Lake Norman Magazine

Dock Drama

A gazebo dresses up a dock.
A gazebo dresses up a dock. Courtesy of Richard Rudisill

Editor's note: This story ran in the May 2006 issue of Lake Norman Magazine.

You’re looking at building on the waterfront, but what’s a lakefront house without a dock that extends the living right down to the water?

How about one with underwater lighting, a gazebo, a built-in bar and TV, not to mention furnishings that you used to see in the family room?

Maybe you want a fixed platform for stability and as much space as possible. Oh, and add some sort of theme, like a blue parrot. That’s what Abe Craddock wanted for his new dock in Troutman. Mark Lancaster, owner of nearby Lancaster Custom Dock and Lift Systems, designed and built Craddock’s fixed dock with a blue roof and a wrap-around, open-air, U-shape bar with an icemaker. You could listen to Jimmy Buffett tunes, or watch a TV that drops down from a tongue-and-groove paneled ceiling. “The only time I need to go to my house is to sleep,” Craddock says with a chuckle. Yes, docks are getting more luxurious, a covered way to take advantage of open-air living.“The unique thing about the dock is that nothing floats,” Craddock says. “I’m on the main channel, and it would get so rough, I would get seasick on my old dock. With this new one, a platform steps down into the water. You sit there and have drinks with your feet in the water, and there’s no motion.”Lancaster, who has been building docks here and on other bodies of water for more than 20 years, dragged Craddock’s old dock away by barge and built the new one on the spot. Lancaster says he often salvages the old dock and refurbishes it for someone who can’t afford a fancier one.A large, fixed structure Lancaster built for retired NASCAR driver and soon-to-be TV racing analyst Rusty Wallace includes a helicopter pad. Like Craddock’s, the dock is made of maintenance-free vinyl composite slats. “It holds up better than anything I’ve seen,” Lancaster says. “Back when I started, floating docks were the thing. Now we sell 80 percent fixed docks. No moving parts, nowhere near the maintenance,” he says. “We build everything here, put it on barges, go to the job and put it together like a puzzle.”

Location, location“The first thing is to make sure you can have a dock — that is regulated by permit,” says Bob Wilson, owner and president of Rowboat Dock and Dredge in Mooresville. He also is a state commissioner at-large, one of only two appointed by the governor, on the Coastal Resources Commission. His company has been building docks and companion structures for 30 years on this and other lakes, and up and down the East Coast. When he talks about permits, he’s referring to the regulatory process overseeing dock building on the lake. Duke Energy, which issues the permits, has a Web site that explains the process.“There are a myriad of factors that go into dock building,” Wilson says, “like water depth, and whether dredging is needed. What type of boating is one going to be doing? Pontoons draft two feet, sailboats more. Will the structure itself be floating or fixed? Will it have a boat lift? Is the dock area highly exposed, with three to four miles of fetch — that’s a nautical term describing open water — or is it well-protected?”Wilson says his job on the Coastal Resources Commission has made him see dock building in a new light. “The whole purpose is to successfully develop our shoreline while protecting the environment. It gives me a different perspective on designing and building. I want the docks I build to blend as much as possible with the shoreline. For example, we use a lot of grays instead of white on our docks,” he says.

Other considerations“There are more considerations,” Wilson says. “You’re limited to 1,000 square feet of covered water. How someone uses it is up to clients. For example, a covered slip takes away from square footage that could be used for a gazebo. If we have to build far out to get to deep water, then that will take square footage.”Most dock builders will tell you to consider dredging so that you don’t eat up precious square footage on a walkway. But then there are more hoops to jump through. Mark Lancaster says, “If you have to dredge, that goes through the Army Corps of Engineers — you need an approval letter from them, and also from the Department of Water Quality, and the State Historical Society in Raleigh.“What I do is, I first pull up a GIS — that’s a satellite picture of your waterfront. It’s easy to see where the water gets shallow because it’s very light beige. We also look at the projection lines from the shore of your property — imaginary lines that make what’s called a ‘pier envelope’ projected out into the water from your land,” he says. “We also go to the site and take measurements. For the dock, depending on the design and where you’re going to put the boat, and what kind of boat, we need 10 feet of water at full pond. We’ve got a laser that determines on site the exact depth we have to work with.”Lancaster demonstrates a pair of normal-looking binoculars that have a laser measuring device built in. With the push of a button, the binoculars also take photos, useful for submitting dock design plans to the counties that require them. (Requirements vary by county.)Unless the property already has it, you’ll need a seawall. Many companies will design everything, including the seawall. First, they ask questions about how the owner is going to use the dock. Do you want it to match the house? Same architectural style, matching roof color? You’ll usually go out looking at docks with the designer to determine your preferences — this type of decking or seawall, or that kind of handrail; this kind of dock shape or that kind of roofing.

Lasting constructionBob Wilson says, “The industry has changed a lot over the last 25 years. The structures most companies are building have greatly improved, with composite decking and steel truss framing that extends the useful life three to four times what we used to have.” Wilson says he finds though that the U-shape floating dock still out-sells the fixed dock four to one.Pilings are wooden, and besides the round ones, they now come in a more architectural, squared look. Pilings are often transported by barge to the job in varying lengths, depending on the geology of the part of the lake you’re on. Lancaster says, “We come prepared to drive a piling eight to 10 feet down, but sometimes we’ve had to drive them as much as 25 or 30 feet deep. Most of the time on the barges we keep extra-long poles in case that happens.”The number of pilings is determined by span and square footage. Lancaster’s own new dock still under construction – a double-decker that ties in to the home’s deck — has 43 pilings. He has designed a dive platform, a slide and a full bar under the sundeck. “It’s not my first and it won’t be my last,” Lancaster says. “You know, in order to do this, we use an underwater chain saw and drills, and we have to scuba dive to get down to some aspects of the job. Now even my little girl can help me with a scuba job. She’s certified at 10,” he says.