SY Interviews: The Brief of a Naval Architect

By Jenna Mehdi

The underrated and highly complex brief of a naval architect is to bring together all of the various, oftentimes conflicting, processes and people necessary to bring a new build to life. Yet exactly what a naval architect does, how this differs to the job of a designer and how this aligns with our industry’s growing trends, remains shrouded in mystery for many. We talked face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) with some of the biggest names in the sector to uncover just what naval architecture means to the men and women behind the desks.

Part 1 of our 4 part series features Matt Pegrum (Yachting Director, The A Group),  and Perry Van Oossanen (Director, Van Oossanen Naval Architects), with contributions from Martin Francis (Director & Founder, Francis Design), Bart M. Bouwhuis (Creative Director, Vripack) and Joost Mertens (Fleet Manager, Vripack).

To kick off our discussion, we asked each naval architect exactly what inspired them to go into the discipline. Unique experiences lead to unique expertise, whether that be deciding at the early age of 11 to go into naval architecture, like Matt Pegrum of the A Group, or indeed designing and building your own sailing boat in the aftermath of a recession, like Martin Francis, commissioning jobs off the back of its admirable speed. Although a passion for yachting undoubtedly runs in the Dutch DNA of Perry Van Oossanen, there is no question this was consolidated by childhood weekends spent reading comic books on the towing tank carriage.  while his father and founder of the business Peter Van Oossanen consulted on tank-testing. Despite the differences in age, origins and specialisms, our interviewees were brought together by one common thread; a shared and unfettered passion for the sea, manifested in a very particular passion for building the yachts who roam it. 

How would you define the role of a naval architect? 
A problematic question, Perry Van Oossanen pointed out to us, on account of the shifting nature of the role. ‘Back in the old days the naval architect used to be the designer as well,’ he explained. ‘The two traditions got separated as design became more industrial - now naval architects can be more described as an engineer than an architect.’

‘It covers a surprisingly wide role, with the possibility to concentrate on a variety of specialities,’ Matt Pegrum confirmed, these specialities including but not limited to design, hydrodynamics, stability, structure, operation, regulation, survey/expert witness, shipyard production and project management. ‘In terms of qualifications, these vary from country to country. Within the UK, it’s UK, it’s possible to apply for Chartered Engineer status, but in other countries (particularly the USA) it’s a more protected profession in the same way an architect is.’ 

Quite a task, then. Landing somewhere on the more scientific spectrum than pure aesthetic design, yet also incorporating creative and project management elements, the role of a naval architect has varied and morphed over time and between countries - and indeed between preferences. A naval architect may be required to carry out the engineering of a project, stretching until the very final stages of the build, or involvement may be limited to an intense six months during the pre-design stage. To blur the lines further still, firms may also carry out exterior and interior design in-house, as Vripack has, or choose like Van Oossanen to concentrate solely on naval architecture. 

For those who don’t know, what would you say is the main difference between naval architecture and exterior design? 
‘The difference is in the technical responsibility that you have,’ Perry Van Oossanen told us. ‘The naval architect is ultimately responsible for the project meeting requirements. The designer is involved in making it appealing for the customer. He is less involved with the contractual risks,’ adding that this can sometimes lead to the unenjoyable task of having to limit expectations.

While the distinction is not so clear-cut when both processes are brought in-house as part of the workflow, as Matt Pegrum explained, exterior design is generally involved with the emotional experience of yachting, and naval architecture more concerned with technical aspects. ‘However, good design should be more than visual style alone,’ Matt reminded us. 

This is reminiscent of a holistic approach emphasised in our discussion with Vripack. ‘We underpin our design with naval architecture, it’s how we approach every project with a full holistic view,’ Bart Bouwhuis told us. ‘Typically naval architecture is underrated, and design is overrated,’ Joost Mertens added. 

For a concrete example of where the two disciplines may diverge though, take the iconic inverted bow of Motor Yacht A. Famously designed by Philippe Starck and inspired by a military vessel, A’s owner Andrey Melnichenko sought the help of Martin Francis to realise the ‘whacky sketch’. Martin told us, ‘I tested the hull in the Isle of Wight tank testing unit before we ever went to the yard. I knew if we ever went to the shipyard with such a radical shape, they would say this is crazy, it will bury its bow like a submarine! So I wanted to find out for myself whether that was the case - and it wasn’t.’

RINA defines superyacht architecture as ‘a delicate balance between many factors including; speed, power, structural integrity, weight, stability and cost’. Can you comment on this balance?
‘Depending on the client’s requirements, different emphasis will be placed on different factors. Everything is a compromise, to a degree. You have to take so many different requirements from so many different players, and make sure it all works the best possible way for everyone,’ Matt Pegrum told us, reminding us once again of Vripack’s aforementioned ‘holistic view’. In explaining this, Bart and Joost spoke of the absolute necessity of understanding the owner’s requirements for the outcome of the project, familiarising oneself with their desires and indeed educating them along the way on why certain choices may be preferable to others. 

This ability to educate is another distinguishing factor possessed uniquely by the naval architect. Where design is largely subjective, emotional and vulnerable to changing trends, the naval architect can back up his or her choices with fact and research. This, in turn, drives an innovative force. 

To take Van Oossanen’s studio for example, most yachting enthusiasts may already be familiar with the patented FDHF (Fast Displacement Hull Form). Developed about ten years ago and installed on roughly 40 projects to date, Van Oossanen noticed while working on a number of high-speed projects that the hard chime semi displacement hull provided ‘reasonable efficiency at higher speeds but was awful at lower speeds. So we set out to look for an alternative; a round bilge hull form, with a bulbous bow if the hull shape allows, combining high efficiency at high speed as well as at cruising speed. It combines the best of both worlds of a displacement hull and semi displacement hull.’ 

So every project is different, true, but it is these trends in owners’ requirements (be it speed, comfort, sustainability) which form the driving forces behind innovation. Nowadays, Van Oossanen adds, sustainability is increasingly at the forefront of requirements - but more to come on that next week. 

How closely do you, exterior designer and interior designers work on projects? 
'Hand in hand, all the time,' says Matt. 'This is the key to the success of a yacht project. Everybody brings their own input to the table, and each is critical of importance, ignore one of those and the project will have problems. Luckily within The A Group we have all of those specialisms inhouse and if selected by the client we can work as a single integrated team to provide a full package.'

Vripack’s Bart Bouwhuis deftly summed up the convenience of this in his appraisal of the ‘holistic approach’, while adding that there remains a valuable tension between the different specialisms of naval architects and designers in-house at Vripack. ‘You need to have this tension between the two, when you have no friction you have no gloss.’ 

There are advantages to both approaches. Perry Van Oossanen pointed out that ‘if the exterior designer, interior designer and naval architect are separate, they are forced to guard their own interests and find the best way forward if something needs to be solved.’ The synergy of this relationship and communication is essential, he adds, in an industry as small as ours. ‘Sometimes you need to say something that pisses the other party off, just to see how far you can go!’

The brief of a naval architect is, to put it simply, complex. Depending on owner requirements, a naval architect can oversee an entire project from start to finish, or be brought in for very particular consultation on one issue. Depending on services provided, a naval architect can form part of an in-house workflow, or collaborate in an ever-changing team of problem solvers. Whatever the project, the task of a naval architect is ultimately underpinned by a drive to realise the best possible outcome for an owner, backed up with meticulous research and solid expertise. This requires the naval architect to foresee problems and test solutions, cross boundaries of innovation and integrate seemingly impossible factors into one holistic whole. 

Next in our discussion we will be looking at the role of naval architects in the task of making yachting more environmentally sustainable, the challenges of this and what the future might look like for ‘green yachting’. 

"You have to take so many different requirements from so many different players, and make sure it all works the best possible way for everyone."

Matt Pegrum, Yachting Director The A Group


"You have to take so many different requirements from so many different players, and make sure it all works the best possible way for everyone."

Matt Pegrum, Yachting Director The A Group
By Jenna Mehdi
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