Superyacht design: Restricting regulations?

Because working within the superyacht design and build sector can present many boundaries to creativity…

Many superyacht owners, designers, naval architects and engineers accept that, upon the commission of a spectacular superyacht project, the journey to completion will hold its set of problems, but, to what extent are the industry’s many safety regulations obstructing the path to design innovation?

Two superyachts in busy shipyard construction shed

SYOG has spoken to key industry players about this much-debated subject, questioning whether they believe regulation to have an adverse effect on the progression of design within this controlled industry: Are regulations too limiting, stifling creativity; or do they pose a necessary and exciting challenge to overcome?

Ruling regulations: Safety vs. design innovation

Established and enforced in order to avoid difficulty, disaster and loss of life at sea, the plethora of safety regulations that rule over the superyacht industry are all-too-often perceived to remain under-challenged by yacht designers and their build teams when visualising new vessels.

As we are all too aware, interior and exterior space is at a premium on board, often presenting a difficult hurdle for yacht designers, naval architects and engineers to overcome. This is without taking into consideration the further demands of the many applicable rules and regulations, which, fastidious and complex by their very nature, are here to stay.

If followed to the letter without understanding of their purpose and intent, or without consideration made to possible alternative means of compliance, safety regulations can be seen by many to pose a major barrier to the design innovation that makes this unique industry so distinct and appealing in the first place.

Yacht designers and naval architects must work creatively to overcome rules and regulations

Each individual working within the design and build sector holds their own opinions on the effect of such precise regulation on design innovation, commonly sharing a view that the many conventions are typically more applicable to the commercial shipping industry from which they often originate, particularly in regards to SOLAS and MLC guidelines.

Speaking to SYOG, Ken Freivokh of Ken Freivokh Design said that this commercial mindset is one of the main areas of legislation that designers would like to see changed. He argues that the number of people working and staying on board a superyacht is often far fewer than those aboard ships within the commercial sector, and therefore the requirements of crew living space and means of escape are different. A statement that the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) disagree with, with David Ralph of the MCA Vessel Policy Branch arguing that superyacht crews are in fact growing when compared to the decline in crews aboard commercial ships due to increasing economic pressures.

Ken shared that, in recent years, he has faced an uphill battle on design projects, having to justify the widths and flows of people trying to escape from one deck of a superyacht onto another, where, in fact, there would typically be only two guests on the private owners’ deck at any one time. He imagines a time when interpretation accounts for reality in regards to passenger numbers, and in accessibility of SOLAS equipment and rescue boats near the bow of a boat, especially in dangerous and extreme sea conditions.

In light of such arguments, regulatory bodies have on occasion made the move from prescriptive to risk-based rules, with regulatory flexibility granted to those designers who invest in demonstrating an alternative design solution with equivalent level of safety.

Life jacket and life ring attached to yacht railings

Flexibility to these boundaries has in the past seen designers thinking more creatively, moving away from routine solutions to store and hide safety equipment and life rafts in impractical locations aboard, to seamless storage within class-approved hatches and compartments that are blended into the exterior design, keeping all parties happy: owner, designer and regulator. David Ralph of the MCA Vessel Policy Branch advised SYOG that SOLAS Chapter II-2 was rewritten for just this purpose, embracing risk assessment and goals rather than mandatory requirements.

Engel-Jan de Boer, yacht segment manager at Lloyd’s Register instructed that the Lloyd’s Register is “tough on safety, yet flexible with solutions”. He said, “Yes, there will always be some healthy tension between those who regulate, and those who design and innovate. On one hand, there are those who want class to be flexible. On the other hand, there are those than want clear and precise regulations so they know where they stand.

“One should always ask themselves whether the glass is half full, half empty, or is the glass twice the size it needs to be? Whatever your position, together we must push the boundaries of engineering to its limits and explore new territories.”

Equipped with knowledge of modern construction materials and systems, and a commitment to invest in such expensive and time-consuming routes to alternative compliance, it is possible for designers to overcome these barriers and excel in innovative and groundbreaking yacht design. Yet, with construction regulation in particular typically lagging behind progress made in construction methods and materials, it’s no surprise that designers are largely tempted to stick to tried-and-tested design solutions; those saving the most weight, space or delays, in a bid to speed up approval. In these cases, designers have been seen to endanger or overlook the brief in hand completely, resulting in extensive redesigns and the loss of vessels; a scenario that could be avoided with a collaborative effort between designer and regulator.

Underside of yacht hull in construction shipyard

In order to overcome such obstacles, it’s important for the designer to use their knowledge of prescriptive regulation with a sprinkling of common sense. Between them, designer, architect and engineer should have a working knowledge of the various rules and regulations, without following them verbatim where illogical or impossible. Working together as a team, it takes skill and commitment to overcome regulatory obstacles, but due to this flexibility, regulation no longer needs to dictate the layout design or appearance of a yacht; these must simply remain functional.

To ease the passage to approval, it should fall on the Flag State or classification society to offer a similarly flexible stance to regulation; working to accommodate those designers that are willing to design creatively within the bounds of their requirements. Intuitive thinking on behalf of the designer and his or her team should therefore allow for innovative solutions with safety features incorporated, rather than added on as an afterthought.

Engel-Jan de Boer of Lloyd’s Register concluded, “Lloyd’s Register is very active in sponsoring research projects and participating in joint industry projects, ranging from the human element, an often overlooked extremely important aspect of the industry, to technical challenges. I would recommend making use of the various experts worldwide: Classification surveyors, Flag state representatives or consultancy experts. If they do not know the answer, they sure know where to find it. There is always a solution.”