Express Yourself

Canal boats, castles and haunted attics: what it’s really like to live in an unconventional home

Have you ever looked around at the four wall of your home and thought… what if? Here, six women who live in unconventional spaces share their stories, from a CEO who resides in a co-living space with 500 residents, to a woman who designed her own houseboat…

“It is very low cost to run”: life in an eco-house

Designer Poppy Treffry fulfilled her dream of moving to Penzance in Cornwall by building her own eco-house in a converted tractor shed.

life in an eco-house

Why did you decide to build your house?

We’d wanted to live in this village for a long time, but property is very expensive. So when the opportunity came up to buy an old tractor shed and convert, it we decided to go for it.

How has it changed your life?

We have a lot more space than we used to, plus a garden, which I am slowly getting to grips with. It’s lovely being able to share the space with friends and family.

The underfloor heating and hot water in Poppy’s house are run from an air-source heat pump

Have you saved any money doing it?

I certainly think it would have cost more to buy our house than it did to build it. The house has solar panels and the underfloor heating and hot water are run from an air-source heat pump. The house is really well insulated including lime plaster with pumice on the granite walls so they can still breathe. We run appliances like the dishwasher and washing machine during the day when the solar panels are making electricity. We also compost and recycle almost everything so we have minimum going to landfill.

Plus we are part of two payback initiatives from the government, meaning we also get money back every quarter for the solar energy and the heat pump, so the house is very low cost to run.

life in an eco-house

A port hole and solar panels on the house

What is the best and worst thing about living there?

The best thing is the view and being able to walk to the beach. I also love the fact that we’ve created a house that meets all our needs and has a low environmental impact. However, you do have to get in the car to buy a pint of milk!

Would you recommend building a home to others?

Absolutely! But make sure you really trust your builder and they have a proper understanding of what you want. Be creative to save money but don’t cut corners, as this will cost you more in the long run.

“I’ve met some really good friends”: life in a co-living space

Allison Kirschbaum, CEO of Luo Media Group, decided to take a room at The Collective, a co-living space with over 500 residents, when making the move to London from the US.

life in a co-living space

“The Collective put on events, such as drinks and brunch”

Why did you decide to move into The Collective?

I saw the website and all the amenities, and thought ‘this is the place for me’. There are so many common areas and meeting rooms, plus different places to have fun, such as a cinema room and games room. Then there are the events they put on, like Friday night drinks and brunch… the list goes on.

How has it changed your life?

I’ve only lived here for three months but I’ve already met dozens of new people, and some of them have become really good friends. I’ve also been really energised to make some breakthroughs in my work, and I’ve hired a number of UK contractors.

Have you saved any money doing it?

I’ve saved money compared to where I was living in Denver, but I’m not sure how cost effective it is compared to other places in London.

life in a co-living space

There are numerous meeting spaces

What is the best and worst thing about living there?

It’s changed my outlook – there are so many people from so many different cultures living here. It’s wonderful. However, it can be hard to get private space sometimes.

Would you recommend it to others?

100% yes, its amazing.

“It’s built to be impenetrable”: life in a converted military barracks

After trying out 10 different homes in the capital, blogger Lela London finally stumbled upon her perfect abode - a riverside flat in a converted military barracks.

living in a converted military barracks

Lela’s bedroom has an incredible window

Why did you decide to move into converted military barracks? 

There were so many reasons! I have always looked for homes with character and, having moved over 10 times in London alone, nothing beat a historical riverside military building with exposed brickwork.

How has it changed your life? 

I think it’s incredibly hard to feel like you have a ‘home’ in London, but I can genuinely say this is the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a home. As a journalist and blogger I both live and work in the space and I could not ask for more.

The exposed brickwork throughout the flat is another plus

Have you saved any money doing it? 

Strangely enough, I have. Before moving here, I had often lived with people I’d never met in North and West London, which are areas that came with a premium. Moving to a less desirable area of southeast London saves my partner and I hundreds of pounds a month - all without flatmates, and the added bonus of the river and five times the space!

living in a converted military barracks

The flat has five times the amount of space that Lela had in more traditional flats

What is the best and worst thing about living there? 

I love its built-in military-style security. Each building in the area is built to be impenetrable and it offers a kind of private and close-knit community that is hard to find elsewhere. I think my partner would say the worst part is our six-foot ceilings on the upper floor, but also that one or two minutes he may have to slouch each day is a fair trade for the rest.

Would you recommend it to others? 

Absolutely. 

“The sunrises and sunsets take my breath away”: life on a houseboat

Keen to save money, Karen Boswell designed her own floating home - and found a whole host of benefits to living on the water.

life on a houseboat

Floating homes on a London canal

Why did you decide to move into a houseboat?

This is part of a bigger plan to be able to split my time between a place further out in the countryside and a commuter pad away from the hustle of the city, without breaking myself financially. After researching options from converting a sea container to commuting from Barcelona and not really getting anywhere, I met a (now very good) friend who inspired me to look into a floating home. 

After months of planning (and replanning) I managed to get a spec together and commissioned a design that meant I could afford a two bed commuter pad for less than £200k. The decision was made.

How has it changed your life?

Being on the water makes it impossible to bring stresses from the city home with you. By the time I’ve walked back from the village train station and down the country roads to my floating abode, the fresh air, the sunset reflecting off the water and the marina views make a hectic day seem like a distant memory. I can distill my thoughts, unwind on the deck and empty my head ready for the following day better than I’ve ever been able to before. The run routes are amazing and the community is supportive and friendly. The local baker, butcher, florist, restaurants and, of course, country pubs are all exactly what you would expect from the English countryside, and all less than a 20 minute train ride from the city centre. It really is the best of both worlds.

Have you saved any money doing it?

If my floating home was bricks and mortar in the same area it would have been three times the cost, and even more in London where I used to live. I took out a short five year marine mortgage to supplement my savings and will be on track to have my house in the countryside in a few years too, without having to pay two mortgages.

what is it like to live on a house boat?

“The best thing has to be the views”

What is the best and worst thing about living there?

The best thing has to be the views; you can’t beat the sunrises and sunsets, they still take my breath away. The worst… I’ll have to come back to you on that one.

Would you recommend it to others?

If you’ve done your research and you still love the idea then yes, but be prepared to live with a labour of love. I compare it to living in an old listed building or maintaining a classic car – even though my home is only a year old there is always something to fix or sort. Boats settle and unsettle constantly because you are quite literally on and surrounded by the elements which, for a novice like me, made my first year tough. I’ve learnt to relax and live with it now and honestly after the summer we just had any issues just pale in comparison to being on the water.  

“We pianists need quiet in order to make noise”: life in a converted workshop

Musician Christina McMaster needed a quiet place where she could rehearse on her piano for seven hours a day without disturbing anyone. She found the answer in a converted workshop.

what is it like to live in a converted flat?

Christina’s studio is the perfect place to practise piano

Why did you decide to move into a converted workshop?

As a pianist I’ve always found it challenging to find somewhere to live in London that suits both me and my piano. I generally practise for anything up to seven hours a day, so I have to ask myself if I will disturb the neighbours, if I can get my piano into the space and, of course, if I can afford it. Also, we pianists need quiet in order to make lots of noise practising, so it can’t be next to a noisy road or building site.

My place is a completely detached studio that was formerly used as a workshop. It has gorgeous high ceilings and is very nicely finished – it’s even fitted with chandeliers. I’ve been here almost two years and love it.

How has it changed your life?

I can now practise and rehearse with absolute freedom. I start as early as I like (which I love to do) and don’t have to wait for neighbours or flatmates to go to work. The neighbours who do hear my playing often tell me they enjoy it, and sometimes they’ll ask what I was playing. 

There is a really fantastic sense of community here. Within my first few weeks I had met lots of people on the road and I rarely go out without bumping into one of the neighbours and having a good chat. We even have a very diligent neighbourhood watch – a chap called John. In the summer I would occasionally leave my door open to get a lovely breeze going through the studio and miraculously within minutes, John would always appear to check I was OK!

The studio feels very safe and like my own little haven, and the street is surrounded with big beautiful trees which, in Zone 2 London, is quite special. 

what is it like to live in a converted flat?

“It has gorgeous high ceilings and is very nicely finished”

Have you saved any money doing it?

Yes, it’s not just the best place I’ve ever lived in London but also the cheapest. I’ve shared places with two to three people in the past for a much higher cost. For a time, I was having to pay practise studios to rehearse there, but now I can do everything from here. I have some piano students to the place and can save time and money travelling as most people will come to me for rehearsing.

What is the best and worst thing about living there?

There are so many great things about living here; my amazing landlords, the community, the privacy and the lovely high ceilings and light that pours through - especially in the summer time. Everything is together in one big space, but compartmentalised with a small kitchen, living area plus an extra conservatory and separate bathroom. The space is utilised really efficiently and even has a comfy fold-up bed. Having everything together in one area is very practical but it does mean I have to be really organised, as things can get messy quickly.

Would you recommend it to others?

Absolutely, if there were more conversions like this in London there would be many more happy musicians. 

“It enables me to save while pursuing a creative career”: life in a haunted attic

Freelance presenter and writer Anna Louise Radio couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her parent’s farm, and all the animals she grew up with. So she decided to move into the family’s haunted attic instead…

what is it like to live in a haunted attic?

Anna-Louise with her miniature horses

Why did you decide to move into the attic?

I’m a freelance radio presenter and reporter, living a creative, unpredictable lifestyle. Earlier this year where I was thinking of moving out of the family home - an old farmhouse in the middle of the gorgeous Kent countryside with fast links to London – but I hated the thought of leaving my two miniature horses behind, as well as our three dogs, 50 sheep and lambs, chickens, guinea-fowl, guinea-pigs, and rabbits. They’ve all been a big part of my life since I was tiny, and I thought about how empty and quiet my evenings would be without birds squawking, dogs howling and miniature horses galloping around. And how boring weekends would be without finding nests of unexpected chicks, taking the horses out for walks and cuddling up with the dogs.

My parents offered me the attic of the house, which occupies the whole third floor with an office/bedroom, shower room and little lounge. At the time, it was being used as storage, and it has taken eight months to clear out, plaster, sand down, paint, carpet, and move my bedroom upstairs to the third floor. 

what is it like to live in a haunted attic?

Anna Louise has added lots of personal touches to the attic

Have you saved any money doing it?

I get an attic apartment on very low rent in the perfect location for my presenting, which enables me to save while pursuing a creative career. I feel incredibly lucky.

What is the best and worst thing about living there?

The attic is haunted. I have memories of hearing footsteps and a piano playing up there as a child as my old room is directly below – but we have never had a piano in the house…

During the day, the attic is light and bright, but at night, noises have woken my whole family: creaking stairs, moving floorboards and even a spooky old air conditioning unit, which was pulled off the wall and thrown across the room with wires exposed and dragged across the floor. I was blamed for trying out DIY - but I never touched it! I’ve learnt to live with the strange happenings and weird noises late at night…

But the best thing is that I get to design my own creative space. I’ve already filled it with different cacti, leafy houseplants and artwork, but there’s lots left to do. It’ll be not only the place I live and chill, but where I brainstorm and plan my radio shows and features, so I want it to be somewhere that will inspire me to create.

I spent the summer in my attic planning my interviews, outdoor broadcasts and crazy radio challenges… who knows where it will take me next?

How has it changed your life?

It’s given me the freedom of having my own apartment without bankrupting me.

Would you recommend it to others?

I’d definitely recommend any young creative to think outside of the box when it comes to living spaces. 

For one day only on Thursday 20 September, Gemma Cairney has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Express Yourself platform – a digital initiative which aims to inspire us, challenge us and encourage us to explore our creative sides.

For similarly inspiring content, check out Stylist’s September Shake Up initiative here.

Images: Courtesy of interviewees

The Collective images: Tia Tuovinen

Main image and houseboat images: Alessia Armenise