With the close of the International Boat Show in Toronto, I thought I would write about one of my favourite design projects – boathouses.  I have designed about a dozen boathouses and construction managed a few too!

If you have a boat then odds are that you will need some sort of dock, dry or wet boathouse to moor your boat throughout the year.  As such, boathouses have been an integral part of cottage life for generations. Not only can they add charm to the waterfront, they’re also functional – protecting boats from the elements and providing ample space for cottagers and their guests to gather for carefree days on the water. 

Boathouses serve as an extension of the main cottage and come in all shapes and sizes. Some might feature a spacious room with comfortable seating that encourages friends to relax and swap fish tales. Others include a bedroom for extra sleeping space that’s ideal for guests to enjoy their privacy.

If your cottage is located on a steep site, you can outfit your boathouse with all the amenities needed for an easy-breezy day. That means you’ll no longer hike more stairs than you care to count just to top up refreshments or use the facilities – tasks that raise additional concerns if you have little ones who want to remain on the water. 

This idyllic boathouse on Bear Bay on Lake Muskoka in the heart of Ontario’s cottage country is one such example. Many of the owners’ guests arrive by water – an exhilarating and authentic Lake Muskoka experience reminiscent of the early days of cottaging. They’re rewarded as they approach a boathouse painted in timeless blue and white and featuring cedar shakes, natural stone and Douglas Fir wood timbers.

The design was inspired by the owners’ desire for a graceful aesthetic that complements their cottage and natural surroundings. The ground floor is home to three boat slips and a dock at lake level. Two of the slips are used for boats, deterring theft and creating a space for the boats to be serviced. Hoists provide convenient on-site winter storage. The third slip accommodates jet skis and water toys. The structure provides welcome storage for lifejackets and the many other accessories that are part and parcel of cottage life.

A timber staircase takes you to a second storey thoughtfully designed to accommodate guests, complete with a spacious cedar deck. Due to height restrictions in place at the time of construction, the owners added of a copula – a small dome used to crown a turret, roof or larger dome. Cathedral ceilings made possible by the timber beams add to the openness.

Built on a steel underwater structure that sits on bedrock, the boathouse has become an integral part of the owners’ cottaging experience. They’re even expanding the structure, a process that’s relatively easy to complete structurally thanks to the timber frame.

Building a boathouse is rarely a simple undertaking. The structure may look like it’s floating on water but ensuring it doesn’t float away during a storm or flood is a technical feat that includes proper underwater support and foundations. Calculating the maximum bearing capacity of the foundations is based on a host of factors, including the water depth and the soil type under the water and along the bank.

Special permits, regulations and restrictions will inform the design of your boathouse. Some jurisdictions have a unique set of rules when it comes to boathouses. In most municipalities, cottagers can repair or even rebuild ‘grandfathered’ structures using the same footprint as the older boathouse. Building a new boathouse or looking for solutions for a ‘legal non-conforming boathouse’ that’s kaput can be a complex process but is manageable if you have the right people on your team.

Some lake associations have pressured local planning departments to enact bylaws to limit or eliminate new boathouse builds but a reasonably-scaled and attractive boathouse adds to the allure of cottage country. Perhaps even more importantly, boathouses help keep people on the shore, which is good for everybody on the water.

If you are thinking about designing and building a new boathouse, give me a call and we would be happy to discuss your project!