Home / Design  / Walking underwater: meet the engineer behind some of the world’s most famous submerged buildings

Walking underwater: meet the engineer behind some of the world’s most famous submerged buildings

Michael Murphy certainly has made a name for himself within the underwater structural design and engineering landscape, considering it’s a sector that many of us didn’t know existed in the first place. From engineering one of the first ever underwater restaurants in the Maldives, to international aquarium designs, a world first underwater villa and even the Kelly Taltons we all know and love, the Auckland local has spent 40 years putting his stamp on a very niche strand of engineering. Courtney Devereux has a chat with the man behind the innovations.

Structural engineering is a highly mathematical, careful process that even in basic terms comes with a host of problems to factor in when creating any type of structure. Now put that structure under water, add environmental factors, gravity pressure changes and times the price by ten. Those kinds of engineering designs are where Auckland engineer Michael Murphy comes in.

For over 40 years, Murphy has been the go-to for a lot of ambitious and predominantly water associated structures. From aquariums, pools, restaurants and underwater bedrooms, Murphy has pitched and carried out a host of different projects in his career. His multi-tasking abilities have shown over the years that it’s a healthy dose of the Kiwi ‘give it a go’ spirit mixed with finite perfect and careful calculations that combine to present the impossible.

Michael Murphy.

Murphy says getting his structures to where they are now didn’t happen quickly, as each project was a learning opportunity for the next. Yet he often has a very nonchalant attitude when talking about the technicalities of multi-million-dollar projects, saying a lot of it comes down to trust.

“It is very much an experimental thing what we do, particularly the first few ones. A lot of what we did hadn’t been done before, often you just had to trust the people in your team,” Murphy says. “But you can’t be there all the time. The thing is, even with the one we did in the Maldives, we couldn’t even test sink it first. We use these huge cranes and ships and they’re huge and expensive to use. Sometimes you just have to sink it, cross your fingers and hope you’ve plugged all the holes up.”

A world of firsts

Murphy’s latest project was an underwater villa, a first of its kind. But for him, no project is too big to tackle, which he has shown with a host of world firsts.

1996: San Sabastian in Spain gets the world first 360-degree underwater acrylic tunnel, which Murphy helped Engineer. It cost $18 million and received the 1999 IPENZ Engineering Excellence Award for innovation.

2004: Murphy creates Ithaa (pearl) an underwater restaurant in the Maldives. Ithaa is the first location completely submerged acting as a restaurant. To sink the structure, 50 men moved 80 tonnes of sandbags into the room by hand.

2016: Huravalhi Island in the Maldives is graced with another underwater restaurant. This time, it breaks a world first by including a striking five-metre arch. The 410-tone structure is assembled in New Plymouth and takes three weeks to make it by barge to the Maldives.

2018: A revolutionary new underwater villa is built called the Muraka. It is part of the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort and weighs in at a hefty 610 tonnes. After winning the client pitch, Murphy flew back and forth to Singapore where it was contrasted 15 times over 12 months. The structure had to be assembled on the barge due to its immense size. It can be hired from $73,000 a night.

Closer to home, Murphy has been involved with many different projects in New Zealand, including Kelly Taltons and the Sea Lion viewing enclosure at the Auckland Zoo. But Murphy’s career didn’t get off to a glamorous start making multi-million-dollar underwater villas.

“The first things I did was cooler storage, really exciting stuff that was,” he says. “But that lead into engineering aquariums, then into underwater tunnels like the ones we did for Kelly Taltons and following that came the bigger projects internationally.”

Following Kelly Taltons, Murphy went on to create the Manly aquarium in Sydney, then moved on to projects in Perth and Darwin. His international career started when he and several others were asked to pitch an idea for Singapore’s underwater restaurant.

“I think we had only about a week to get a whole pitch together, including design and pricing. Amazingly enough, we won the pitch, and so that began my international structures of that kind overseas.”

Since the success of the first Singapore structure, Murphy was the go-to for creating bigger and bolder copies of his original work.

All awe inspiring

Murphy has some interesting insights to the projects we tend to take at face value, showing that from a civil engineer perspective, anything is possible with a ‘can do’ attitude and an extra layer of acrylic, just to be safe.

“With Kelly Talton, neither of us knew anything about this kind of Aquarium he was wanting to build. He was a diver, so he knew a lot more surrounding marine life,” Murphy says. “He saw an underground aquarium overseas and wanted to replicate it here. For that we had to figure out how to make tunnels that curved. Back then we didn’t have the fancy software that is available now, so everything was done by hand calculations.”

Murphy says the project, which started back in 1980 and cost $3 million, took twice as long as it would now and twice the price due to creating something so extensive without technologic help like software and 3D model printing. Yet for him, having to figure out how to create arch that withstand mounting water pressure was crucial to providing the awe-inspiring experience.

“Once you go around corners, you get all these different issues. Because it’s now an uneven side, all the water pressure wants to crush it downwards which leads to the silicon joints getting squished, so we had to design a certain joint for that too,” Murphy says.

“But these projects just spark awe in a lot of people. That was idea of the underwater restaurant as well, that when people walked down the spiral stairs, they’d have this magic moment seeing it all. The photos can never do it justice. These kinds of things spark imagination.”

Floating realistic expectations

Murphy says others in the sector can be ignorant of these issues, so his forward thinking has helped keep him in front of the competition.

“Although it costs more money and takes more time, clients have just got to have those corners. But that’s the golden rule of any sort of display, you never want to see everything from the front door. You have to have the element of surprise; you have to be able to turn the corner and see something amazing. It all has to build till the final ‘zing’ at the end.”

A project Murphy is quite proud of is his 360-degree tunnel through an aquarium in San Sabastian, which to this day, is very highly regarded in the area.

“That was one of our best designs, it was a full aquarium design with this full 360-degree tunnel. We had to line the bottom with carpet because people were too scared to walk across just glass. I had been working on this idea of a circle for quite a few months, and I think it’s thinking outside the box that has gotten me along quite well.”

The bathroom at The Muraka at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island. Photo courtesy of The Muraka.

Murphy says industry pressure is intense, with everyone wanting something that is bigger and better than the last one. This is doable, he says, yet doesn’t come without its dramas. Huravalhi Island’s structure was made after the first Ithaa when a client contacted Murphy wanting something similar, yet grander.

“We had a bit of issues there because I wasn’t really meant to do the same design again for five years at a contractual level. So, I did have to get permission, obviously they weren’t happy with it, but Ithaa always would be the first ones, so they allowed it… I never thought things would get that big for me. I should really write a book on it as it’s a massive trial of intrigue, nastiness and double crossing. All the things that make a great novel. I’d call it ‘there’s more sharks out of the water then in the water’.”

Mother nature knows best

Yet competition and double crossing hasn’t been one of Murphy’s biggest issues. Mother nature has a way of reminding us who is in charge, which was a learning curve for Murphy during the 2018 tsunami following the 7.5 magnitude Indonesian earthquakes.

“The biggest challenge for us with the first one we set down was a month or two later we had the Indonesian Tsunami. It hit the Maldives where it was placed, and I thought ‘Oh fuck’. It has a staircase that comes up above, and I just thought the wave would go over and fill the whole thing up and we’d be in major trouble. But we were fortunate because the direction the wave came from, the other islands in front had stopped the majority of the wave’s energy. By the time it got to our site, it was only about three or four feet high and just about went across the whole island because it was so low.”

According to Murphy, a door to the stairs wasn’t thought of as necessary until then. Tsunami’s turned out to be a bigger hurdle than was anticipated, so liability for the twists and turns of mother nature are now covered in contracts.

“Our designs now take into account about 300mls of sea level rising over the life of it. But it’s the tsunamis that are the controlling forces we’re having to work against. We have to decide what kind of level of tsunami you’re designing for, then that decides the water pressure, and therefore the thickness of the acrylic. Things like that, you have to be really careful with the contracts involved. You agree with the client on the design their happy with and if it isn’t enough and something does happen, we’re not liable.”

Following that, marine life is another factor that comes into the overall experience of the structure, so respecting it and catering to it has been an important part for the underwater experience to thrive.

“With some of the old ways, we’d bore these big holes into the sea floor and there would be sediment and shit going everywhere, and the corals would die. So now we just bang in a big steal pile and all the coral that’s underneath the unit is transplanted by divers to other areas on the seafloor.”

Full brains, empty wallets

Yet no matter how much planning and heart goes into his designs, Murphy says the reason we won’t be all living undersea in the future is for a simple reason: price – and rust.

“I think it really says something that over the years, I have had hundreds of enquiries but only created a handful of structures. Things are expensive, and people often don’t realise how much goes into making them safe and still awe inspiring,” Murphy says.

He says insurance plays a large part in why he doesn’t expect these projects to see a major increase, as the insurance companies that used to happily take the high premiums have now pulled out support for any underwater structures.

“The insurance companies have gotten really spooked by something, particularly global warming issues, so they pulled the plug on any further insurance to do with these projects. So, unless the client insures it themselves, they can’t be insured, which has essentially shut down the business.”

Trial and error

For Murphy, despite having decades of experience under his belt heading up these aspirational ventures, he says every project is as challenging as the next. Working in world firsts means there is no right and wrong, just trial and error.

“What we do is tough because it’s first. We have to explore all these new ways of doing things, it was the unknown that added to the challenges. Even back in those days, the first one was made, and then improved on for creating the ones after that. You lay the pathway with the first one, and you learn as things get bigger, so does machinery and you change your design to suit.”

For Murphy, picking a favourite project is akin to picking a favourite child, to which he says they have “all been special in their own way”. His recipe for success?

“For me, it is simple. You overcome problems and you adapt to provide something awe inspiring that people want to copy.”

Murphy’s projects are a great legacy to have behind him as he heads into retirement for a second time. However, he hints that if someone, anyone, is crazy enough to take him up on some of his old ideas, he may have to make an exception.

“I think it’s safe to say at this point I am retired – I don’t think anybody is going to come back at this point and ask me to front another project. I hope they don’t because if they did, I might be tempted…”

Review overview