Simon Woodroffe, founder of Yo! Sushi restaurant chain, chose not to invest in traditional bricks and mortar in England. Instead, the entrepreneur is the proud owner of 10 boats, including three houseboats.
Chief among these is The Victory: a 2,500 sq ft custom-built floating home moored near Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk in London. From its deck, Woodroffe has a view down the river Thames.
“I don’t like any of the penthouses – it’s like being in a prison up there. I want to be on the water,” says Woodroffe.
Many European cities are well used to the charms of houseboat living: in Amsterdam, for example, there are more than 2,500 of them on 165 canals. The Residential Boat Owners’ Association (RBOA) estimated there were up to 50,000 people living on 15,000 houseboats in the UK in 2011; a number it says is likely to be much larger now.
The charms associated with riverside living are now appealing to a more high-end market. With up-to-the-minute technology and high-quality interior design, floating homes can be both romantic and upmarket. In some cases, star architects are being enlisted: Zaha Hadid has designed a set of five yachts for the German shipbuilder Blohm+Voss. True to Hadid’s trademark style, the vessels are evocative of a spaceship, with interiors dominated by voluptuous white swells and curves.
Yet top-end floating homes today often mimic their stationary counterparts, with features such as large windows, sweeping staircases, underfloor heating and garden decks.
Jesper Dirk Andersen, owner of Dirkmarine, a Danish company that has custom-designed houseboats and floating homes for more than 12 years, says that he has seen “growing interest” within Europe, particularly in cities such as London, Copenhagen, Berlin and Budapest.
Boats usually have low ceilings and small portholes; to look out, you have to stand up. However, in renovated or new-build houseboats such as The Victory, which Dirk Andersen designed from scratch, there are high ceilings and enlarged windows. Sliding ceiling-to-floor glass doors create a seamless divide between the living area and outside deck.
The Victory took two years to build: “At one point we rechristened it ‘The Disaster’,” jokes Woodroffe. It was worth the pain, though. In keeping with the chic Asian aesthetic of his restaurant chain, the entrepreneur took inspiration from Japan. Offsetting the engineered (or layered), smoked-oak floors are gleaming white walls, black and white illuminated ceiling panels, and concertina walls that can fold or expand to divide the large space.
Like a regular house, it is fitted with comfortable furniture and furnishings, but there are also hidden television screens and gold-plated cupboard doors. “Traditionally, people have viewed houseboat [dwellers] as travellers, gypsies, not quite in society. There are all sorts of connotations – people view them as the next step from a caravan. That is changing,” says Mike O’Shea, founder of UK-based Eco Floating Homes.
Alan Wildman, the chairman of RBOA, points out that boat dwellers often have to contend with unique challenges. These include a full toilet tank when you are unable to cruise to a disposal point, frozen water and no fixed gas supply. “How do you cope with cooking, heating and lighting?” he asks. “All these things can be overcome but it’s not necessarily as easy as living in a ‘floating apartment’.” In addition, boat dwellers usually do not have security of tenure: rented moorings – which are hard to come by, with demand outstripping supply in the UK – often work on a one-year rolling contract.
For the super-rich, though, some of the practical drawbacks – from moorings to heating – are being taken care of at the design stage. At Oyster Pier in Battersea, southwest London, there are moorings for 10 custom-built residential barges on a site dating to the 16th century.
The floating development is the first of its kind in the UK. Each of the vessels has been transported from France and the Netherlands before being converted in shipyards in Belgium and Britain. They are sold as empty shells – giving buyers the freedom to design the interior exactly as they want.
Prices range from £995,000 for a 25-metre boat to £1.5m for 40 metres. This includes the boat, renovation and interior design costs, as well as a rare long lease of the mooring until 2130 (the boats are stamp duty-free). Buyers can touch down by helicopter at the London Heliport, ride the ferry into the city for work, or use their transatlantic seafaring home to pop across the channel.
The Vega IV is a handsome, traditional Dutch barge painted white, black, and red that sits imposingly on the water. The former coal barge started its new life as little more than a “big rust bucket”, according to Jane Sunderland, the interior designer behind its transformation into a high-end home.
To convert the 1950s barge, the engine was overhauled and the interior stripped down and rebuilt with raised ceilings (the kitchen alone measures 2.75 metres high), allowing for two floors.
Traditional building techniques have maintained the boat’s charm: TS Rigging, which helped restore the iconic British clipper Cutty Sark, refitted the Vega IV. Ropes were woven using methods first employed in the late 18th century.
Inside, however, traditional style gives way to modernity. Music, lighting and underfloor heating are all controlled centrally via an iPad.
Boats are associated with cramped living quarters. Yet the Vega IV has an airy, open-plan kitchen-cum-dining room flooded with light. French windows lead to a large deck.
Sunderland was at pains to avoid an interior that was too clichéd (think nautical blue and white stripes) or overly ostentatious.
The Mid-Century modern decor references the era of the barge’s birth, with lashings of walnut, including an elegant walnut bar.
In terms of individual furniture, pieces include a round smooth Saarinen tulip table, white Eames lounge chairs, and Barcelona chairs, originally designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1929 for the International Exposition in Spain.
“Keeping the lines clean was important and also not making anything too fussy to maximise the space,” says Sunderland, who made use of furniture from Ikea and the Interior Addict designer store.
Still, cosiness has not been sacrificed. Portholes in the three lower bedrooms provide a cabin-like feel. In the living room, chopped wood feeds a bulbous black woodburner, the Bathyscafocus by Focus (first launched in 1978), which is suspended from the ceiling and can be pivoted to point towards any direction in the room.
Sunderland confesses that the boat “is not good for an art collector” because of limited wall space. Art aside, Oyster Pier’s appeal is that its barges are bespoke. If a buyer wants to build a recording studio in the hull, or create an entire wall of windows, they can.
Like The Victory, Dirkmarine also designed the houseboat Copenhagen. The 200 sq metre family home, which sits in the heart of Denmark’s capital, has a contemporary Scandinavian feel.
Outside, crisp white deckchairs and an elegant white canopy sit on the wraparound deck. Inside, peach pine floors set off an elegant white staircase and kitchen fittings, which are handmade by the Danish company Simonsen & Czechura in walnut with a white high gloss.
The dazzling, uncluttered interior also features a handful of carefully selected pieces of furniture, which add a bit of colour, including green chairs by Danish designer Gubi set around an Italian Porro table.
Quality is paramount: the bathroom (including the bathtubs, sinks and toilets) has been designed by the Italian brand Ceramica Flaminia, while the floor is created from handmade terrazzo by Odorico Studio. Lamps in the house are from Copenhagen-based Møller & Rothe.
In Dirkmarine’s new London show home, Quality Living, the latest gadgets include: iPad and iPhone-controlled heating, cooling, lighting, music and alarm systems, as well as underfloor heating sourced from sea or river water. Dornbracht rainshowers are included in the bathrooms.
Above all, Dirkmarine wants nature to shine in all of its boats. In the Copenhagen vessel, for example, all corners of the vessel have mahogany folding doors, so that, in summer at least, any section can be opened up to the elements.
Photograph: Vega IV, Savills