A Passion for Boats – and More

Norman R Wright & Sons

The market for pleasure boats – motor yachts or superyachts – is under threat and much of the business has moved offshore, as it were. But one Queensland shipyard keeps afloat in this increasingly challenging market by applying its century-old craftsmanship in combination with innovative methods and new technologies.

Norman R Wright & Sons was established in 1909 in Bulimba, near Brisbane. The company has been a leading exponent of naval architecture and top-quality craftsmanship ever since, working for defence and government as well as private clients.

Today, run by directors Ian and Bill Wright, the company is concentrating more on the commercial market. As Bill says, the business of making cruisers has largely moved out of Australian waters, where shipbuilders cannot compete with low-wage nations such as Malaysia, China and Taiwan (although he admits the latter has lost its competitive edge too as its labour costs have crept up).

One of the company’s flagships is the CityCat, the familiar twin-hulled ferries plying the river across the CBD of Brisbane and operated by the city council. Wright’s has constructed multiple new generation CityCats and completed refits on a whole new scale. The third generation of Cats, delivered in 2010-11, comprises an additional five vessels; two more are currently on the stocks.

But Bill’s speciality is pilot boats, which he designs himself. He loves to think up new ways to make pilots more efficient in various conditions and for more jobs; “there is huge scope for innovation,” he says, “more so than in any other area of monohull construction, because a pilot boat has to do everything right.” They need to handle well at low speed, going alongside ships; be fast enough to get there and back in good time; be able to work 24/7 regardless of the weather and come alongside in all conditions; and be quiet and safe.

The latest Norman Wright designs are all self-righting, increasing that safety factor even more. “It’s a matter of coming up with the optimum compromise of factors,” explains Bill. “That’s one reason why they differ so much – there are some really interesting pilot boats out there with everyone trying different ways to create the perfect boat.” Bill and his team are constructing a new hull design at present, due for trials in a couple of months. “It’s far more challenging than designing a pleasure boat, I can assure you. You are building pure boats.”

Where motor yachts are concerned, he says, too often you are designing a craft around a double bed or a bar; the requirements of the owner can compromise the craft’s design integrity. “Comfort while at anchor is far more important [to the client] than performance at sea.” Nevertheless, wherever possible, Bill likes to incorporate lessons learned from the pilots into the pleasure craft the company builds, to improve their potential performance.

The company builds its boats so well that repeat business – for boats, mind – is actually a factor; Bill says the team recently received orders for refits of a series of boats originally supplied in 1988-92. But as the oldest boatyard of its kind in the country, Norman Wright’s is in the best position for any new vessels and all the refurbishment and maintenance work on the fleets around the coast.

Meanwhile, Bill’s brother Ian is prototyping a new form of building construction for adoption on solid ground. “We came across it by accident. I have always had a passion for ‘green’ technology and we were just about to build a house…” The novel system uses panels made of green composite materials, and a computerised cutting tool cuts pieces from a large sheet to fit the design, leaving the builder with a pile of jigsaw-puzzle style components to deliver to site and glue together to make a house with a perfect fit. “You end up with, say, a wall with windows in precisely the right place and everything is just right – we work on a tolerance of around 3mm.”

At the time we spoke with Ian, a prototype house was on site and expected to be completed in four to five weeks at Wynnum, in Brisbane, not far from the company’s shipyard base. It is a purely private development with no input at this stage from any other commercial, government or scientific body. At this stage, Ian sees no reason why substantial structures could not be built using this material, given its exceptional strength. There obviously being no standards for the material in the building codes, Ian and his colleagues used finite element analysis to determine what would happen when loads of varying kinds were applied. The results clearly showed this to be the perfect house in which to experience an earthquake – or cyclone; far stronger than conventional materials, Ian claims.

Another of the material’s ‘green’ credentials comes from its extremely light weight – meaning less energy is consumed in bringing it to site. The ‘sandwich’ is stubbornly durable, with no corrosion or crumbling to experience over time, so is commendably low-maintenance. “Just slap some house paint on from time to time,” says Ian. Although it is easy to decorate the interior, there is no requirement, for example, for tiling or grouting in wet areas as the structure is itself waterproof.

Of course in terms of liveability, you don’t want to feel from day to day that you are living in something ‘odd’. So does this system stack up as conventionally comfortable? “One of the things we are very excited about is the potential to make it look fresh and different from the norm. But you don’t have to – it can look like a normal house and you wouldn’t know it was anything out of the ordinary.” Indeed the owner or tenant could start with a ‘normal’ look and customise it over time.

But is this green dream home affordable? “I think it will be cost competitive, especially once we have refined it a little more. Of course you’ll need to produce in volume to really make it stack up economically, but once you do that it will make sense.”

Ian has been working independently of several other go-ahead green groups who have been experimenting with throwing away the construction mould. There is a company in Germany (coincidentally also a shipbuilder) that has a similar product but not using the green materials of this project, using fibreglass instead.

Ian says the feedback on the whole project has been fantastic, especially from Europe. Although there are obvious applications in developing nations, it is developed and increasingly sustainable Europe where the most interest is coming from; the relevant support technologies, volume production methodology and potential volume sales are also in the old continent. Ian hopes to find a buyer for the entire technology because this is, although very interesting and a great challenge, not a core business venture for Norman Wright & Sons, which remains water-based. “We don’t really want to be house builders although we might do really high quality bespoke houses,” he shares, along the lines of the superyachts the company makes and maintains on behalf of rich clients.

Of course it might be possible – and certainly an interesting feat – to combine all of the Wright company’s skills. In the Netherlands, a country much of which lies below sea level and where land reclamation is a constant necessity, there have been experiments with houses tethered vertically and ‘moored’ by the water’s edge in canals and polders. They can move up and down according to the tide but otherwise remains stationary, now hardly at all prone to flooding – make them out of the balsa and pine-resin mix and they could become the ultimate ‘houseboat’.

For more information about Norman R Wright & Sons, please visit http://www.wrightsons.com.au.

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