Houseboats Go Yachtie
The AXIOM houseboat.
Compass North Industries
While the number of houseboat manufacturers has dropped due to the recent economy, those that remain are pushing the creative envelope to produce boats that are more and more stylish. In today's market, even the term "houseboat" has gotten something of a makeover. It now refers to the larger lake-style boats rather than the smaller fiberglass boats of yesterday.
No longer does the typical houseboat resemble a rectangular, boxy, RV-looking structure. While those trusty models are available and still appeal to some folks, the design emphasis is now on sleek, smooth and "yacht-like." And because many of these vessels are custom built, the features can vary widely, giving the customer more choice than ever before.
The boat that has currently pushed the envelope the farthest is the AXIOM from Compass North Industries, which also produces Bravada Yachts and Adventure Series Houseboats. What is most striking about the AXIOM is that the upper helm station and adjoining lounge area is located aft on the upper deck. This produces a unique look that is much more sport cruiser than traditional houseboat.
The boat was designed to appeal to people who want the style of a yacht but with the living area of a houseboat. "Essentially," said Dustin Duea, sales manager for Compass North, "we tried to design high-end yacht elements into boats with much broader appeal."
The design also offers some practical advantages. Behind the helm is a wet bar with fixed stools, beverage center and icemaker. Aft of that is a full, wraparound seating area. Being located at the stern puts people closer to the action off the swim platform.
The entire upper cockpit, which can seat more than 20 people, is screened-in, which not only gives it a certain look but adds to its livability. The screening cuts wind gusts, gives more privacy and creates 50 percent more shade than just a party top. Even when rain is coming at an angle, very little of it penetrates the screen.
This allows greater usage of the three beds located up there, and when the boat is tied to a noisy dock, the high sides provide greater sound control and privacy. All these factors lead to the area being likened to a three-season room that can extend the boaters' outside time. The area can be accessed by steps from both the bow and stern.
The interior of the AXIOM is similar to a regular lake houseboat, but the big difference is the design features. "We are trying to incorporate design features of a $30 million dollar yacht on this interior," said Duea. "Instead of using the traditional wood paneling, we are incorporating painted and vinyl covered walls and lighter colors."
Modern high-end yacht interiors feature a lot of contrasts, so AXIOMs have a mix of colors like light countertops that contrast with the darker cabinets and floors. The overall emphasis is on creating visually elegant and inviting interior.
Even with its striking appearance, the boat was designed to be a production boat in two sizes rather than fully custom. Both models are 16 feet wide to control shipping costs. Some limited modifications are available, but the overall goal was to produce a prestigious boat with streamlined production costs.
The Bravada Yacht line was also designed so "our boats don't look like anything else in the houseboat industry," said Duea. They were created to have completely rounded-off and distinctive lines, including the use of dark glass from about 32 inches above the floor to the ceiling all the way around the boat except for the bow. The upper level mimics that look, but instead of glass, dark screening is used to enclose the party deck. This eliminates the traditional side canvas.
"All the curves and radii on the boat were designed to complement each other. We didn't just take a box and put curves on it," Duea said.
People in Glass Houses
The increasing use of glass walls is attracting a lot of attention and is a growing design element on numerous houseboat models.
Thoroughbred Houseboats produces an all-glass model, and company President Shawn Heinen said it is like a lot of options. "Some folks like the all glass look, and others don't." About 65 percent of the boats the company built last year were all-glass, with more expected this year.
At Sumerset Houseboats, sister-brand to Thoroughbred, most of the boats are partial glass, covering about 60-percent of the surface.
Inside the boats, a growing trend at Thoroughbred and Sumerset is the use of retractable helms. There is a constant demand for more space in the main salon, and being able to hide the helm beneath a floor hatch achieves that. Heinen noted that women seem to especially like this feature.
To create more space and improve convenience, designers are moving the steps to the upper deck from inside the front doors to a mid-ship location behind the galley. By having a door on the side deck and another door to the steps, the salon is enlarged. It also makes it easier to take groceries to the galley and luggage to the bedrooms, as well as creating a larger pantry for the galley.
Shaped glass combined with patented no-wood structural framing was used on about 80 percent of Stardust Cruisers' boats last year. President Terry Aff said the company feels it achieves its best look with somewhere between 50 and 75 percent glass. That glass is mounted flush to the walls to produce a cleaner, sleeker, high-end look.
Aff said another option that creates the desired look is a painted hull. Besides enhancing the overall style, it eliminates the dull, oxidized aluminum that comes over time on a bare hull.
Further promoting the move to a more yacht-like look is the increasing use of LED exterior lighting and sleeker rail systems. The LEDs are dimmable, cleaner to the eye and don't yellow over time.
A True 'House' Boat
Folks looking for a houseboat designed for a completely different purpose frequently look at the MetroSHIP. These are folks who don't really plan on using their boats for recreation on lakes. Rather, these uncommon boats are designed to be docked in urban areas and used either as an apartment or a second home as an alternative to shore-based housing.
Owner David Ballinger said he repeatedly hears his customers say they couldn't see themselves in a common houseboat.
The most popular size is 42 by 12 feet, with an open floor plan, high-end appointments and modular construction, all set on fiberglass pontoons. The tankage is centrally located to further add to the stability.
Originally, the boats were sheathed with translucent wall panels that allowed for tremendous interior light and, at the same time, compete privacy. The boats seemed to glow from within at night.
"There are two types of people," Ballinger said. "A certain number love privacy, and others love views." Of course, this depends on where you are. "Being out on a lake is far different than being docked downtown somewhere," Ballinger added.
His customers want as much living space as possible, and MetroSHIP is now adding more sliding doors to create a screened-in porch feel. Second level penthouses can be fabricated at the factory, disassembled and then trucked separately to minimize shipping costs before being re-attached at the destination.
Houseboats have always offered practicality and maximum livability — and they still do. But more and more, the manufacturers deliver those advantages wrapped in the most stylish package they can produce.
Meet the Builders
AXIOM Yachts, www.axiomyachts.com
Bravada Yachts, www.bravadayachts.com
Stardust Cruisers, www.stardustcruisers.com
Sumerset Houseboats, www.sumerset.com
Thoroughbred Houseboats, www.tbboats.com