Handmade Houseboats

Cheapest way to live on water

Oh, it’s an ancient yearning. I lived on a houseboat once; you definitely need more than a log raft. But you don’t need a million dollars more. The techniques here rely on modern materials (barrels and composting toilets), and cover all aspects of building and maintaining a floating cottage, mindful of the constant threat that constant water presents. In my experience, however, the main hurdle is not construction, but finding a place to dock. If you have a location, you can build it.

-- KK 05/31/04


Are You Crazy?
This book is about how to build your own houseboat, and thereby sidestep the twin ogres of twentieth-century survival: mortgages and landlords. If you can hold these pages open, dear reader, then you have the manual dexterity to hold a hammer. If you can do that, then armed with this book and a smidgen of imagination, and at least a little gumption, you can build your own floating home, and be comfortably ensconced inside it, within a few weeks.


Steel barrels are the cheapest option; however, they will eventually rust away. Where wind and water meet, there is enough readily replaced oxygen being thrown promiscuously about to equip the intensive-care unit of any hospital. Oxygen is one of the most corrosive elements known, and it will attack steel houseboat barrels with glee. Not only do the drums deteriorate, but flakes of rust fall into the mud and sand, poisoning the benign environment where minuscule creepy-crawlies used to live, before the kamikaze debris started to rain down. If you have acquired a houseboat with steel drums, they'll undoubtedly need replacing soon. If you are building a new house and choose steel for reasons of economy, you are simply putting off the painful necessity of opening your wallet and buying plastic barrels, which will last as long as the houseboat does.



Ordinary plastic barrels are readily found, and they are strong and durable. Due to their rounded shape, they will support the weight of a house, on the shore or afloat. The plastic barrel compresses as load is applied; that is, it transfers the load away along its curve, rather than attempting to support the weight in one place and then breaking, like a flat surface will. All a plastic barrel requires in the way of consideration is that it be placed out of, or protected from, the direct rays of the sun: Ultraviolet light will eventually weaken the material and cause it to become brittle. This should not be a problem with houseboats, for the barrels are place underneath the raft, in the shade.


Houseboats can be designed to float in as little as 6 inches of water, so finding a suitable site should not be a problem.


Enclosed is a photo of my little 18'x7' houseboat. Designed by William Atkin in the 1940s, she was built in 1985 by David Scarborough of Rock Hall Boats: cedar-planked, fiberglassed to the waterline, canvas-covered plywood deck, plywood house, powered by a 9.9 outboard. I had her built as a weekend retreat, but before completion, I had a stroke. When I recovered enough to live alone, I moved to the St. Johns River in Florida and have lived aboard since 1987. (Beats living in a nursing home.)

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