From warship to dream houseboat (2 of 5)

WWII Concrete Barge Houseboat Renovation #2:

The dark side of the boat


By Juul Steyn


In April ’14 we finally got the keys of our new houseboat in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. At first sight the interior of our concrete warship, built in England in 1943, doesn’t look too bad. Ok, the floor is a bit wobbly, the walls are made of inferior hardboard, and the musty smell is only caused by poor ventilation. These are all things that can be fixed without too much problems. Or at least so we think. Until we remove the façade…


Read Episode: #1 


Houseboat Amsterdam Renovation 1

Above: me, my father and Thor's hammer demolishing the old interior, just found out about the bitumen coating of the walls.


After ripping away the first piece of hardboard, we are immediately confronted with the truth: a thick layer of black, sticky, smelly tar like stuff covers the complete concrete hull of the boat. Not a pleasant sight, and not a pleasant smell too. The question what this black stuff is, becomes extremely important because we’re planning to have our bedrooms in the lower part of the ship.


Houseboat renovation

Above: The help of family and some good friends is priceless during this phase of the renovation.


Our worst fear is that we’re dealing with coaltar, which is amazing stuff if you like cancer. Otherwise: the last thing you want in your bedroom. A laboratory test gives the final answer: it isn’t coaltar, but its lesser evil brother bitumen.  Still not something you want for breakfast, but at least we won’t die only by looking at it. And there was no time to die in the first place because we have to move on with the next phase of the project: gaining height by cutting away large parts of the concrete enforcements in the ceiling.


Sawing concrete: a job from hell

Generally, I hate things that go slow – I guess it’s my lust for life that does not accept sloth. Therefore I can say that sawing away the concrete beams on our ceiling is truly a job from hell. Especially the concrete that the British army used to built these barges with. Watching the grass grow is far more exciting, and it makes less noise too. I will be infinitely grateful to the guys who have cut over 50 meters of this extremely touch material, a job that took over 15 days.

 Concrete barge renovation sawing

Above: Imagine yourself working with heavy equipment above your head and making progress of less then a millimetre per minute. That's a true job from hell! 


A simple calculation shows that they are sawing with a speed of only 42 centimetres per hour (that’s 0,7 millimetre per minute!), with high quality and really heavy equipment. And since I’m ordering those great men to do this job from hell, I’m pretty much Satan…


Concrete barge portholes

Above: The hull is stripped and cleaned, ready for some serious paining.

Houseboat renovation

Above: Family pic with my girl and our son  in our future bedroom.


White brings light

After three weeks of continuous sawing the new layout of the lower floor is getting clear. An isle along the long side of the ship is created and fresh air is sucked into the boat by the brand new portholes. Not unimportant: the future bedrooms and bathroom are now high enough to avoid early brain damage for me and my girl, both not quite the midgets. That’s all cool, but the space is still covered with bitumen, giving it a rather gloomy atmosphere.


Paint concrete barge

Above: As Martin Luther King Jr said: "Darkness can not drive out darkness; only light can do that."


But we're still stuck with a load of black, toxic, smelly bitumen on the walls. So what to do with this stuff? The answer is to put three layers of a two component epoxy resin on all the walls, floors and ceilings – a job that takes another two weeks. But the result is astonishing: the white really brings light into this former dark place. And the toxic damps are sealed till the end of days.


Paint concrete barge

Above: Quite a difference. Things seem to be going the good way now!


We’ve been working over a month now and we have not even started the real renovation yet – this is just preparation... 


In the next episode it's time to start building the boat up right from the bottom.