Back to the future of housing

If Box™ co-founder Dan Heyworth could wave a magic wand to solve the big issues facing New Zealand architects and house builders in the design-and-build industry, what would he do? In this interview with Ryan Castle from Master Builders, Dan looks for answers.

Q: Box™ bucked the traditional model by combining an architecture practice and construction company under one roof. Has it worked?

A: In one way, for sure. One client summed it up by saying the reason they came to us was because we own our own problems. The architect is not trying to shift blame onto the engineer, the builder isn’t blaming the product supplier. That way it all doesn’t end up as a smouldering heap at the customer’s door.

Q: The customer experience is enhanced, but is the business model more effective because your architecture and building teams are closer?

A: Trying to meld two cultures into a team is easier said than done. Box™ has been in business 12 years and that relationship is still complicated. In general, designers in all industries are further away than they’ve ever been from the actual creation process. But the best designers are actually closet builders. Likewise, the best builders are closet architects. One builder who works for us is as good as many of the architects I know. He has an acute sense of design, but strikes a balance between what works in design and what can be built.

Q: If you could clone that person, that’d be helpful for the growth of the business

A: The way we approach it is to immerse those people in the day-to-day of the person whose job they’re influencing. So the design guys might end up on-site taking a more active role and the builders might sit over the shoulder of the designers to get their heads around it and offer good input at an early stage.

Q: If you had a magic wand, how would you deliver affordable, effective housing at speed?

A:  I would start up the guilds – stonemasonry, ironmongery and woodcarving, what Māori call toi whakairo. These are skills we’re in danger of losing but they produce buildings that create identity and a sense of ownership and belonging to those communities. It has to be driven from the bottom up: you’ve got to empower the guys on the ground to deliver this. The problem is we tend to build a load of disposable stuff out of synthetic materials from supply chains that are long, complex and full of friction. It just takes one pandemic for us to start questioning the whole thing. I see an opportunity for New Zealand to find its architectural identity: to look at our cultures, local materials and patterns, and then build a system of trades and crafts around that. So, maybe you want to build a wall on your property. Forget the picket fence. Just pay for the materials and then some guys from the stonemasons’ college come along. What an impact that could have on our streetscape. You’re getting a great wall, kids are being trained in a craft, and they’re creating value in the community. That is how you start to shift the needle on an industry. But it takes time:  everyone’s so impatient. These things take a generation to do properly.

Q: What countries are doing a better job than New Zealand?

A: The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has a vision of the 15-minute city: everyone will be within 15 minutes (be it by bike or e-scooter or even a quick walk) of a shop to buy local produce or a café. Covid-19 has accelerated that in Paris. The other day I saw a video shot in one of the streets; they had closed it off and local businesses were allowed to set up in the street – bistros, cafes and commerce. The guy who posted it basically said, “Dammit, how much more beautiful can Paris get? It’s not fair.”  Hidalgo is bringing this idea of self-sufficiency at a village-community scale into a big-city environment.

Q: Do modular mass-factory automation and prefab still have a place? 

A: Fabricating architectural elements is hugely relevant but the subject of automation has become a fetish. OSM [off site manufacturing] and fabrication are terms used so much by the industry and politicians that clarity of purpose and thought around how to successfully integrate that has been lost.  OSM can mean building houses or elements of houses using highly automated machinery and a very efficient supply chain to build quickly. Normally, you’re doing it at scale.

Q: The ginormous investment needed for expensive machinery and factory spaces is a barrier to entry. Is there a place for a mixed model of some government and private ownership to establish these operations?

A: Centralised offsite manufacturing focussed on fabricating entire houses is quite dangerous – it’s the industry’s ‘Titanic’ problem. It just takes an iceberg to sink it. That could be an earthquake, a break in the supply chain, a power failure or of certain materials, or a sudden drop in demand. Then your entire capital investment is at risk. To be a viable offsite manufacturer you need either of two things: a shitload of working capital to mitigate risks, or a really good visibility of orders coming through. The only people who have that pipeline are governments or large-scale developers who can guarantee thousands of houses per year. Instead of OSM fabricating entire houses we should fabricate components within systems that can be open-sourced so any designer can use them.

Q: The open-source approach has relevance. How would you get something like that off the ground?

A: The problem in creating open-source systems is that everyone wants to keep the IP for themselves. But that could be driven by institutions like Kāinga Ora. Taxpayer money goes into the creation of these designs so why not make them open source for the taxpayer to use? Creating the recipe could be done at a higher level and then leave the market to produce the elements – such as bathroom pods, wall panels and so on needed for houses.

Q: Which construction industry issues would you like to help resolve?

A: I’m interested in investigating ‘distributed’ design for manufacturing assembly, creating open-source systems and using that to kick-start offsite manufacturing and prefabrication but also how to open pathways for crafts and guilds. I’d also like a better understanding of what it takes to design and build functional communities from the bottom up.

Q: Can you tackle these challenges when you’re already in the zone of doing. Don’t you need that step back into urban planning? 

A: I’m a great advocate of tinkering. You’ve got to start somewhere. A good example is what they’re doing in Queen Street. It’s not perfect because there’s an existing infrastructure too heavily laden with commerce and some pretty ugly residential buildings. But the intent of opening it up to pedestrians is great. We’ve been so distracted by cars and modernism for 50 to 100 years that we’ve lost sight of how to create meaningful connections.  If you’re starting from scratch, it’s about understanding that balance between private, economic and civic space. The idea of scale also fascinates me. What is the ideal size for a village? At what point does it need a church or a police service?

Q: When you look at your career so far, what are you most proud of?

A: We have a really nice family at Box™. We’re all on this journey and we’re still together 12 years later. We’re open, curious – a good creative bunch. And we spend as much time at work as we do with our families so to have found something that is fulfilling is great. I am frustrated that I haven’t yet been able to move it beyond the walls of Box™ as I’d like to have more impact on the built environment in general. This has been a huge learning ground for tinkering and experimenting and trying to form my ideas around architecture and design.  We’ve put a lot of stuff out there in the built environment that I am very proud of. I’m proud of the relationships we still have with the majority of owners.

Q: If you could live somebody else’s life for a day, whose would it be?

A: Boringly, I’d just want to be the Housing Minister to give me an insight into how to make inroads, whose shoulder to tap or whose inbox I need to file one off to.  

Q: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

A: Be more patient! When you’re 20, you think you have to achieve everything by the time you’re 25 and then you get to your 40s and go, crikey I’m still not there yet. So don’t make decisions too hastily.

By Box

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