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Ten (actually eight) elements of sailboat design good architects use on land

Ten (actually eight) elements of sailboat design good architects use on land

Naval architects and architects fight many of the same battles; both hold nature at bay (or harness its power), offer shelter for our comfort and protection, labor under material constraints and limited budgets, and deal with pesky clients that are often blind to what they really want.
Of course, there are different challenges as well - the most important of which are due to the fundamentally different worlds that each profession’s designs must inhabit (if you missed it, water versus land).  What follows is a smattering of elements/approaches that naval architects (and DIY-ers) seem to employ (or at least think about) to a greater degree than their brethren on land.  The list isn’t made up of innovations originating in boat design; it simply consists of things that are generally given serious, conscious thought during the boat design process.  Let me know which ones I missed…
1.  Don’t go “big” for big’s sake
royal-huisman-yacht-athena-from-carl-stamper-review-on-yacht-forumsImage courtesy of Yacht

Unless you have a big family (or hired crew), large sailboats are often not worth the trouble: (1) maintenance  is especially expensive and time consuming, (2) sailing safely often requires more than two people and always requires more effort (what happens when your kids move out or friends are busy?), and (3) insurance costs and dockage fees are costly.  The irony is that you really don’t need a 60′ sailboat to sail far or even up the coast; a majority of blue-water sailors would agree that a 30-40′ sailboat is plenty for 2-4 people.  Lin & Larry Pardey have sailing over 85,000 miles for 30 years on a 29′ sailboat.

Likewise, do you really need a family room and a living room?  A dining room and separate eating area off the kitchen?  Five bedrooms and an office?  The downsides are similar on land to what they are on water: (1) heating and electricity bills are higher, (2) larger spaces require more “stuff” to fill them, (3) insurance and property tax costs are high, etc.
2.  Don’t waste your square-footage
skyelark-51-sailboat-interior-from-abirkill-on-flickrImage courtesy of abirkill (note the storage areas and the settee/dinette/guest bed).

On the water, space is a cherished commodity that is only wasted by people who only spend their afternoons dinking around.  Smart sailors do two things that really make use of the many nooks that even relatively small volumes boast (e.g., the inside of a 35′ sailboat).  First, although marine versions of the walk-in closet are rare, sailors are good at finding storage nooks under the floor, under the cockpit benches, in the for’c'le, behind seating areas, etc.  Second, sailors are good at multi-purposing space by, for example, using the main living area as the dining room and as a sleeping area for guests, integrating the shower stall with the toilet space, and using the boat’s rigging to create a hammock at anchor.

Your home has just as much potential as a multi-purpose tool.  If you replace the bed with a fold-out couch, the guest room can double as an office (and even a den) during the day and evening.  The word “family room” could easily be stricken from your vocabulary too; allow the living room to be used as intended!  As for storage, just think of the volume within each room’s walls that is never used - for anything.  One modest strategy for rectifying this crime is to raise beds slightly and transform their underside into a horizontal closet.  Lastly, get rid of redundant hallways - they are gluttons for square-footage and with a bit of shuffling in the floor plan, are rarely necessary.
3.  Use built-ins
skyelark-51-sailboat-interior-guest-cabin-from-abirkill-on-flickrImage courtesy of abirkill (built-in bed, built-in drawers, built-in mirror, etc.).
It should be obvious that (1) and (2) can be pursued by using built-ins.  Sailboats are exhibit A in that regard.  Built-ins serve as more than just practical means of carving out and organizing living space.  They also reduce the “visual clutter” that would otherwise make efficient living spaces just plain stifling by giving everything a consistent appearance.  Built-in serve another important purpose on the water; they stiffen the sailboat’s hull by acting as brace that counters the mast’s massive lateral forces.  Some sailboats have so many built-ins that the hull’s structural members can be streamlined (saving weight and reducing construction costs).
Your house may not have a sail exerting dynamic pressure on the walls and roof, but in every other respect, built-ins have the same advantages on land as they do in the water.  Moreover, built-ins have as much functional flexibility (e.g., TV-cabinet, closet, pantry, shelving unit, eating nook, window seat) as they do stylistically.  This means that in a renovation, they can be tailored to your home’s style (e.g., classical detailing in a Greek Revival home or minimalist streamlining in a contemporary home) in order to blend the new with the old.  Built-ins are also good for your home’s resale value too - and not just because they eliminate the need to buy certain pieces of furniture.
4.  Focus on the details
rowbat-at-lake-union-wooden-boat-festival-ocean-alexander-wheel-fife-designed-saskia-ii-from-smohundro-handforged-kreegermc-on-flickrImages courtesy of smohundrokreegermc, and handforged.
Detailing is as much a matter of aesthetics as it is of safety.  Moreover, its importance increases as the size of the boat gets smaller; in small spaces, drippy paint or varnish jobs, crooked angles, and the like stick out like sore thumbs - and they will nag you if you must stare at them on a sailboat for days on end.  Safety-wise, detailing can be a matter of loose-fitting joints, low-quality hull or deck materials, etc.  Whether the cause is lack of money or simply laziness, there is no reason to cut corners - if you can’t afford to make your boat safe and sturdy, it’s probably too big and if you’re just lazy, be ready for an equipment failure to happen at the worst possible moment.
On land, natural forces generally take a bit more time to exploit detailing flaws - but this is hardly an excuse to tolerate them.  For one, homes are generally owned by one owner longer than live-aboard-size sailboats and in any event, you’ll pay for shoddy work or a half-thought-out floor plan when you sell, if not sooner.
5.  Design with your locale in mind
catamaran-awning-sailboat-shade-from-yoavshapira-and-fotogezi-on-flickrImage courtesy of yoavshapira and fotogezi.
Bluewater sailing (deep-water sailing) demands a bluewater sailboat, unless you are adventurous and don’t cruise for relaxation, plan on getting a boat with a narrower/deeper hull and heavy-duty sails/rigging.  If you’re Caribbean-bound, get a boat with good ventilation and decent (shaded) deck space for lounging in the hot weather; whatever you do, do not paint the hull black.  If you’re sailing around the world like the above ketch, use a hull material that can withstand the pounding and be repaired in harsh conditions.  Stylistically, this point is less of an issue with sailboats, in part because they are extremely mobile, but also because many styles (e.g., Maine lobsterboats) are products of utilitarian design.
Architects might think of number (5) as a call to respect the “context” of your home’s location, which would mean something if architects weren’t notorious for contorting that term beyond recognition and rationale application.  Where it does mean something, it generally refers to designing with respect for the surrounding area’s history, culture, or architectural style.  As a practical concept, it can also refer to construction or energy-saving techniques that work with local weather conditions or material costs (e.g., using geo-thermal to heat/cool an isolated house, employing “daylighting” window placements to reduce energy use, using rammed-earth walls in the Southwest for its affordability and thermal properties - not to mention cultural relevance.
6.  Emphasize durability (i.e., design for the worst)
williwaw-steel-ketch-from-belgium-from-arnybo-on-flickr1Image courtesy of arnybo (a steel ketch all set for a circumnavigation).
Some sailboats last decades, thanks to the their owners’ tireless upkeep; others keeping moving along thanks to the sturdiness of their materials.  For example, certain kinds of aluminum are tough, resistant to corrosion, and capable of withstanding extreme chances in temperature.  But if you plan on cruising in isolated or poor areas (like the above ketch), steel may be a better material because it is easier to mend and repair with simple tools (see number (5)).  Seeking durability may cost a bit more; but using tougher (i.e., pricier) rigging may be the difference between a de-masting (and likely capsize) and swift cruising.
As with number (4), durable construction materials substantially affect your home’s resale value.  But, as this list also shows, it isn’t your own concern; for instance, asphalt roofing may last a long time, but it lacks the warmth and value that comes with cedar shingles.  Similarly, standing-seam metal roofing costs more, but lasts at least twice as long.
7.  Get the proportions right
hinckley-picnic-boat-from-pneedham-on-flickr-and-the-herreshoff-sailboat-pirate-at-victoria-wooden-boat-festival-from-handforged-on-flickrImages courtesy of pneedham & handforged (Ted Geary-designed sailboats are perfect blends of aesthetic appeal and sailing performance, whereas the Hinckley Picnic Boat is an iconic distillation of the best components of New England’s Down East style).
Bad proportions persist for a couple reasons.  Sometimes a sailboat’s external dimensions are solely a result of its internal floor plan; other times the reverse happens and livability is sacrificed for sailing performance, which makes for fun racing, but uncomfortable/stressful cruising.  Whichever choice is made, the resulting trade-off is often unnecessary.  You can have a graceful outer profile, good cruising performance, and decent living accommodations in a single package - you just can’t rush the design.  Proportions take on particular importance with sailboats (any boat, really), simply because optimal performance is elusive, reliant on the deft consideration of a plethora of interacting variables (weights, dimensions, volumes, etc.).
Architecture has an odd relationship with proportion.  Up until the 20th Century, architects and “gentleman designers” were slaves to it - if not because they subscribed (as many did) to the pursuit of “ideal proportions,” then certainly because accurate derivatives of historical styles demanded certain spatial relationships.  Proportion remains relevant, notwithstanding increasingly fluid application (”Does that wing overwhelm the main entrance?”;”Did I favor the building’s overall form at the sacrifice the interior’s flow and spatial cohesiveness?”; etc.).
8.  Cherish natural light
sailboat-deck-hatch-skylight-porthole-swedish-sailboat-trawler-from-boats-n-cars-jeremybrooks-yoavshapira-question-everything-davidwkentsr-on-flickrImages courtesy of question_everything, boats-n-cars, jeremybrooks, davidwkentsr, andyoavshapira.
The desire for more (natural) light would be among the most common reasons given by sailors-turned-powerboaters when asked why they abandoned sails for propellers.  With the notable exceptions of catamarans, motorsailors, and large sailboats with elevated superstructures, sailboats are commonly afflicted with cave-like lighting conditions.  Sailors don’t like living in dark, damp spaces pierced with just a few small windows - it’s just that larger windows cost more, leak more, and reduce the strength of the hull/deck structure.
Since sailors are practical-minded folk (with limited budgets), they often accept the trade-off (safety/affordability over light) and instead focus on the natural light’s quality.  For instance, skylights (that usually double as deck hatches for practicality’s/money’s sake) are used to light larger volumes - they are generally located on the boat’s centerline, which gives each side an equal glow.  Portholes are cheap, relatively strong ways to get light into spaces that are either isolated from the skylight (such as a stern cabins, heads, or side berths) or are used enough to justify an additional light source.
Most people are aware that natural light improves the mood (something to do with Vitamin D, I think) - and yet there are plenty of homes that contain rooms solely lit by artificial light.  Unless you live on an urban lot with buildings abutting the property line, every attempt should be made to give each room a natural light source.  Solar power is another (obvious) way to maximize the benefit received from your natural light. bvious) way to maximize the benefit received from your natural light.


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  3. Josh Wright says:

    I’m an architect and liveaboard cruiser. I completely agree. #1 seems to be the most insidious misunderstanding of all my clients. Meis was right - less is more. Or, it can be more if handled correctly.

  4. I’m an architect and liveaboard cruiser. I completely agree. #1 seems to be the most insidious misunderstanding of all my clients.

  5. Paul says:

    Indeed - and it arguably qualifies as a syndrome in American life. By the way, your profession and living situation is incredibly appealing - and I know it is a rare combination. Hopefully clients don’t doubt your abilities to design on land in light of your decision to live on water (the suspicions many have about skinny chefs comes to mind)!

  6. Jen says:

    I believe the sailboat under the heading “Get the proportions right” is misattributed. The boat looks to be Pirate which is a Geary design. The pic looks to be taken at the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle. Geary is my relative. His designs are gorgeous, and he was a master naval architect. Please give credit where credit is due.

  7. Paul says:

    Thanks for the correction and sorry for the mis-attribution, Jen! I have also long admired Geary’s designs, and now that you mention it, the boxier cabin roof, if nothing else, is a clear indicator of its West Coast heritage. - Paul

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