Seattle architect's dream project: Steel-framed floating home

Published online: May 19, 2009 News Erik Lacitis
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He's embarrassed that the project has taken 2-½ years, with at least two more months of work left.

But one could reasonably ask why Jack Daniels, 43, a Seattle architect, never gave up on this time-consuming, money-gobbling, emotionally draining undertaking.

Daniels is building a rather astounding houseboat.

It is a high-tech, two-level, 45- by 15-foot, 33,400-pound, steel-framed, floating home. He's done everything himself - the design, welding, electrical work, plumbing and woodwork - at a Duwamish River boat yard.

Daniels has worked on the houseboat during freezing rains, and he has worked on it when he had to lug 30-foot steel decking by himself.

He's been there alone when he was off by half an inch on holes he drilled in steel panels and had to redo the work. Says Daniels: "I've cried, I've shouted at the wind."

Friends have wondered why he didn't call it quits a long time ago.

"There was an element of pride," Daniels says. "It's like you start climbing a mountain and you only make it halfway. I wanted to finish."

And he always could look at the computer renderings he had of the completed houseboat for inspiration.

"Imagine a party here, on a sunny day on Lake Washington," Daniels says.

It really would be quite a setting.

The lower level is mostly one large room, with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows made possible by the steel-frame construction. But there is the universe of what a project looks like as a computer rendering, and then there is the universe of actually making those renderings come to life.

"Worker bee"

There is a reason the houseboat is named the "Sandra D."

Sandy Daniels is his wife of nearly six years.

She works in financial-software sales, and she has been the one bringing in the steady paycheck the past 2-½ years. Supplies to build the houseboat have run to nearly $200,000, and the couple have had to refinance their home.

Sandy didn't mind supporting the family, which now includes a son, Thomas, nearly 1, while Jack pursued his dream.

"I'm a happy little worker bee," she says. "I like Jack's adventurous spirit. He sweeps me with excitement."

Why did he decide to build a houseboat by himself?

Well, he and Sandy had gone to Lake Union and Portage Bay and wandered among the houseboats moored there. The more he thought about buying a houseboat, the more he concluded he could build a much better one himself.

A houseboat that wouldn't have the cramped feeling found in so many. A houseboat with a full-size bathroom and a full-size shower. One with a big closet. And a big kitchen with a stainless steel-topped island and a full-size gas range. And radiant floor heating.

"It was an architectural experiment free of constraints. I was building it for myself, rather than a client. I could do exactly what I wanted. I couldn't resist," he says.

Help from friends

There have been times when friends have come down to help.

Mostly, though, Daniels' companionship at the yard has been the National Public Radio jazz station KPLU-FM, and his Australian cattle dog, Gaucho, the latter also part of that species called "construction dogs" that give silent support while watching their owners perform some unwieldy task.

Daniels had 54 people on an e-mail list in which he gave periodic updates, and poured out his emotions:

" ... will it tip over ... will it leak ... will I have to redrill 400 holes ... am I just plain missing something that is gonna crush the idea later, it's too damn big and expensive ... what happened to that quick/fun experimental project ... I don't wanna weld no more! why, why, why ... "

Daniels and his wife initially thought they would live on the houseboat. That was before the baby come along.

Now he wants to sell it.

What is a houseboat like that worth? Maybe in the high $300,000s? Who knows? Will he have done the work for basically minimum wage?

And where would it be moored?

Daniels has no specific dock space lined up in Lake Union or Portage Bay, and such moorage is scarce. He started the project after making phone calls about moorage space, and concluded then that space would be available.

"It looks beautiful," says Melissa Ahlers, community-relations chair for the Seattle Floating Homes Association, after looking at photos of the Sandra D.

But, she says, it is a big houseboat, "and there will be a very limited amount of spaces that would fit it."

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