hoss magazine

Stay in the know

Subscribe to the HOSS newsletter today - you’ll get the inside scoop on design trends, home renos and breaking news. You’ll always have a heads up on our fantastic contests too!

Boathouse : floating or fixed on piles

The image of a weather-beaten wooden boathouse, its timbers bleached the colour of shoreline rocks is an idyllic icon of cottage life. The 20th-century model was usually built on a stone crib enclosed by timbers. These days, there’s a choice: a floating boathouse or one that sits on fixed steel piers.

Ontario Cottager Ray Newman spent about $300,000 a few years ago for a fixed boathouse with three boat slips at his retreat on Lake Muskoka, Ontario—part of a renowned recreational district that attracts summertime visitors like Steven Spielberg, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Set on 51 steel piles, Newman’s boathouse is finished in a combination of Cape Cod siding and pre finished cedar shingles.

“I’ve tried to build something with some old Muskoka elements,” Newman says. “For me, boathouses are part of the romantic feel of the Muskoka, something that doesn’t detract but adds to the appearance of the shoreline.”

Fixed or floating: the financials

When it comes to price, a fixed-pier boathouse tends to cost more than a floating structure due to the initial pile-driving. “At the lower end, a single-slip boathouse with a dock and a flat roof might runabout $100,000,” says James Pitropov, president of Smith Architect Inc. and Lakeside Design and Build, who divides his working time between Toronto and the Muskoka area.

“A three-slip boathouse with nice traditional finishes, some timber frame and a usable bunkie above might be $200,000 to $300,000. Luxury boathouses can go up from there; it’s not unusual to see $400,000 to $500,000 for a boathouse with a guest bunkie, stairs to the shore and custom hydraulic boat lifts. As with any kind of construction, the sky’s the limit, but 90 per cent are within that range.” 

Pitropov says a floating boathouse—usually constructed on an aluminum or PVC pontoon base—would cost much less, but he has not recently been asked to offer an estimate on one.

Installing the underpinnings for a boathouse—whether this means driving piles that support a fixed deck or assembling and anchoring a deck on floating pontoons—is a job for professionals, including a structural engineer. However, a very experienced DIYer with the right insurance policy could build the boathouse on their own. To hire a contractor only for the underpinnings, “I would say on average a floating structure would be in the $60 per square foot range,” says Jordan Kropf, who handles Marine Sales at Kropf Industrial Inc. in Parry Sound, Ontario.

“A pile-driven structure is more like $70 to $80 per square foot, depending on water depth. It also depends how hard it is to mobilize equipment to your location,” he says. “A floating structure can be assembled anywhere on the lake, floated to the location where required.” Prices can vary even more in other places, depending on local market prices and the particular requirements of the area where the boathouse is to be built.

Please permit me

Apart from price, there are other differences between floating and fixed structures. Floating boathouses are a good alternative when the lake bottom is too silty to allow piles to be driven, or when water depth would make piles prohibitively expensive. “From a maintenance point of view, there will probably be more adjustments to a floating structure,” Kropf says. “But those are easy to do, whereas if there’s damage to a fixed structure, you won’t be able to do it yourself.”

“Floating boathouses are used in some areas where there are restrictions on what can be built,” Pitropov says. “Typically, boats cannot be stored in them all year.” 

Kropf points out that “floating structures are often much easier to get permits for than anything that’s fixed. Some municipalities haven’t even caught up with the fact that a boathouse can be floating, so they call it a dock, and it’s much easier to get it approved—that’s going to change pretty quickly.” 

Either way, Pitropov says a boathouse makes it easier to use the lake more spontaneously:“It opens up a whole new world.”

Making it Legal

Be sure your boathouse conforms to local rules before you start to build.

Once upon a time, if you owned a piece of waterfront, you were free to build on it. Today, in the interests of better environmental planning, more municipalities and lake associations are discouraging the building of new boathouses, according to James Pitropov of Lakeside Design and Build.

Before you plan too much, it really pays to research the local legislation and regulations, which may fall under the jurisdiction of more than one authority, and more than one level of government. “We needed approval from the Gravenhurst Building Department, the Department of Fisheries (they looked at the type of vegetation near the shoreline) and from the Coast Guard—they want to make sure that you’re not obstructing passage for boat traffic,” says Ontario cottager Ray Newman.

Luckily for him, Newman says the company that built his dock had a lot of experience in stickhandling the permitting process so he didn’t have to alter his original plan.

According to Pitropov, the permitting process also depends on frontage and visual impact. “It’s helpful to talk to an architect or a builder who’s familiar with what has been approved previously.”

“Local knowledge is invaluable,” says Jordan Kropf of Kropf Industrial Inc. “Most townships or districts have their zoning bylaws online. It’s a good idea to get the municipality involved early and make them an ally.”