After struggling to find the perfect home in San Francisco’s tough market, one couple took to the water
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A dock called home
As Sarah and Kimo Bertram prepared to move into their new home, they weren’t thinking about packing or paint colors. They were thinking about the Titanic. “We worried that the place we’d sunk our savings into could just … sink,” says Kimo. But much to the couple’s relief, their floating house successfully made its way out of dry dock and was soon tethered to its permanent home in San Francisco’s Mission Creek, where the Bertrams now live with their 19-month-old daughter, Mary.
The small community of floating homes feels more like a fishing village than an urban neighborhood—even in the shadow of new condo developments and construction cranes. “Every time you come home, it feels like you’ve left the city and entered a little sanctuary,” says Kimo. He and Sarah are just a short bike ride away from their jobs, in the hotel business and solar power industry, respectively.
A two-line Craigslist posting drew the couple to the dock in 2010. They’d placed several losing bids on houses in the city and wanted a break from the hunt; a short-term rental on a houseboat seemed just the thing. The creaky wooden structure that they toured had no insulation. It leaked. They offered to buy it on the spot. As self-described “water people” (Kimo surfs and Sarah grew up sailing), “we never stopped to wonder, Does this make sense?” Sarah says.
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The architect they hired for the project, Robert Nebolon, hadn’t designed a floating home before but had worked on waterfront houses. That was close enough. “It’s hard to find an architect who does this kind of thing,” says Kimo. The Bertrams and Nebolon quickly agreed on a “shipping container modern” look for the home. Nebolon clad the exterior in prefinished metal siding, designed a factory-style “sawtooth” roof (a series of windowed ridges), and installed casement windows up to the ceiling so the place is bathed in light. For the interior, the couple mixed natural elements like knotty cypress floors and raw-edge teak furnishings with hits of color. “I wanted to feel connected to the city’s industrial past, but I didn’t want to feel like I was living in a warehouse,” Sarah says.
The only limit to decorating was the hull’s dimensions—about 18 by 42 feet. “We had to come up with smart ways to pack the box,” says Nebolon. Benches flip open for stashing Mary’s toys, for example, and the couple’s bed rests on cabinets. Initially, they worried the weight of their furnishings would tip the home in one direction or another. But “unless we buy a grand piano, it’s no big deal,” says Sarah. “For the most part, it was like decorating any other house.”
Design:Robert Nebolon Architects, Berkeley; rnarchitect.com. Builder: W. B. Elmer & Co., Orinda, CA; wbelmer.com.
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The house has three decks, with the largest off the living room. “We’re connected to nature in a more intimate way than most city dwellers,” Sarah says. “We have sea lions. We’ve got bat rays. We have a pair of seagulls—George and Gracie—who live on our neighbor’s porch.”
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The couple bought a gas fireplace, but it protruded from the wall like “an ugly TV,” says Sarah. By surrounding the fireplace with Douglas fir slats, Nebolon made it look built-in.
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Visitors climb up the stairs to arrive in this open main room, which includes the kitchen, dining space, and a living area with big sliding doors. “I wanted to reward people with a lot of view,” says Nebolon. The furniture is a mix of modern and rustic; the couple bought the teak tables on their honeymoon in Bali.
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The Bertrams, avid cooks and entertainers, went through their kitchen dish by dish to come up with the right division of space. Nebolon designed hanging racks for their favorite glassware and pots; the island includes custom spice drawers, a pullout chopping block, and shelves for cookbooks. The fog blue paint on the cabinets helps them blend in with the main living space.
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The dramatic spiral staircase gets light from the windows alongside and above it. “I wanted to make sure the staircase just glowed,” says Nebolon. The orange-red color is the exact hue of the Golden Gate Bridge.
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In the master bedroom, the bed is built over a series of Ikea cabinets fitted together and faced with wood. “Everywhere you look in the house, there’s a little bit of storage squeezed in,” says Kimo. The height also gives Sarah and Kimo a better view of the water.
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The shower doors in the master bathroom echo the casement windows throughout the house. The lights pick up on the industrial feel, while the teak countertop and yellow cabinets warm up the space.