Form Follows Frustration

Skimming over water, the racing shell looks the very picture of grace. Rower and machine appear as one. But achieving that harmony is another story. Have you ever tried to get into a racing shell? Professor Michael Elmitt of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, who has been rowing since the age of 13, says it is “like stepping on a floating soccer ball.” The shell skates around in the water and it takes considerable balance and dexterity on the part of the rower to maneouvre him- or herself into position.

Most rowers accept the inconvenience as part of the sport. But Elmitt started on a new design quest after a few students inadvertently inspired him to question the way rowers simply lived with the problem. More than a decade later, on June 11, 2001, Michael Elmitt’s Racing Shell Reconsidered came out a winner in the Consumer Products in Production category in the 13th Virtu Canadian Design Competition. And in reconsidering racing shells, he has done more than make it easier to get in and out of these sensitive machines: he has allowed for more people to row.

Getting Into a Racing Shell

Racing shells are sleek, fragile craft designed for lightness and speed. Most are about 11 or 12 inches wide and 27 feet long. Advanced materials such as fibreglass, carbon fibre, Kevlar and other composites have replaced traditional 1/8th-inch thick steam-bent mahogany or plywood, but hull profile and interior layout have remained largely unchanged.

Elmitt explains that once the rower is comfortably in position, the craft is quite stable: racing shell, oars and rower form an integrated system. The oars, mounted on outriggers known as high riggers, stabilize the narrow craft as well as propel it. The rower’s feet fit into shoes mounted inside the shell and the seat slides back and forth on tracked wheels.

But getting into the shell–what rowers call “settling in”–is an exercise in uncertainty and instability. The rower leans over from the dock, grasps both oars with one hand, holds onto the dock with the other, places one foot on the floor deck–which is lower than the movable seat but still well above the centre of gravity (remember the floating soccer ball)–and then puts the other foot in one of the mounted shoes. Then, the rower must shift his or her weight to get into position on the movable seat and move one foot from the floor deck to the other fixed shoe. Once positioned on the seat, the athlete can let go of the dock, take one oar with each hand, and begin to move through the water. At that point, the rower and craft are balanced.

Getting in and out of the shell is more than an exercise in ungainliness; it’s a barrier to access. If you are inexperienced, have bad knees or hip joints, or are older and less flexible, the job is particularly difficult, perhaps impossible. Problems with getting in and out of the shell have prevented many people from rowing.

In 1989 Elmitt met a few of them in one of his design classes. They were athletes who had played football in high school, but various injuries sidelined them from university football. They missed the action, the competition and the exercise that the sport had provided. Elmitt suggested rowing as an outstanding non-impact cardiovascular conditioning sport. They told him that they would love to row if they could; some had rowed in high school but had stopped because they lacked the flexibility and knee joint strength to get into a rowing shell.

Their comments encouraged Elmitt to rethink what he and other rowers had taken for granted for years. It also put his teaching in a new light. Elmitt teaches students that the “object of design exercises is to recognize opportunities that are there.” The opportunity to design a better racing craft was there, but Elmitt hadn’t seen it at first. It took a conversation with a few burly ex-football players to help him see it. It was a good illustration of Raymond Loewy’s dictum: “never leave well enough alone.”

Once Elmitt stopped accepting that getting in and out of a racing shell had to be difficult, he had unknowingly started the journey to winning the Virtu 13 Design Competition with his Racing Shell Reconsidered. Elmitt’s solution made it possible for people of a wider range of body types, physical conditions and ages to enjoy rowing in racing shells. This increased accessibility impressed the Virtu 13 judges, who also appreciated the beauty and elegance of the finished product.

Reconsidering the Racing Shell

The rower/racing shell system is unstable during entry because the hull is narrow and rides high in the water, and because the floor deck onto which the rower first steps is much higher than the bottom of the hull. What could be changed? The external hull profile was a given. Could the deck be eliminated? No. Stepping directly onto the thin hull might harm it, and thickening it to make it stronger would add weight. What about lowering the floor deck slightly? This would weaken the hull because the deck provides cross-bracing, which supports the traditional rigger position.

Elmitt looked at modifying the profile of the floor deck to lower the point onto which the rower steps without weakening the hull or making it heavier. He decided to replace the inner deck with a U-shaped carbon fibre insert that would serve as both a footwell and structural reinforcing for the fragile hull.

It was a brilliant idea, but would it work for both rower and boatbuilder? Elmitt was confident about the former and had built prototypes himself, but he needed a boatbuilder/ manufacturer. His profound respect for the craftsmen and builders who turn drawings and ideas into working objects comes from the fact that he also trained as an industrial designer. He also knew that acceptance of his ideas by a reputable boatbuilder was an essential step towards acceptance by rowers. He turned to Levator Boat Works in London, Ontario, where he worked with Jurgen Kaschper, a second-generation racing shell builder whose research and design/build expertise complemented Elmitt’s design skills.

Kaschper and Elmitt found that the U-shaped carbon fibre footwell insert necessitated further changes. Most notably, they had to redesign and relocate the wing rigger, which supports and provides the pivot points for the oars. The new wing rigger is a high-strength lightweight carbon fibre structure whose sculptural form, inspired by human arms and shoulders, recalls the work of Santiago Calatrava. In the end, they found that with the redesigned footwell insert and wing rigger the racing shell was not only easier to get into, it was structurally strong and a delight to row.

The racing shell is now in production on an as-ordered basis. In addition to making it easier for rowers to enter the shell, the footwell offers much-needed storage space for water bottles and safety equipment. But most important, the new design has increased access to rowing for many people.

Creative Dissatisfaction

What does Elmitt’s story say about architecture and architects? Perhaps the most important feature of the Racing Shell Reconsidered is the reminder that whatever design field we work in, we must be conscious of dissatisfaction. The idea for the improved racing shell did not come from new knowledge, but from a new perspective, a refusal to accept a familiar barrier.

How do we learn to become dissatisfied with what we have known and accepted for years? How do we rethink the familiar to see the opportunities hidden there? How do we give birth to and nurture the kind of dissatisfaction that led to the Racing Shell Reconsidered?

I’ve always disliked the expression “form follows function,” but I’m beginning to like the expression “form follows frustration.” We can learn a lot from frustration. Let’s teach students to identify points of frustration. Let’s reward them for finding new areas of frustration. Let’s find more problems worth tackling by architects. It will result in a world with a lot more good design.

Norman Ball, Ph.D., is Director of the Centre for Society, Technology and Values, Systems Design Engineering, University of Waterloo
. Photographs by Robert McNair, except as noted.