Making Waves in Boat Design

RMI’s methodology starts with the “end-uses”—in this case the services that Ethereal is expected to provide—and asks how they can be provided more efficiently.

On a cool November evening in a small Dutch town, several Rocky Mountain Institute consultants sat in a hotel lobby, discussing the schedule for the three-day design charrette1 that would begin the next morning. As we sat there, a tall, intense man strode briskly towards us. He greeted us and wasted no time diving into the project at hand; laptops appeared with impressive speed, a team of colleagues emerged from adjacent tables, and the lobby was quickly transformed into an impromptu design studio.

The man was Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. The team organized by Bill and RMI consisted of eleven world leaders in their fields—ranging from biological wastewater treatment to super-efficient air conditioning to advanced battery storage of electricity. Several noted naval architects also took part. The team’s mission was to help Bill create a more efficient, integrated design for his new home, a 182-foot- (55.5-meter-) long expedition sailing yacht named Ethereal, scheduled for launch in 2008.

That our design effort began late on a Sunday evening, and that it took place in a hotel lobby instead of an elaborate drafting room, is indicative of the nature of the integrative design process. RMI places more emphasis on getting the right people together than on getting them in a particular place with specific tools. The most effective conceptual designs—the kinds that provide simple, elegant solutions—often don’t require laboratories and wind tunnels, but rather open dialogue and the free exchange of ideas between people from different disciplines. This is one of the keys to integrative design.

Initially the project’s relevance to RMI’s mission was questioned. Should RMI commit time and other resources to advancing integrative design in a niche industry such as this—especially one accessible only to the world’s wealthiest? Did the hope of innovations’ trickling down to other industries provide sufficient incentive? Or did the appeal of the industry and the apparent indulgence of the boat’s function conceal an opportunity to address problems that are actually enormously relevant, timely, and integral to a range of issues central to our mission? It quickly became clear that there were at least two levels on which the latter was true (see “Why the Ethereal Charrette?” by RMI CEO Amory B. Lovins).

Most directly, Ethereal will be both a vessel that transports people and a structure in which they live, two functions that RMI deals with daily, albeit in more traditional forms. Indeed, most systems on a luxury yacht deliver the same functionality found in commonplace vehicles and structures ashore, though with greater reliability and amenity.

On a broader level of applicability, a good yacht must also provide all the amenities found in the infrastructures of well-designed neighborhoods and cities. During the charrette Bill frequently reiterated that Ethereal should be thought of as self-contained, as though she were an isolated island that could travel the seas.

The boat must keep her passengers (crew and guests) safe, regardless of location and weather. She must have redundant critical systems, be resilient to breakdown, be easily fixed with spare parts on hand, and—in an emergency—provide life support for an extended period of time. Secondly, all systems must be easy to run with very little upkeep, as crew time is precious. Thirdly, Ethereal must provide her passengers with high-quality food and water without relying on frequent shipments from distant sources; she must be able to store or produce several weeks’ worth of nourishment. Also, like a modern community of people, a yacht produces wastes, organic and non-organic, that must be treated and disposed of responsibly. On a yacht the issue of trash is much harder to ignore than on land—there is no “away” to throw it; all trash must be kept on board until it can be unloaded ashore. Finally, Ethereal must minimize or, ideally, design out the emissions of odors, gases, and noises, which not only reduce enjoyment of a voyage, but can also pose health threats to passengers and those living near areas in which she docks. Ethereal must provide all of these services in a relatively tiny envelope. Imagine having a wastewater treatment plant, a desalination plant, a landfill, and a power plant all within 100 feet of your bedroom; how would you design these systems? Now add to this the constraints of preserving range, speed, handling, and beauty, plus the self-imposed goal of accomplishing all of this at comparable or lower first cost. The result is a significant and relevant design challenge.

The charrette was held at Royal Huisman Shipyard in Vollenhove, Holland, the yard that will build Ethereal. RHS is a vertically integrated shipyard. Aluminum plates, rough-hewn planks of wood, and other raw materials come in one end, and finished boats come out the other, each fully detailed from fine cabinetry and electronic circuitry (Ethereal will have many miles of wiring and densely packed plumbing) to hull paint. She will have the latest technologies in navigation, communications, and engines, all tightly integrated into a design with sophisticated real-time monitoring. RHS, a family business founded in 1884, is a world leader in an industry known for its extreme conservatism—a mindset due as much to the industry’s entrenched traditions as to the life-threatening consequences of an equipment failure at sea.

RHS has prided itself on innovating within the conservative shipbuilding industry; recently the shipyard adapted, from racing yachts, the use of composite materials such as carbon fiber in masts, booms, and other components. Even this development took time, and had its naysayers. It was clear from our first involvement that innovations proposed during this charrette would be appropriately subjected to the strictest of vetting processes, and that we would have to prove that our ideas satisfied all concerns, from durability to aesthetics, from ease of use and maintenance to capital cost.

RMI’s methodology starts with the “end-uses”—in this case the services that Ethereal is expected to provide—and asks how they can be provided more efficiently. Only after minimizing the use of resources do we address how services are provided; doing otherwise would result in supply systems that are too big, too costly, and often too inefficient due to operation well below their full capacity. In particular, we aim not just to shrink supply systems but to get rid of them entirely, which dramatically reduces capital cost and complexity. RMI’s co-founder and CEO, Amory Lovins, calls this “tunneling through the cost barrier,” because it often makes very large resource savings cost less than small ones. This can also save space (critical on any boat), weight, and crew time.

For Ethereal, charrette participants found several such opportunities for “tunneling.” An immediately evident example was interior lighting. Replacing standard incandescent lights (mainly tungsten-halogen) with the latest natural-color light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and other advanced technologies would save enough energy to pay for the LEDs quickly. However, some of the biggest benefits of this change are indirect. LEDs last ten to twenty times longer than their conventional equivalents, saving crew time spent on replacing bulbs. More efficient lights also release less heat into the boat’s living spaces, meaning less air conditioning would be needed. This in turn would not only save energy in the air conditioner, but would also allow a smaller air conditioning system to be installed, again saving cost and space.

Water use onboard further illustrates how integrated design generates compounding benefits. A typical yacht the size of Ethereal would use some 8,000 liters of water per day for everything from cooking, drinking, showering, and laundry to washing the deck. All this water would be made daily by pumping ocean water through a high-pressure reverse-osmosis desalination system, which—despite being one of the most energy-efficient purification technologies available—is still energy-intensive. Charrette participants quickly eliminated 54 percent of this consumption through efficient yet equally pleasant and effective technologies in showers, laundering, and other areas, as well as by recycling some of the water used to wash the deck. These savings do not include further options, such as using the deck-wash recycling system to capture and store rainwater too. By making reasonable assumptions about technologies still under development, the group developed a yacht design that would require only 4 percent of the water that a standard yacht would use—largely by recycling water and collecting condensation. Not only would these strategies save the energy needed to desalinate the water in the first place, but they would also reduce the size and cost of water storage, purification, and energy systems.

In addition to increasing the efficiency of resource use, participants identified several waste streams that could be captured and used. For example, such yachts’ engines typically discharge most of their fuel energy as waste heat into the sea or air, then use engine-generated electricity to provide thermal services such as water heating, space heating, and clothes drying. It is far more fuel-efficient to capture, store, and use the waste heat freely available from the engines; the group estimated that this could meet all thermal loads (which were already reduced through efficiency).

Today’s yachts typically use a large diesel engine (so large that one must generally cut a hole in the ship to replace it) for propulsion, and run medium-sized diesel generators continuously to generate electricity. Analysis confirmed that in Ethereal, as in the latest military ships, turning the propeller with an electric motor instead of an engine-driven shaft, and making electricity for both propulsion and onboard loads in a shared system, would yield many advantages. These include enabling the propeller to be trailed when under sail, turning the motor into a generator. With such a system, a substantial amount of energy can be generated with only a very slight decrease in wind-provided speed that can be stored and reused later, often eliminating the need to run the diesel generators (whose waste heat, though, must then be substituted by other means).

Since Ethereal‘s propulsion and onboard loads will both be unusually efficient, the electricity can come from three renewable sources—the sail-driven “hydropower” mentioned above, solar cells, and innovative mast-borne wind turbines—augmented by several rather small identical diesel generators. The varying loads and sources are all buffered through storage, such as lithium-ion batteries or, eventually, fuel cells generating electricity from stored hydrogen. The multiple identical engines would increase system efficiency, save valuable space, and share spare parts. The fuel tanks would shrink by one-third. And while sailing or at anchor, the renewable sources could keep the engines off and the boat silent for days at a time.

The charrette also gave participants the opportunity to brainstorm the use of technologies still under development that could be added to Ethereal at a later date to improve resource efficiency and reduce environmental impact even further. Some of the most graphically compelling examples came from the field of biomimicry, prompted by Janine Benyus’s persistent question “How has nature solved our design problem?” (RMI Board member Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, was on the team, as were marine naturalist Jayden Harman, founder and CEO of PAX Scientific, and Dr. John Todd, a pioneer in biological design). Could a marinized version of Lotusan® Paint—a paint that mimics the bumpy structure of the lotus leaf to make it self-cleaning in the rain—be developed and applied to decks and other surfaces? Could the hull paint repel biofoulants (living organisms that often colonize a hull, roughening its surface and slowing the boat) the way certain red algae do, by exuding traces of a chemical jammer for bacterial communications? This could save significant crew time, water, cleaning agents used for daily maintenance, overhaul cost, and marine toxicity. Furthermore, could PAX Scientific’s rotor design, based on a spiral pattern found throughout nature, help Ethereal move more efficiently through the ocean? Could the sails capture water from moist air, as the Namibian desert beetle’s wings do? Lastly, could the vapor-absorbing ability of other desert-dwelling insects be developed into a desiccant system that not only passively dries the air for comfort, but also captures and collects pure water?

There is little doubt that Ethereal will chart a new course in reducing the resource consumption of a boat—luxury yacht or otherwise. As compared to standard designs now in service, the charrette helped produce an uncompromised revised design that is expected to halve overall electricity use, diesel for propulsion, trash, water usage, and noise.

That said, the limitations of today’s technologies, coupled with the amenities demanded on such a vessel, constrain the level of sustainability that can be attained today. A truly sustainable yacht would be made from only rapidly renewable resources. It would generate the food and energy it needs from the environment around it. It would also clean the water and air as it moves. To approach this lofty goal today would require simplifying the yacht and moderating or sacrificing some high-end amenities. But as technology, design integration, and especially biomimicry continue their advances, we suspect these constraints will slowly disappear. During this charrette we began to glimpse the potential for future designs of beautiful simplicity; as Amory paraphrased Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, perfect simplicity is “not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

1 Charrette: an intensive, transdisciplinary, round-table design workshop. It achieves many months of normal conceptual design in typically a few days. A carefully conceived but flexible process, a typical charrette alternates between plenary sessions and topical working groups (sometimes cross-pollinated by “wandering minstrels”) to yield a magical level of integration. Organizing and leading charrettes is one of RMI’s core skills, applied successfully to hundreds of projects across a wide range of sectors, disciplines, and scales.

A charrette is a process of discovery, unlike any conventional workshop format, and thoroughly melds the “home team” with the “visiting team” so that after the visitors have left, the “home team” can consummate the new design. The charrette is meant not only to create a design and to learn together, but also to change how the participants think. Its results are not known in advance and often appear not-quite-impossible. At times its process may seem disorderly. But as we have learned by actually doing many, design charrettes always come together in the end, and abundance by design is the result.

Will Clift is a member of Rocky Mountain Institutes’s Energy & Resources Services team ( His educational background is a combination of engineering, business, design, and psychology. He holds a bachelor of science degree in integrative design and a master of science degree in management science and engineering, both from Stanford University.

Reprinted from RMI Solutions, spring 2005 ( Copyright 2005 Rocky Mountain Institute, Used with Permission.