Industrial Inspiration For a San Francisco Houseboat

Strapped into orange life jackets and clutching a bottle of Champagne, Kimo and Sarah Bertram were on tenterhooks as they watched the glowing Golden Gate Bridge and forbiddingly beautiful Alcatraz Island glide by their kitchen windows, hoping that their new home—a houseboat that had just been completed in a Sausalito boatyard—would make it safely to its slip on San Francisco’s Mission Creek. Having heard horror stories from their neighbors about rough crossings, the Bertrams had been understandably apprehensive when they boarded their 128-ton home for its maiden—and final—voyage. But as the floating house slid into its resting place, they popped a cork amid cheers from the waiting crowd, made up of their builders, architects and neighbors. “It was amazingly nerve-racking and exhilarating at the same time,” recalls Kimo.

Sarah Virginia White
  • Photo credit: Drew Kelly
    Home Sweet Home Mission Creek
    Designed by Robert Nebolon Architects

    Compared with the white-knuckled process of towing their home across the Bay, the story of how the Bertrams decided to live on the tranquil stretch of creek behind the bustling SoMa District is straightforward. In 2010, while looking for a rental, the couple spotted an ad for a fully furnished houseboat and, on a whim, decided to check it out. Before they even knocked on the front door, Kimo let Sarah know he intended to buy it. “I just rolled with it,” says Sarah. “Two hours later, we were sitting down with the owner and putting together an offer. We closed within a week.” 

  • Photo credit: Drew Kelly
    Tough Exterior
    Designed by Robert Nebolon Architects

    The houseboat they purchased was long on charm but outdated, with small, dark living spaces and few windows. So when the Bertrams decided to build a new houseboat, they focused on one that would celebrate the views and open air.They hired architect Robert Nebolon and contractor Bart Elmer to help—although neither man had ever worked on a houseboat before. The team began by pouring a 42-by-18-foot concave cement barge—“Basically a shoebox made of concrete,” says the architect—atop which they built the wood- and metal-framed structure. The home’s exterior is clad in metal siding, which is coated in a Teflon-like paint that requires little maintenance. 

  • Photo credit: Drew Kelly
    Light Flood
    Designed by Robert Nebolon Architects

    The Bertrams wanted a large, open living space on the top level to take advantage of the creek’s light and views, and they wanted each space to emphasize a connection to the water. Drawing inspiration from the industrial warehouses in the surrounding neighborhood, Nebolon integrated casement windows into the living room, stairwell, master bath and sawtooth roof—the last an architectural element drawn from nearby factories. The top floor’s sawtooth roof faces north and floods the living room with light throughout the day. Tote bag: West Elm. Blue tray: MARCH. Basket with plant: Crate + Barrel. Gemstone on coffee table and the basket on the patio table (by Michelle Quan): Future Perfect. Black Candle shaped like stone in a box: B + B Italia. Patio table and 2 chairs: The Butler and the Chef. Pillows: Design Within Reach. Blankets/throws: HD Buttercup's In Bed Collection Rug: Ebanista. Sutro tower model: Propeller. 

  • Photo credit: Drew Kelly
    Rock the Boat
    Designed by Robert Nebolon Architects

    Then there were the more practical concerns of building a home suited to life on the water. Heavy appliances required careful installation and ballast to match—even rowdy guests gathering in one area during a party could literally rock the house. In the kitchen, open walnut shelving maximizes storage while highlighting the couple’s collection of Heath tableware, which they received as a wedding gift. White vases: B + B Italia. Tote bag: West Elm. Blue canisters: MARCH.

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