We meet Lee Thornley, Creative Director of Bert’s Barges, and discovers the future of affordable and oh, so chic, city living…
Photographer: Jake Curtis
It’s not often that the major political parties and the bankers agree, but when it comes to the issue of affordable living, they all acknowledge Britain’s growing housing crisis.
Nowhere is it more evident than in London, where a garage in Peckham (without planning permission) recently sold for half a million pounds and a tiny 461sq ft Mayfair flat – boasting less space than a train carriage – sold for £1m.
This dire situation is prompting designers, architects and homebuilders to think outside the box to deliver housing that is not just attractive, but affordable too. One such creative is former hotelier Lee Thornley, whose own struggle to find a property in the capital within his means led to the creation of one of the most contemporary and stylish barges we’ve seen.
‘I work in London three or four days a week and I have two children – aged five and two – who live in north Yorkshire, so I wanted to buy a flat in London that we could all enjoy occasionally, because I didn’t want to stay in hotels. I didn’t want to share with someone else as I wanted my own space, so the only real option was to buy a tiny flat, miles away from work. It was depressing just how unaffordable it was, even when you have a reasonable job,’ explains Lee.
Innovative, but affordable
As the Creative Director of Bert and May – a London-based company who started off making and sourcing unique materials, including time-worn tiles, reclaimed wood and marble – Lee already had access to a great design team. So it seemed a natural next step to move into building property, not just for Lee to benefit from but for others, too.
‘I’m really passionate about affordable housing but I can’t stand the awful, sterile offering made from cheap materials associated with it. So this felt like an exciting way to give young professionals in London the opportunity to live in something really beautiful,’ says Lee.
But what Lee has created is not just a beautiful place to live in, his stylish homes allow you to live on a beautiful place too – the water.
‘If you look at the Netherlands or other European or Scandinavian countries, they’re amazing at building on flood plains and on water because they have to, but we’ve been really rubbish at it for years. When you’re living on the water I love the feeling that it’s your space and that, despite it being very urban, you feel like you’re benefiting from a unique, empty space where nobody’s living above or underneath you. I love water – it’s so calming,’ he says.
Lee’s barges – named Bert’s Barges after his nickname – are about as far removed from your traditional cramped, twee, fully fitted narrow boats as you can imagine. What Lee has created, with the help of his Creative Consultant Laura Fulmine, is a stylish bachelor pad housed in a matte black exterior which epitomises urban cool, without the extortionate price tag. A fully fitted city barge will set you back just £150k.
‘We wanted to design a barge that isn’t particularly flash, but is really unique and different. We didn’t want to be like, “Oh look what we’ve done with half a million pounds” – everybody can build amazing things with half a million. Our challenge was to do it in a way that was accessible,’ says Lee.
‘The one thing barges are often associated with is fixed furniture, cramming loads into the space, so I wanted it to feel like an open plan studio flat.’
So Lee and Laura set about meeting with boat builders to talk through their vision before finding a family business in Liverpool who were, at the time, on the brink of going bust. Together they started developing the prototype barge and, with some financial support, they now build exclusively for Bert and May.
Trial and error
The full structural planning took around three months and to fully complete the 14.63m by 3.35m barge – with its open plan kitchen/diner/living area and one bedroom – took in the region of eight months. ‘It’s a lot longer than it should have been because we made lots of mistakes. Well, they weren’t really mistakes, I see it as research!’ says Lee.
‘When we first folded down the bed, it knocked the light off! And initially I wanted a tiled floor throughout, but we soon discovered that wasn’t practical because the tiles would crack with the movement of the water. From a technical perspective, I wanted to have a higher ceiling height, not realising that barges are the size they are because they have to fit under bridges.There were lots of really simple things that we just didn’t realise were so critical.
‘We did have a few diva moments; we took the London team to Liverpool once, saw the work in progress and were like, “This will never do, oh my god, we can’t live in this!” and the boat builders just looked at us as if to say, “Who are you, idiots?”
‘Ultimately it was amazing having to work to a budget with a very restricted space, as it really made us think creatively,’ says Lee.
A complete build has now been fine-tuned to take 16 weeks and, using clever space-saving devices such as a hidden double guest bed and doors on rollers, together with a neutral-coloured Scandi-style interior, the feeling of light and space aboard the open plan barge is quite simply breathtaking. Six enormous windows, plus a large roof light, flood the living room with natural light and double glazing and underfloor heating – not to mention the stylish wood burner – means the barge will be just as inviting when the weather turns. While they may be akin to a floating bachelor pad, nothing is flash or pretentious here and Lee has deliberately chosen to work with small, artisan suppliers – reinforcing that principle of affordability.
‘We work a lot with the Conran company for example but, on the barges, we chose not to collaborate with them – not because we don’t value what they do, but because we wanted to show an affordable alternative to the big, expensive ways of fitting out a property. So the stove is from Stovax, a regular company that produces log-burning stoves that are £1k, as opposed to ones from Chelsea Harbour which are more like £9k. The cladding on the walls is £50 a metre – it’s beautiful and simple – and the ceiling is plasterboard painted with a simple Bert & May paint colour that we’ve developed,’ explains Lee.
One particularly clever, and unusual, addition to the barge is a full-length roof terrace decked with Bert and May tiles and rimmed with retractable railings that fold down to fit under bridges. Gone are the days of a few highly decorated wooden tubs of geraniums, the roof on Bert’s Barges is a fantastic entertaining space with a water feature!
‘It cost a lot of money initially for the research and development but, I have to say, the roof terrace is the best bit about the whole thing because you can sit on there with a glass of wine and it doesn’t feel at all cramped – it’s your own beautiful garden,’ says Lee.
Arguably the most ostentatious element to the barge – an optional extra – is the speedboat attached to the back, but Lee is adamant that this is more about low-key practicality than showy James Bond-esque luxury. ‘It sounds really naff but it’s basically a little rib, it’s not a super flash object – and it means you can jump in it and go to a pub in Camden on the boat. You don’t have to take your big old barge. It’s amazing!’ And Lee should know, as the very first barge was built for him and remains his East London home.
There are exciting times ahead for Bert’s Barges who have also developed a country barge – 6ft longer, featuring two bedrooms and designed with families in mind – ready to be built for discerning customers for the modest price of £165k. You can even try before you buy by checking in to their boutique boatel – a city barge like Lee’s – on the Regent’s Canal in Hackney.
‘We’ve redesigned and rejuvenated quite a simple barge. There’s nothing that revolutionary about it, but we’ve done it beautifully and simply and that’s what I’m really proud of.’