What It's Like To Live On A Boat

One Danish couple has scoured building sites, flea markets, and auction houses to outfit a shipshape berth on Copenhagen's water.

September 15, 2015
houseboat
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES MERRELL

Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, is the right city for our way of living. My partner, Jesper, our two young kids, and I aren’t quite city dwellers, though. There’s no concrete under our feet; instead, there is water. In this port town tucked between the North and Baltic Seas, we live on a houseboat. Ours is docked with about 40 others at the old B&W shipyard, a 10-minute ferry ride to downtown. It’s a former industrial area that’s now home to artist studios, craft workshops, and music venues. But it’s quiet, and it retains its grit. It’s perfect for a former glassblower and a guy who owns a salvage and design company; we’re surrounded by creative types like us, and we have the freedom to make our home the way we want it.

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That has entailed, primarily, shaping our living space using old materials from buildings like the warehouses around us. Jesper’s company, Genbyg, reclaims wood, appliances, plumbing fixtures—you name it. He has rebuilt this boat, a 90-foot, 109-year-old cargo barge that once plied Holland’s canals, top to bottom. The walls of our two-story home and adjoining rental flat are pieced together from recycled flooring and doors. Everything has a story.

I’m a scavenger, too. My contributions—a curvy royal blue couch; chairs that, even while mismatched, bear the hallmark of classic Danish design—were picked up in my travels, or at auction houses and flea markets. Dressed in bold colors that accentuate the creativity that went into it, the whole place is a testament to the power of recycling and the beauty of found objects.

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It’s important not to throw stuff away and make a mess. Living on the boat, I watch the light brighten and fade each day on the water, and the tides come in and out. I get an appreciation for the planet’s rhythms; they’re cyclical. I’m glad that, through our own cycles of reuse, Jesper and I have followed suit.

Salvaged (Above)
Morning coffee on the “terrace” on the prow comes with a view of the daily flag raising at the old Danish Navy building across the water. The windows on the right look in on a cozy sitting area, while the skylight between the cleats brings the sun into the bedroom below.

Into The Woods

houseboat interior
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES MERRELL

The kitchen table where the author is sitting is made from old wooden doors. Her partner, Jesper Holmberg Hansen, owns Genbyg, a company that buys, sells, and designs with used building materials. Almost everything in the room is recycled. The stair banister in the foreground is also made of salvaged doors. The floor is from a former gymnasium, the windows were reclaimed, and the chairs were bought at auction. Only the couple’s 7-week-old son is new.

Mix + Match

houseboat interior
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES MERRELL

At the bow end of the boat is a duplex rental unit offered to visitors through Airbnb. It’s a fun place to stay. Using a hodgepodge of hues, the boat owners transformed its rather bare-bones kitchen into a charming space. Salvaged doors, cut into pieces and arranged on the wall, look like a painting from Piet Mondrian. The wall extends up into the flat’s top floor to give the space some design consistency. Exposed copper piping feels old and new at the same time, helping to connect the updated apartment to the cargo boat’s industrial-era past.

Color Pop

houseboat
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES MERRELL

Holmberg completely reconstructed the boat, adding on each of the rooms that sit atop the deck, from the front sitting room to the family’s kitchen at the center of the boat to the storage shed at its stern. Atop that squat structure, which extends to a huge space belowdecks—perfect for the planned master bedroom—grows a thick carpet of grasses and other rugged plants, installed by a Swedish company called Veg Tech that specializes in green roofs. It provides insulation from exterior sound and weather, and the homeowners get an inspiring view out their kitchen window as the colors change with the seasons. The boat has no motor, so it never moves from this location. But with no trees to shade it, the spot is perfect for growing things.

Kid Friendly

houseboat interior
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES MERRELL

Underneath the staircase, behind a wall made of reclaimed floorboards, there’s a world just for kids. The two crawl spaces are like child-sized caves, with mattresses and lights for hiding out and reading. Bike tires frame and cushion the entrances. The tire swing against the wall was made by artist friends; it has a mop for a tail. The desk extends the childhood theme; it’s an old school table. But the room is also an office. The desk is illuminated by a skylight that acts as a see-through floor in the front entrance upstairs.

Patchwork

houseboat interior
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES MERRELL

Throughout the boat, the couple made excellent use of the reclaimed materials Holmberg’s company finds. In the light-suffused living room, they cobbled together this quiltlike wall and repurposed old scaffolding as a ladder leading up to a window seat for lounging.

Door Prize

houseboat interior
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES MERRELL

“I like colors,” says Boge. “They bring pleasure to the eye.” The yellow of the door, which opens onto a storage room, is warm and fun and, for the author, evokes good memories. Even in winter, when the sky is gray, the wind is blowing, and the quay side of the boat is in shadows, the interior colors lighten up the home. Mirrors help; hung opposite the window, the porthole-shaped one shown here reflects daylight.

Ebb + Flow

houseboat interior
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES MERRELL

There are advantages to living on a boat in a city surrounded by water. Whereas homeowners at the shoreline’s edge might worry about flooding, the couple actually welcomes higher-than-usual tides. That’s when the quayside portholes, like this one in the rental flat’s dining room, rise above the bulkhead the boat is tied to. In those moments, the sun pours in, and spirits lift along with the boat.

Tags: eco home