He knew I’d do a good job and set the standard for the show. It was a hoot, and I was one of three people speaking that had houseboat designs. From that seminar, I produced a video of my presentation which you can download here: Modular Catamaran Houseboat. It generated a fair bit of interest, I still get calls for houseboat designs.
Houseboats, however, are like any other type of craft, they require money to design them, more money and a builder to build them, yet more money to pay for a marina space to put them, and even more money to transport them from the builder to the marina. And transportation is not easy when houseboats can be over 20’ wide and 25’ tall. You can’t take them down the highway on a truck trailer. Houseboats are expensive. They are not any cheaper than a regular house, in my opinion, and in fact may be more expensive in the long run with on-going marina fees, which are much like homeowner association fees.
At any rate, I made my case and looked for customers. Prospective owners are really hungry for houseboats if you judge by the inquiries I got—the very thought of living on the water sparks a strong romantic warm and fuzzy feeling—what a neat way to live! The logistics of building and selling houseboats requires various kinds of expertise for designing, building, marketing, selling, insuring, and financing, and all of that takes a lot of up-front money to develop a bona fide houseboat marina. I have yet to find the owner or the developer who can put all the pieces together to create attractive houseboat communities. They do exist, you can see them on the Internet without looking too hard. But the right combination of people just never came my way.