5 Principles Building Boats Can Teach Us About Building on Land

As a design firm rooted in the marine industry, we often reference the great naval architects and boat builders of the past to draw inspiration. Looking back through the annals of marine history provides not only fascinating insight into the past, it also sparks the imagination to find the next great design innovation.

While boatbuilding and marine design may constitute only a small percentage of the larger architecture and design world, it’s increasingly clear that there are many best practices and principles of boatbuilding (both old and new), which can help inspire, innovate, and guide the future of architecture, construction, and interior design on land.

Below is a list of the top principles of what boatbuilding and marine architecture can teach us about building on land.

The worlds-largest sail assist yacht, Sailing Yacht A, which measures over 143 m and weights over 126K tonnes. Designed by Nobiskrug.

Efficiency and Luxury are not Contradictions

Ocean going vessels by their very nature are limited by the resources they carry, consume, and produce. The value of potable water, power, and fuel become inherent when crossing an ocean. Run out of resources and you perish. Given these high stakes, boat designers place a high value on efficiency in every aspect of design and operation of a vessel.  Lighting, showerheads, toilets, pumps, motors, and cooking appliances are all designed to conserve and optimize. However, in yacht design, success is measured at a much higher bar than mere survival.  Yacht owners want the ability to spend extended time at sea while enjoying the experience in premium comfort and style.

Fortunately, the optimization of efficiency and luxury don’t have to come at the expense of one another.  While sailboats can be seen as the original “green” transportation vehicle, today some of the largest and most luxurious “gigayachts” on the ocean are propelled with sailssail assisted, or utilize hybrid propulsion systems. Waste-heat recovery systems maximize efficiency and reduce CO2 and new efficient desalination and wastewater recovery systems mean long showers are possible even when water supply is limited. 

Some of these technologies, if not developed in parallel, will have already spilled over into mainstream housing design.  However, as climate change places greater pressure on the cost and availability of resources (coupled with a need to reduce carbon emissions) more architects will look to the marine industry for solutions that are effective while also maintaining a level of style and luxury.

Wood mast and boom on, Italmas, a 44 weekend cruiser designed by Stephens Waring. Photo credit : Alison Langley

Innovative Building Materials are a Win Win

When measuring sustainability, it’s important to not only assess how something operates (resources in and emissions out), but also to measure the footprint of the materials from which it’s built. We recognize that on this topic a reflection of boatbuilding requires a critical eye.  In many cases, boatbuilding is a complex, chemically intensive process which has not always led to the greenest of practices. However, boatbuilders and marine designers have a long history of continual improvement by experimenting, testing, and rethinking materials and building components.

While strength, weight, maintenance, and beauty have always been key factors for material selection, there is one material with an ancient history in boat construction that checks all the boxes. It’s also on the leading edge in the field of sustainable material technology today: wood.

The 280-foot-tall Mjøstårnet tower became the world’s tallest timber building when it opened in 2019. Credit: Woodify AS / Photo: Vjus AS

Wood products store carbon, helping to mitigate climate change while also providing a good alternative for materials that require large amounts of fossil fuels to produce.  A 2019 study found that a hybrid mass timber building achieved 26.5% lower global warming potential than a concrete building.

 And while the use of scarce, tropical hardwoods like teak and old-growth wood from domestic forests are not sustainable, new wood technologies like mass timber and modified wood are providing pathways for fast-replenishing and sustainable supplies. These new wood technologies are extremely durable and strong. Products like LIGNIA can mimic the look of traditional decorative hardwoods. Beautiful, strong and sustainable, wood has brought us full circle from 5,000 year old Egyptian sailing vessels to cutting edge skyscrapers of the future.

Read more about the complexity of sustainable boatbuilding here

Master Suite on 65ft Anna, designed by Stephens Waring. Photo credit: Alison Langley

Small Spaces Can Feel Big

Ask anyone that’s spent considerable time living on a boat and they can speak to their appreciation for every square inch of extra available space.  As real estate prices skyrocket across the country driven by housing supply shortages and soaring construction costs, many building and homebuyers are looking to make more of smaller homes and spaces. Look no further than the popularity of the Tiny Home Market, which is set to grow by USD 3.33 billion between 2021-2025.

Yacht designers are the heavy-weight contenders of space efficiency.  They think about how each wall and surface can serve multiple roles with transformative configurations and compartments.  Yacht builders are also masters of illusions with paint, lighting, and scaling to make even confined spaces feel bigger, more airy, and inviting. As small space magicians, the techniques of yacht designers can help architects create better living experiences for individuals and families living in small abodes around the world.

Multifunctional cockpit, dining area, and lounge on Isobel designed to maximize comfort, durability, and style. Boat designed by Stephens Waring. Photo credit: Alison Langley

Outdoor Living can by Luxurious 

For many homeowners, it took the pandemic for them to discover and appreciate their own backyard.  Now that they’ve discovered the joys of outdoor living, they’re not going back. Gone are the small decks with faded furniture and a tiny umbrella that barely covers a table. Living outdoors can be a year-round luxury affair.

For sailors, there has never been much of a discussion about spending time outdoors. It’s part of boating DNA.  However, yacht designers have made above-deck life a 5-star experience.  From outdoor dining to lounging and working, marine designers have created spaces that optimize luxury and provide a connection to nature while also being able to handle the toughest elements mother nature can throw at them. 

Aphrodite, a storied commuter yacht built in 1937 and restored in 2005 by Brooklin Boatyard.

History is Sexy

As we spend more time at home, it is natural that we begin to think more romantically about the places we live. There is a desire to better connect the origin of our homes to history, community, and environment. For historic homes this may be manifested by pulling up floorboards to reveal the hardwoods. For new homes, it may include creating a design that matches the historical architecture and aesthetic of a neighborhood or even to the style of dwellings of the areas indigenous people (the adobe houses of Santa Fe, NM are a great example).

As creators of Spirt of Tradition Yachts we tend to romanticize history as well. Yacht design is a great way to pay respect and draw inspiration from the past while also building on those legacies with new technology and innovation. The centuries of skills and artistry perfected by tradespeople including masons, carpenters, and skilled builders are quickly disappearing. There is much to be gleaned from these historic trades. There is also an opportunity to combine the artistry of the past with the latest technology and sustainable materials of the present.  When done well, it is possible to design something that transcends time.

Read more about the definition of Spirit of Tradition here.