Eco-friendly yachting: How to embrace a sustainable design on board

Written by Justin Ratcliffe

Designers carry a responsibility for ensuring that the materials, finishes and products they source for yacht interiors are harvested, farmed or manufactured sustainably – not an easy task when luxury is often synonymous with rarity. Here, we talk to a selection of leading design studios to discover how concern for the environment is influencing style choices. Yacht designer meetingPhoto: SYRWhen 39-metre Safira was launched by Newcastle Marine back in 2013, her ‘green’ design values became a talking point. “We want to reduce, recycle and reuse whenever possible and live in a more sustainable, environmentally sensitive way,” announced her original owner. 

Apart from energy-efficient solutions such as UV-treated glass and heat-resistant paint for the superstructure, this involved specifying recycled or renewable materials for the interior. Safira could have been the start of an eco-friendly trend for reclaimed oak floors and stonework reused from the leftovers of other projects, but this has not generally been the case.Motor yacht Safira at sunset in MiamiPhoto: Charl van Rooy / SuperYacht TimesSustainability is not always a client's priority

“How concerned are clients about sustainability? I'm afraid to say not as concerned as you'd like them to be when a bewildering array of finishes can sometimes be requested in the belief that it demonstrates richness and interest,” says Dickie Bannenberg. “I'm not sure we've ever had a question about origins and eco-credentials, but I live in hope.”

Instead, the candid company leader of Bannenberg & Rowell relies on his own kind of ‘sensitivity-ometer’ when deciding what is ethically acceptable or not. Most designers have stories of inappropriate requests and for Bannenberg the tipping point came when it was suggested that thousands of butterfly wings would make the perfect stand-out finish aboard a yacht: 

“People will argue it's no different from animals being farmed for their leather, which is actually what the butterfly dealer said, but there are limits,” he says. “Our advice presents itself in what we propose to clients and by avoiding the more obvious examples of materials and finishes that we know are scarce, endangered or otherwise.”Eco intetrior on board superyachtsBut attitudes are shifting 

Other designers have experienced a more pronounced shift in owner attitudes, perhaps influenced by greater public awareness and the need to be seen to be green. “Environmental considerations are at the centre of each of our client briefs nowadays,” says Ewa Eidsgaard of Harrison Eidsgaard in London. “The clients want to construct their yachts in a future-proof way, starting with propulsion and ending with the selection of interior materials. We try to establish early on how concerned our clients are about this particular issue, so we can tailor the range of finishes to their expectations.”

Furniture maker Mark Boddington, founder of Silverlining in the UK, is committed to using more locally sourced, recycled or rejected materials to create luxury finishes. He also believes younger owners are more likely to embrace less traditional but more sustainable solutions:

“We’ve been asked by many owners in the last five years to make sustainability the key element in our furniture to achieve a reduced-carbon footprint,” he says. “Sustainability and supply-chain auditing are now the norm to ensure that indigenous raw materials and populations are not exploited. Younger, millennial clients especially see protecting the environment as a priority; they want more time with family and friends to enjoy an informal lifestyle, whether at home or at sea.” Eco intetrior on board superyachtsMaterials on board matter

Silverlining has long worked with sustainable products such as cork, coconut wood, straw, rattan, non-toxic dyes, natural fibres and recycled stone. More recently, they have developed innovative techniques to produce beautiful finishes that draw on recycled materials that would otherwise be thrown away. These range from fragments of veneer left over from laser-cutting immersed in a bio-resin derived from cacti, to reject leather that is hammered and then split by removing the surface layer to create a highly textured and tactile finish.

India Hicks, marketing executive with Winch Design in London, echoes Boddington’s belief that the clients of 2020 are pushing designers to explore more eco-friendly avenues. “As the younger generation of billionaires emerges, whose wealth may come from less traditional sectors such as fin-tech and e-commerce, we see a greater concern for sustainability within luxury design,” she says.

Hicks reveals that Winch Design is working on a 60-metre concept designed according to Water Revolution Foundation’s sustainability matrix. Entirely sustainable materials include palm leather derived from the leaves of the Areca Betel Nut tree as a replacement for animal leather, and reconstituted stone from brands such as Terrazzo, Neolith and Stonethica made from ceramic constituents or recycled marble. “It’s simply a case of offering these options to the client and letting the products speak for themselves,” she explains.Eco intetrior on board superyachtsExplore sustainable surprises 

Some exotic materials turn out to be more sustainable than you might expect. Among the many unusual interior materials aboard 88.5-metre Barbara, launched by Oceanco in 2017, Australian designer Sam Sorgiovanni specified several by-products from animals harvested for food. They included frog leather from the edible European frog; sea urchins that are endemic to tropical waters and also eaten; inlays of duck eggshells; and buffalo horn recycled from working animals in Asia that end up as dinner when they get too old. 

“As an Australian citizen, I’m sensitive to the preservation of biodiversity, especially to the protection of the remaining rainforests, and the use of eco-friendly materials is simply automatic and systematic for me,” says Sorgiovanni. “Luckily, most of the clients I speak to expect the systems and appliances that run in their eco-friendly homes and cars to translate onto their yachts. Living green has now become a way of life and the new norm.” Eco intetrior on board superyachtsWork with sustainable suppliers 

Sorgiovanni worked closely with Nature Squared, a favourite supplier of many interior designers, which sources a huge array of natural materials from around the globe – from leaves, seeds and barks to bones, fish skins and feathers – that are either by-products that would otherwise be discarded or fast-growing and abundant. If necessary, the Swiss company will consult with conservation experts and rangers, local fishermen and farmers, to ensure that there are no environmental concerns over supply. In the process they support local economies and foster artisanal skills in the communities. 

Bannenberg & Rowell are partial to grasscloth: fabric made from hand-woven natural fibres – such as hemp, jute, seagrass, arrowroot grass, bamboo and raffia – which can then be sandwiched between glass. They have also used a macassar-like composite ebony on yacht projects with Bannenberg convinced some composite veneers can deliver a more interesting finish than many of the commonly-used natural woods. The drawback, however, is that they can be perceived as less noble, cost-cutting substitutes in a bespoke setting.Eco intetrior on board superyachtsFind peace with faux alternatives 

A similar problem is associated with synthetic or ‘faux’ alternatives, but here too attitudes are changing as more sophisticated products become available that often have the added advantages of being more durable and requiring less maintenance than their natural counterparts. Alcantara, the suede-like synthetic textile, and Amalfine, a resin-based shagreen-like composite material used by Turnstyle Designs across its range of luxury door handles, are two examples now ubiquitous aboard yachts.

“It’s absolutely astonishing how close the synthetic materials can be to the real deal,” says Ewa Eidsgaard. “Faux-silk carpets are soft, luminous and lush, while some man-made upholstery can feel like linen without any of the practical drawbacks of the real thing. Natural silk, for example, is very delicate and changes tension depending on humidity, while linen creases and sags with time.”Barbara at anchor in Eze-sur-MerPhoto: Bruno Buisson / SuperYacht TimesRecycling is not just for plastics 

The superyacht industry is only now becoming acquainted with the concept of the circular economy and the recycling of interior materials during refits, for example, is virtually unheard of. Part of the problem is that the extremely high standards and expectations of exclusivity associated with custom superyachts are not easily squared with the need to safeguard the planet’s resources and avoid waste. 

In some cases the demand for perfection can border on the obsessive, for both owners and designers. Bannenberg recalls one client who had an immaculate oak floor ripped up as he regarded the almost imperceptible natural knots in the wood as “imperfections”. Similarly, an interior designer of a 62-metre yacht once described to SYT how the rare Portuguese marble used in the owner’s bathroom had to be thrown away when the results were deemed inadequate – not once but twice. Barbara leaving MonacoPhoto: Bruno Buisson / SuperYacht Times“It’s almost impossible now to examine any aspect of our lives without passing judgment about environmental credentials,” says Ewa Eidsgaard. “We’re surrounded by disposable goods, plastic packaging and omnipresent chemicals, but if we can all decide to make small changes we will succeed in making a big difference over time. Yacht owners, many of whom are influential public personalities, want to participate or even lead this movement, and we’re personally very excited about the new aesthetic benchmarks that this new world will be based on.”  

This article first appeared in a recent issue of The SuperYacht Times newspaper. To subscribe, visit the SuperYacht Times Shop here.



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