A Sneak Peek Into the World’s First Houseboat Design Contest

February 25, 2016

Avatar Bill Mayher

NOTE: The entries for the Houseboat Design Contest are in! As we gather them together and go through the judging process, we thought you’d enjoy a sneak peek at a few of the entries.

When the OCH Houseboat Design Contest was conceived, I was already an armchair disciple of Harlan Hubbard, who along with his wife Anna, built a shantyboat on the banks of the Ohio River as a means to escape the industrial juggernaut grinding across the face of post-WWII America.

A sketch of the Hubbard's shantyboat that graces the cover of Harlan's book: Shantyboat.

Harlan’s sketch of the Hubbard’s shantyboat that graces the cover of his book: SHANTYBOAT.

The Hubbards constructed their houseboat partly out of stuff they gathered along the river and then, over the next decade or so, they perfected techniques of living on the cheap so effectively that they essentially did away with a need for money.

With this model in mind as a lifestyle, I flipped through some (but no-where-near all) of our entries. The first one that caught my eye was the back-of-the-envelope pen-and-wash drawings of Martin Herbert, perhaps because they were so much like Harlan Hubbard’s renderings.


What if you could pack the whole houseboat neatly onto a pickup truck and take it home to store for the winter. Or, since it’s already packed up and ready to go, why not winter aboard in Baja? Or anywhere for that matter.

IMG_martin_herbert_houseboat in pickup

But soon, I realized my affinity for all-things Harlan Hubbard needed to broaden out if I was to drill deeply into the splendid houseboat designs that have turned up on the flood tide of entries to the OCH contest. There are just too many carefully rendered designs, too much good thinking, too much basic enthusiasm, too much variety to be limited to a single templet of life on the water.

Going back to the entries, I came upon Patrick Beck’s TURTLE design — it appealed to me because it looked like a boat that would be both good to be aboard and good to take me places.

img patrick beck turtle profile

One of two designs that came in from home-builder Terry Mason gave me the feeling that someone might just ring Terry up later this morning to get about building one of these gems for the coming season — and wouldn’t we all be jealous?

Terry Mason's houseboat design, grand prize winner in Off Center Harbor's Houseboat Design Contest

Several model houseboats have been submitted and are floating around in OCH headquarters. I bet Scott Mathis took a few fantasy voyages while building this model.

img mathis

A 7 year-old local waterman named Bear built this fine model with a “bendy wood” roof. Note the bench for fishing, and the “diving board for when nothin’s bitin'”.

img bear

The Blake family couldn’t wait to get their houseboat models overboard, so they headed down to Naskaeg Point this afternoon to catch the magic hour of last-light. Here’s the model from Cyrus (age 10). Note the “Frank Gehry windows” along the side of the hull, reminiscent of the recent sloop FOGGY built by the crew at Brooklin Boat Yard.

img cyrus blake houseboat

Eric Blake has been unable to speak about anything but houseboats for a couple months now. I wonder what he was thinking as he dunked his model overboard this afternoon?

img eric blake houseboat

Finally, I was drawn to two designs by William Smith and Philip Myer — both entered plans for community boathouses of the sort we imagined as “The Boathouse” on the OCH website.

Here’s the layout of William Smith’s design:

img william smith comm boathouse

Philip Myer got right into the project, designing (while upside down in Tasmania) a “Boat House Boat — a place where it’s not just about a house that is a boat, but it’s about boats — boats that visit and stay with the houseboat.

img Philip Myer boat house boat

Beyond these, there are many more designs that merit further inquiry and I look forward to the coming weeks when we all get a chance to explore houseboating in all glorious possibilities.

As we consider these designs, and our dreams of bringing children back to the water’s edge for fun and learning, we’re also mindful of the tradeoffs this effort may impose upon the waterfront’s eco-systems — spanning from marine life and water quality, to the complex and powerful eco-cultures of local zoning boards and citizens paying waterfront tax premiums.

This world of ours seems to be tugging in two directions. Each day society seems to be further atomizing us as individuals, hooked onto our separate screens, as we travel ever-outward from the center. Even though opportunities for communication between individuals have never been richer we are still, in Robert Putnam’s telling phrase, “Bowling Alone.”

What is lacking in all of this, it seems, is a place to go and do stuff with other people. To learn and teach, or just plain witness, and in so doing recalibrate the instrumentation of daily life toward the idea that human life, at its best, is an exercise in collaboration.


6 Responses So Far to “A Sneak Peek Into the World’s First Houseboat Design Contest”:

  1. Avatar John Breiby says:

    Houseboats! Great subject. When I was a kid, my grandparents lived next door to Frank Hubbard, Harlan’s brother. So I grew up around tales of shanty boats and the goings on of Harlan and Anna (they lived in Ohio or Kentucky at the time, I outside of NY city. By the time I was 11 or 12 I’d had a chance to read “Shantyboat a time or two and my dream in life became one of living in a shanty boat–I don’t think they called them houseboats, but it’s been a long time–and floating the Mississippi as they did. I never did either of those things, but it must have set the stage for me, as subsequently I moved to Alaska, where I’ve lived for more than 50 years, fished commercially and build boats off and on. Thanks for covering a fascinating and enjoyable subject.

  2. Avatar Kurt Lorenz says:

    When we think of houseboats, the edges of large bodies of water come to mind, but what about a local pond? Could today’s Thoreau avoid the building department by floating in Walden Pond? Not there of course. (Sacred ground/water.) But what about the typical farm pond? Can one build what one wants so long as it floats and isn’t polluting anything? A floating home might save us from a lot of dismal regulations. You could rotate the mooring to get extra sun or less sun, depending. Just wondering.

  3. Avatar Richard Zablocki says:

    The community boathouse designs of Messrs. William Smith and Philip Myer are great fuel for thought as we consider alternatives for our new little Community Maritime Museum and traditional boat building and learning initiatives on the Pamlico-Tar River in Washington, NC. Thank you.

  4. Avatar Harvey Schwartz says:

    Before this whole houseboat business waxes too idylic I’d like to offer a cautionary perspective. I live in a small Massachusetts seaside town. Among the town’s idiosyncrasies is the houseboat field, a shallow area tucked behind the barrier beach at Plum Island. A collection of buoyant shanty-covered platforms concocted primarily by carpenter types sits all summer at moorings. The town’s police boat ties up around 6:00 each evening, leaving the town’s waters much like the Simpsons episode in which Homer and Bart travel outside the three-mile limit where no laws apply and people are free to rip tags off their mattresses. Let me tell you, no words strike fear into the father of a teenage daughter as deeply as a casual, lI’m off to a houseboat party tonight, don’t wait up for me.” But I suppose if there are going to be outlaws anyway, they might as well be nautical.

  5. Avatar david strobino says:

    I see potential in the Blake boys .

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