An old island ferry undergoes a radical transformation


I was intrigued to read an article at the Old Salt Blog about a Norwegian island ferry, launched in 1961, that’s been converted into a houseboat for two Danish architects and their child.

According to marine architecture sites, the MV Bukken-Bruse was built in 1961.  She was a small ferry, 126 feet long and weighing less than 400 tons fully loaded. She was built with access ramps at either end, so she could put her bow or stern against a pier and load or discharge motor vehicles.  This meant that vehicles could drive straight on, then drive straight off, without having to turn or reverse on board – a useful characteristic for a small ferry.  She carried up to 25 vehicles and up to 300 passengers on her regular runs between Norwegian islands and the mainland.

She was retired from service in 2002, and moved to Denmark, where she languished unused and unappreciated for a long time.  In 2016, Danish “starchitect” (presumably meaning “star architect”) Bjarke Ingels bought her, and moved aboard with his partner, Rut Otero (also an architect).  Their family has since been augmented by a son, Darwin Otero Ingels.

The new owners spent several years converting the echoing steel cavern of the old ferry into a two-story, very nicely laid out and furnished home for themselves.  They had over 2,000 square feet to work with, which gave them plenty of opportunity to experiment.  Architectural Digest reports:

“People had warned me that living on a houseboat was simultaneously the best and worst thing,” Ingels recalls. “When it’s great, it’s epically great. When it sucks, it sucks so massively.” So he and Otero discovered that first winter as they went without heat and running water at times, waking up to freezing temperatures and once resorting to bottles of San Pellegrino to bathe before a client meeting.

“You start understanding what the ship is,” explains Ingels, noting that their survival skills and renovation plans were ultimately kicked into high gear by the prospect of Darwin’s arrival. As Otero puts it: “Living on a boat is a learning curve. Over time, it becomes clear what the spaces want to be.”

Ingels’s work, if at times hard to characterize by style, has long been defined by constraints—the preexisting conditions that steer his designs toward sophisticated, often shipshape solutions. “It is a boat, so it wants to be symmetrical,” he notes matter-of-factly. “Part of the project was restoring that symmetry along both axes.” At each end of the main deck (what was essentially an open driveway for cars) they installed sliding window walls, creating a loftlike living space with terraces painted the color of the water.

On the upper level, meanwhile, they took their cues from the two large chimney stacks and navigation bridges, constructing a glass-enclosed pavilion for the main bedroom suite among the original structures. Above it, a rooftop terrace affords 360-degree views. And below deck, they transformed the hull into a futuristic playroom for all ages, stripping away additions to reveal streamlined curves, adding porthole windows and a circular skylight, and treating the walls, floors, and ceiling as a kind of continuous white surface.

“Architecture traditionally is so static and permanent,” says Ingels, reflecting on his interest in the water’s edge. “This is dynamic and mobile.” As of late, of course, the houseboat has been not only a laboratory but a backdrop for virtual meetings. Reminiscing about a recent video call from below deck, he jokes, “People asked if I was on a spaceship.” At least, he was able to tell them, it was a ship.

There’s more at the link, including full-size versions of the photographs above and several others.  It makes for entertaining reading.

I have to admit, there’s something special about Scandinavian architecture.  I don’t necessarily like all that I’ve seen, but their architects seem to produce clean-cut, simple, un-ornamented designs that are both functional and attractive.  I like what’s been done to the old ferry.  I bet the builders never considered that as a future option for her as they launched her down the ways, almost 60 years ago!



  1. That was interesting in its own way, but what the article doesn't talk about is what all boat conversions need in plenty – money. How much did all of that cost? I guess if you are a pair of "superstar" architects, money is no object. (Kind of like an episode on HDTV.)

    Another thing the article left out was any discussion of what became of the ferry's engine room. Is it still operational? Can this boat move under its own power? Or is it welded to the pier.

    There are a lot of us that have fantasized about living aboard a boat. I, personally, got that out of my system back in the 70's when I was in the USN and lived aboard several "boats" with 137 of my best friends. We were not welded to the pier.

  2. Saw a similar sized retired ferry that was also used as a live-aboard vessel by a writer. Can't recall the well known writer's name. This was anchored/docked? in a bohemian area near San Francisco, back around 1980ish. Some nice houseboats, mixed in with other odd vessels, like the old lifeboat? with the VW microbus body mounted on it. For a while, that dock area was a feature on the tv news, as TPTB attempted to clean it up. Gentrification was in process, and they wanted to jack up the rents, I think.

    I visited several times in an effort to buy a Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, but it ended up to have too much corrosion from sitting too long unattended near sea water. Both rims were caved in nearly to the brake drums, from hitting a cinder block on the freeway, IIRC.

    This may have been Sausalito, actually.

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