Thinking outside the box

By - , Build 163

Dan Heyworth, ceo and founder of design and build company Box™, spoke to Build about off-site production and his belief that building at scale could help solve some of New Zealand’s intractable housing problems.

Q. What is your background in the construction industry, and what was behind the push to establish Box™?

I set up a construction project management business about 13 years ago before setting up Box™ with a builder and architect about 8 years ago. We felt the dynamic between designers and builders was not conducive to cost-effective and good-quality design and build, and the push to establish Box™ was to bring certainty into the architectural design/build business. Currently, we are looking at how to solve the productivity problem to build cheaper, faster and smarter.

Q. How many houses will your production facility be able to deliver annually and where?

Initially, 50 a year minimum to the greater Auckland area, but we can scale this quickly. Most of what we produce will be house panels.

Q. What do you see as the main challenges facing our housing industry, and what role does off-site production play in providing solutions?

The main issue is that standard homes can cost NZ$3,000 m2 to build, whereas in Australia, it is more like NZ$1,600. The reasons are varied but include lack of productivity, the skills shortages and lack of capacity and the cost of materials. There are also the boom-bust cycles, the lack of standardisation and a good ‘economy’ product, no international benchmarks and a lack of investment in innovation.

If done at scale, off-site will help the productivity, capacity, materials cost, skills training and innovation issues.

Housing New Zealand and other housing associations are looking to import international product. There is a huge opportunity for them to transform the New Zealand industry, and Box™ aims to be part of that discussion and solution.

Q. As an architectural practice as well as a master builder, what role does design play in the Box™ product? Is there scope for individual finishes, for example?

It plays a key role. It all starts with design. The skill is to make standardisation custom – like car manufacturers. There needs to be a lot more understanding of how design affects cost, which will enable us to standardise a lot of house design instead of creating one-off bespoke homes each time.

People confuse standardisation with uniformity. This does not have to be the case, and it is where the skill of designers comes in to play. They can use a set of components and specifications in different combinations, and if the customer wants gold taps, they can have gold taps.

Q. Why are countries such as Germany so successful in delivering high-quality prefabricated housing that is well regarded by its population?

Even countries like Germany have had their successes and failures. European and Scandinavian markets have had to be more innovative in the way they deliver houses to their dense and growing populations and have had the benefit of scale. Access to a larger labour market, stronger anti-competition laws and investment to encourage innovation in the industry have also played a part.

Q. It has been harder to get broad acceptance for prefabricated housing here. How do you see this changing?

In New Zealand, we have a volatile boom-bust industry that makes people focus on the short term and deters investment. We also have little leadership to encourage construction at scale, which would give us a number of ways to reduce the cost of construction.

For this to change, we need the government and community housing organisations to club together and promise the industry consistent orders. Business also needs to think about the business model of construction differently, and off-site production requires this new thinking.

Q.Anything else to add?

We have a unique opportunity at themoment for government to provideleadership and create the environmentwhere companies like ours can buildgood-quality houses at scale and improvecompetition in the materials supplymarket.

If we were to deliver housing closer to the cost of Australian housing, the economic benefits to New Zealand would be enormous –from job creation to local governmentrevenues and reduced private debt.

We have done it before in the 1920s and 1950s. This type of leadership is not new to New Zealand and is needed now more than ever to address issues with housing quality, shortage and affordability.

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