Hermanyka: Learning to Live with Nature as an Architect

By Francisco Gastelo (with Claire Webb)

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As an architect, one major goal is to build structures that last while catering to a user’s needs in the best ways possible. Since we take for granted that the places we inhabit are stable and unchanging (for the most part), and are tailored to our needs, I have always wanted to explore living in a way that bucks these notions of permanence and ease of use. Architects carve out spaces for homes and skyscrapers, defining the urban landscape as we see fit; although we strive for as little impact as possible – building to LEED standards, using green products, or specifying energy efficient products – we ultimately shape nature for our own uses and comfort. How we live in our Western, urban environment, and especially how we live in New York City, is inherently at odds with the elements.

In thinking about how I could best explore a mode opposite to the one the urban environment dictates, I decided I should live in nature in a way where I would adapt to forces around me; I wanted to experience something different than what I do every day, which in part is building projects that ultimately change the landscape to fit human needs. When I considered how best to live closer to nature, my quest became clear: I would experience habitability in a boat.

And not just any type of boat would do; I needed a sail boat. I was attracted to using the wind as the main source of mobility as it is the element that best embodies the antithesis of stable ground and human’s conception of permanence. I was also attracted to living with the wind because it confers a mode of being that combats our oil-dependent culture. On the water, I would have to make the sailboat adapt to an environment where the rules of land did not apply.

I found Hermanyka in January, 2011 in Staten Island. Even though she needed some serious work in the bottom and the interiors, she was in great condition. She was hull number fourteen of 366 produced from 1977 – 1990 by Catalina Yachts in California. Hermanyka, a Catalina 38, is an evolved racing boat; the shape was modified to be a cruiser / racer boat, meaning the interior of the hull was designed to be comfortable without sacrificing too much of the boat’s racing potential. This fusion of racing and leisure makes her the perfect combination to experience both the the pleasure and challenges of a living on the ocean for a short period.

I bought Hermanyka with a friend, a very talented wood worker, mechanic, electrician and sailor, on December 24th 2011, and so we had to wait out the winter until the weather permitted us to start working. As is the case sometimes in  rehab work, once we started such a task it is better not to look the amount of work ahead; it is more heartening to set small goals and complete them so as to not get discouraged.

The original scope of work, on a small budget, was intended just to get Hermankya in the water for the next season; once work started, however, the project evolved to a complete rehabilitation job that included upgrading all the mechanical systems and serious interior restoration. In architectural rehab jobs, sometimes it’s better just to start anew; in the case of Hermanyka, the renovations were extensive but worth the energy.

The interior shape of the cabin, covered in teak, includes a kitchen, a bathroom, a living area and a bedroom; all are formed to adapt to the curves of the hull. Once we decided to restore the interior, we dismantled the entire cabin. At my friend’s wood shop in Clinton Hill, we worked long nights to carefully restore each element. On site, we replaced the plumbing and electrical systems, bathroom fixtures, pumps, water tanks. We also performed maintenance work on the main engine.

We scraped away the bottom of the boat that had accumulated decades of layers of paint. We decided to go back to the original first coat, and so we had to scrape a seemingly endless amount of paint off for weeks. (It was better not to count the number of hours involved in this task). The three hard months of renovating Hermnayka made the prospect of sailing her that much more rewarding.

Architecture rehabilitation for a new use of a building presents an endless array of approaches of how to maximize and then style the space. In a boat, however, these possibilities contract because the physical space is so limited. Interestingly, we found ourselves trying to renovate Hermnakya in the same way we would approach a building, even though the conditions of habitability we have on land are quite different than at sea. As an architect, I’m used to thinking about a floor plan as a stable, unchangeable map; on Hermankya, the floor plan must adapt to continuous motion in every direction; the “floor” is never completely horizontal, and so a paradox arises in trying to maintain it in the same as we would a building’s. I had to reevaluate my expectations of up, down, and horizontal.

We took Hermnakya out for the first time in May 2012. Once we started sailing, I was amazed to realize how different it was to be at sea, attempting to live in a world I wasn’t used to. The idea of combining a moving yet habitable space certainly changed my perception of the usual and more permanent urban life; being one with the water encouraged me to function in a more simple way, from maximizing my own resources to adapting to natural forces.  In order to move from point A to B and the time involved in travelling from those two points are related to a different parameters that in one way enrich my perspective as an architect as a whole.

When I start to work on a new project, my chief concern is permanent structure (positive space): what is the massing, where should the HVAC system go, what façade would jive with the neighborhood, what floor tile would be best. Other less obvious – but equally important – players are negative spaces, transient spaces, and overall experience. On the other hand, living on the water forces an architect to come at negative space as the starting point: I thought about how the wind and buoyancy – essentially negative space – defined the physical boat.

We had a wonderful time on the water, and each experience was an insight into how to be a better designer because it forced me to think of architectural principles like stability and permanence in a fresh way. Living on the sea temporarily, working with the elements and (to some degree), and being at the will of nature are ingredients for exploring a new spatial perspective.

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I plan to sail more this spring, so check back soon for more photos!

2 thoughts on “Hermanyka: Learning to Live with Nature as an Architect

    • Thank you Judy! Indeed it was a magnificent experience. Today we are departing at night to East Hamptons from Staten Island. We will go though East river toward Long Island sound. Is a two day sailing trip, we are hoping to reach port on Sunday noon.

      Have a great weekend,

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