Spring Real Estate 2004

Publication Date: Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Floating homes
A low-cost alternative to land living

by Sue Dremann

Wayne Greenwood is the captain of his own ship. Greenwood and a dozen or so other residents at the Docktown Marina in Redwood City have a lifestyle more in tune with the rhythms of Mark Twain's river than high-test Silicon Valley.

Greenwood lives in a floating home on Redwood Creek, at the edge of San Francisco Bay. The software product designer built his floating home as a way to afford the home of his dreams in 1989.

"It's the only source of true affordable housing left," he said. "When land prices are too high, you go to the water."

Floating homes -- don't call them houseboats -- are a rare commodity on the Peninsula. (Pete's Harbor has live-aboard boats only.)

Greenwood described the difference: Floating homes are often two-story homes of wood, synthetic siding or stucco. Their foundations consist of six-foot-deep square or rectangular cement bases called hulls, which are lashed to the dock. Unlike their distant cousin the houseboat, floating homes are too cumbersome to slice through waves, and don't have motors.

The community is a mixture of houseboats, yachts and attractive houses that could be mistaken for land-bound homes, except for the dock and the ducks.
Although there are no building codes for floating homes, the city put a moratorium on building new ones. However, that doesn't prevent one from bringing down a pre-constructed Sausalito home to the dock, and a few of Docktown's residents have done just that, he said.

In fact, Greenwood had his home's 20-by-40-foot hull towed from Sausalito by a tugboat. The trip down the bay was an eight-hour adventure worthy of Huck Finn. Sitting in the hull's bottom, he manned a water pump and generator, ready to pump out water should waves break over the hull. The cement structure could easily sink like a stone, he said.

When looking to own a home, Greenwood once considered renovating an abandoned warehouse, and even looked at Palo Alto's Alma Street water tower, but land costs drove him to the water. He designed and built the home himself, with the help of Larick Alan Hill, "an architect who isn't scared of the weird stuff," Greenwood said.

Greenwood's plans originally went up in smoke -- when the house was 78 percent built, it burned down. Undaunted, he rebuilt the entire structure. Without the fire, he estimated it took six to seven months to complete construction. He estimated the home cost $150,000 to build.

Today, it's a safe haven from a hectic world, where a police station is only a block away, and two dozen ducks warm themselves on the wooden gangway. They waddled cautiously to the water's edge as visitors approached, splashing noisily into the creek in a hasty retreat.

The minimalist-style home's facade is dark gray stucco, with six portholes on each side on the upper level. "It gives it a nautical theme without being hokey," he said.

The roof has an asymmetrical slant, with a half-barrel ceiling angled on one side. It's constructed of bent plywood covered with elastomere polymer, which dries like a rubber glove, he said.

Inside, the 1,200-square-foot living area has 13- to 17-foot soundproofed ceilings. A stainless steel catwalk divides the vertical space, adding a visual element. An aluminum ship's ladder rises from the floor to the catwalk, where there's an office and bedroom on the second floor.

The living area's floor is engineered hardwood, with a finished top layer of pecan. "It was less costly than maple, but harder, and has more grain activity for interest," he said. Greenwood didn't want solid hardwood, which tends to warp in the marine environment.

The room rides on rubber bumpers designed to take up shock from waves or earthquakes. Below, the soundproof hull makes an excellent music room for Greenwood to practice guitar and drums.

The house rarely rocks due to the 90-ton hull, but about 10 days a year, when the wind kicks up to 15 or 20 miles per hour, Greenwood can feel a gentle rocking. It doesn't bother him, but his girlfriend Kelly feels seasick -- "that's when we go out to dinner," he said.

With a 17-foot high ceiling, the room is difficult to heat, he admitted, but he keeps comfortable by heating the living area with an electric radiator.
An open kitchen is situated along one wall of the living area. "I wanted one big space. When we have parties, everyone can feel as though they're in the kitchen," he said.

Greenwood added Cervitor appliances designed for small spaces. The refrigerator/freezer is under a 3/4-size stainless steel sink, stove and oven. As a bachelor, he wasn't overly-concerned with cooking, but now he has a live-in girlfriend who enjoys cooking and the refrigerator seems small. Black-stained cabinets and overhead storage are constructed of standard plywood veneer, which kept costs down.

A marine-style toilet, with a minimum of water and a maximum of sucking power, disposes waste, which is stored in a holding tank.

Every so often, an outboard motorboat softly purrs past, as the dock custodian motors up and down the creek, pumping out the sewage. Live-aboard fees, which include water, pump-out and electricity costs between $300 and $600 a month.

Sliding double glass doors open onto a deck, looking out onto the creek, where snowy egrets, harbor seals and pelicans glide by amid a backdrop of rushes and sedges.

Life on the creek isn't for everyone. For about one third of the year, Greenwood and his neighbors' homes sit in mud, when low tide pulls the creek's waters out to the bay, said photographer and ceramicist Jeff Carlick, a neighbor.

Carlick's home was originally built in 1992 by Arny Messersmith, a boat builder and architect. It sat on a fiberglass pontoon, which Carlick replaced with a cement hull. The home "fairly rocked" on the original pontoon, forcing Carlick to occasionally abandon ship for dry land on stormy nights.

"I love everything about it -- it's magical," he said from atop his rooftop crow's nest as he gazed down on the gulls hovering below. Situated on salt water, there are few mosquitoes. He also loves walking to nearby Bair Island and Bayfront Park.

Once called "poop lagoon," the area was home to derelicts and prostitutes, but the city cleaned it up, Carlick said. Today, his neighbors include county workers, art collectors, painters and engineers.

Owners of floating homes do pay property taxes on their homes. In addition to the live-aboard fees, docking fees are between $400 and $500 a month, he said.

It's difficult to find the right insurance, Carlick said, but he has coverage for the replacement cost of the home, including fire, but not earthquakes.

In November, when there was a small earthquake, his home was sitting in the mud at low tide. "It felt like a small truck hitting the house. I haven't felt an earthquake at high tide," he said.

Any danger of tsunamis on the creek?

"If there's a tsunami...kowabunga!"

Special sections editor Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann @paweekly.com.