How One Woman Pulled Anchor and Set Sail in a Solar-Powered Tiny Home

How One Woman Pulled Anchor and Set Sail in a Solar-Powered Tiny Home

To the say the least, the pandemic shook up our notions of home, and some took the opportunity to float some new ideas. After being approached by a client in Berlin to refurbish a houseboat into a tiny home, Beijing-based architecture studio Crossboundaries set out to explore the limitations of life on the go.

“Envisioning people living in a nomadic fashion is no longer an abstract image—it is achievable,” says Binke Lenhardt, one of the firm’s cofounders. “Simultaneously, we are debating our notions of public versus private and temporary versus permanent.”

After buying a boat, Marianne, who split her time between Beijing and Berlin, wanted to create a floating home that bridged Eastern and Western concepts of design. So she approached long-time friend Binke Lenhardt, an architect and cofounder of design firm Crossboundaries. In keeping with this approach, the boat is named Fàng Sōng—which means “Relax!”—representing a link to Marianne’s life and experiences in China.

The firm’s client, Marianne, is German born, but has led a relatively unmoored lifestyle, particularly over the past decade while living and working between Beijing and Berlin. More recently she spent a short period living aboard a boat before joining a rowing club in the latter city. These experiences gave her a strong desire to spend more time near and on the water, culminating with the purchase of the houseboat in 2020.

The boat is moored in Stößensee on the western outskirts of Berlin, some distance from Marianne’s permanent home in the eastern part of the city. It enables her to explore nature at a slow pace. While it’s unable to take on oceans, the houseboat is able to travel through inland waterways, lakes, and rivers, where weather conditions are less extreme.

The boat is moored in Stößensee on the western outskirts of Berlin, some distance from Marianne’s permanent home in the eastern part of the city. It enables her to explore nature at a slow pace. While it’s unable to take on oceans, the houseboat is able to travel through inland waterways, lakes, and rivers, where weather conditions are less extreme.

Crossboundaries treated the project as an opportunity to explore historic examples of mobile residences. In particular, they were fascinated by the more experimental work of avant-garde architectural group Archigram, which was known for creating concepts of lightweight, movable structures and modular technology.

Crossboundaries treated the project as an opportunity to explore historic examples of mobile residences. In particular, they were fascinated by the more experimental work of avant-garde architectural group Archigram, which was known for creating concepts of lightweight, movable structures and modular technology.

"Material quality and durability were key from the very beginning," says architect Binke Lenhardt. "So, we found ourselves looking into a material library that was rather unconventional, almost in an engineering way." The rubber flooring is from Noraplan and the adaptable furniture elements are made from two types of plywood—lightweight poplar plywood and a stronger multiplex birch, both coated with high-pressure laminate.

“Material quality and durability were key from the very beginning,” says architect Binke Lenhardt. “So, we found ourselves looking into a material library that was rather unconventional, almost in an engineering way.” The rubber flooring is from Noraplan and the adaptable furniture elements are made from two types of plywood—lightweight poplar plywood and a stronger multiplex birch, both coated with high-pressure laminate.

Her idea was to create a self-sufficient refuge that allowed her to manage both short and long trips through Germany and Europe, thereby challenging the notion of home as a fixed location. Following that request, Crossboundaries took measure of the boat’s weight, structural integrity, and layout before performing an intensive renovation.

A control panel in front of a large window houses all the technical equipment needed to operate the boat.

A control panel in front of a large window houses all the technical equipment needed to operate the boat.

Unlike a conventional home—or most homes—the Fàng Sōng houseboat, as it’s now known, has entrances on all sides, which provides flexibility when docking. The bow of the boat steps down to a kitchen area—equipped with sink, oven, and fridge—that leads into a cockpit with an expansive window and control panel.

Here, a clever “flip-over” bed doubles the functionality of the space, and also conceals the technical appearance of the cockpit to create a more domestic atmosphere. Nearby, a dining table can also be attached in various configurations as needed, and is concealed behind a sliding wall panel when not in use.

The control panel can be almost entirely concealed by a bed that can flip down to float above the technical instruments. "Marianne is extremely happy with this transformable approach, achieving a calmer sense of home by hiding the more technical elements of the boat," says Lenhardt.

The control panel can be almost entirely concealed by a bed that can flip down to float above the technical instruments. “Marianne is extremely happy with this transformable approach, achieving a calmer sense of home by hiding the more technical elements of the boat,” says Lenhardt.

Color played an important role in the design, with red laminated plywood furniture and a vibrant yellow floor that conceals ample storage.

Color played an important role in the design, with red laminated plywood furniture and a vibrant yellow floor that conceals ample storage.

Much of the interior—including the fold-away work desk—is characterized by the bold red and yellow color palette. "Marianne is not at all afraid of bold colors and suggested we try red," explains Lenhardt.

Much of the interior—including the fold-away work desk—is characterized by the bold red and yellow color palette. “Marianne is not at all afraid of bold colors and suggested we try red,” explains Lenhardt.

“Since the boat only has 645 square feet of space, we needed to find storage solutions within furniture so as not to block any windows around the outer walls,” explains Lenhardt. The living area features additional adaptable furniture, including a generous bed that transforms into a sofa, a fold-away desk concealed within the wardrobe, and a sliding shelf that can accommodate shoes and other small items.

The sofa in the living room features bright yellow Kvadrat upholstery and patterned cushions made from textiles collected by Marianne. It is part of a unit that functions to divide the space,  conceal the fold-away bed, and provide extra storage.

The sofa in the living room features bright yellow Kvadrat upholstery and patterned cushions made from textiles collected by Marianne. It is part of a unit that functions to divide the space,  conceal the fold-away bed, and provide extra storage.

One particularly challenging part of the design was finding storage solutions for the beds and mattresses when not in use, as Marianne opposed the idea of foldable mattresses due to comfort concerns. In addition, everything moveable had to be able to be stored and fixed while the boat was moving, in case of extreme weather.

One particularly challenging part of the design was finding storage solutions for the beds and mattresses when not in use, as Marianne opposed the idea of foldable mattresses due to comfort concerns. In addition, everything moveable had to be able to be stored and fixed while the boat was moving, in case of extreme weather.

The interior of the boat is arranged according to "permeability," with rooms around the perimeter open to a circulation space that embraces exterior views and access to fresh air.

The interior of the boat is arranged according to “permeability,” with rooms around the perimeter open to a circulation space that embraces exterior views and access to fresh air.

Even the floor conceals substantial storage—including space for a bike. "Many technical details had to be considered since working on a boat is a special challenge by itself," explains Marianne. 

Even the floor conceals substantial storage—including space for a bike. “Many technical details had to be considered since working on a boat is a special challenge by itself,” explains Marianne. 

Throughout, Eastern and Western design conventions come together in a celebration of pattern and color. Red and yellow—the Chinese imperial colors—were chosen to evoke Marianne’s time living in Beijing, while richly contrasting floral and geometric patterned textiles reflect the duality of natural elements against artificial craftsmanship found in traditional Chinese gardens.

The pellet stove in the living area was a key element of the original brief, and the arrangement of the furniture in this space is a response to its placement. The interior lounge extends directly to an outside deck with a comfortable seating arrangement.

The pellet stove in the living area was a key element of the original brief, and the arrangement of the furniture in this space is a response to its placement. The interior lounge extends directly to an outside deck with a comfortable seating arrangement.

Marianne likes to experiment with fabrics and patterns and, over the years, has collected textile samples from around the world. She used these fabrics in many of the furniture pieces—including the lounge on the outdoor deck—combining unusual colors and textures to create a unique aesthetic that celebrates her life experiences.

Marianne likes to experiment with fabrics and patterns and, over the years, has collected textile samples from around the world. She used these fabrics in many of the furniture pieces—including the lounge on the outdoor deck—combining unusual colors and textures to create a unique aesthetic that celebrates her life experiences.

The vibrant yellow bathroom features sliding floor-to-ceiling windows that open directly to the water. The pattern on the glass echos the upholstery of the sofa and offers privacy for the shower.

The vibrant yellow bathroom features sliding floor-to-ceiling windows that open directly to the water. The pattern on the glass echos the upholstery of the sofa and offers privacy for the shower.

At the heart of the design is a focus on sustainability and a desire to provide “near-zero energy building solutions”—something that Crossboundaries believes is the duty of all architects.

To achieve those ends, the firm included a set of solar panels to power the boat’s engine and appliances. On sunny days fall through spring, it is energy self-reliant, and can travel roughly 30 miles per day at around 4 miles per hour. An app-controllable pellet stove provides heat in the winter, and eventually, Marianne hopes to install a water purification system and a biological sewage treatment unit.

The original houseboat was already solar powered, however Crossboundaries added additional features—including additional solar panels—to create a future-proof prototype for living on the water.

The original houseboat was already solar powered, however Crossboundaries added additional features—including additional solar panels—to create a future-proof prototype for living on the water.

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