Boxed in: lowering the cost of building

The limited ability for the market as a whole to access architecture is a situation that needs to change, Box’s Dan Heyworth says, and that’s what Box is all about. They’re trying to start the conversation and change people’s perceptions about the way we build, introducing a different approach – one that’s proved its worth overseas. It’s one that, for many though, is shrouded in misconceptions and misunderstandings.

But considering the extortionately high cost of building in New Zealand compared to comparable overseas markets, it’s a topic worth talking about and one Dan says he aims to change, little by little, over the next 25 years.

Box’s philosophy is centred around the premise that design trumps size – modest homes that are well designed can and should replace larger dwellings that don’t make the most of the space.

In a climate where it costs anything from $3,000 to more than $6,000 per square metre to build a house, size is important. “In Australia, a standard home costs about $1,000 per square metre to build. As Kiwis, we build the second largest homes in the world, second only to Australia, which makes Australia a good market for comparison,” Dan says.

“The reasons it costs so much to build in New Zealand is the cost of materials, a lack of productivity, and the lack of competition in the market across everything from materials through to the trades. It feels very much like the current construction climate is similar to the telecommunications industry of the ‘90s where we had a duopoly of players that made it very difficult for others to come in and compete. In the current market, we need government intervention for that to change.”

Working around these constraints is where Box fits in. They believe that one way to move forward is to look at what’s being done successfully overseas and adapt that to the New Zealand market.

“Japan, Sweden and North America have done things really well in what they call industrialised housing,” Dan says. What that means, essentially, is manufacturing houses offsite in a controlled environment, at scale. “That’s not a few hundred houses a year, that’s two or three thousand houses because, only by doing things at scale are you able to change the way you produce efficiencies, which includes materials and labour.”

Dan believes embracing this industrialisation process is what we need to do to get closer to the much lower Australian per square metre rate. And it’s exactly what Box does; they create homes with standardised components that are manufactured offsite in controlled environments.

Good design plays a fundamental part in creating quality homes at a more accessible cost. “We are fed up with building for only one per cent of the market in New Zealand. As an industry, we’re fantastic at creating architectural homes for the top end, but we are failing at the economy end.”

At the moment, the cost of a Box home ranges from $2,000 to $5,000 per square metre, and that’s something they’re working hard to lower as they develop further efficiencies and drive the conversation around building better.

“What we’re doing is something very similar to the car industry where you use a set of standardised components and details and then offer a set of customisations,” Dan says. “Each house is detailed in the same way, which means the components can be manufactured at scale so the structure of each of our houses is very similar and the way they are put together can be repeated; it is only the customisations that differ, and this allows us a much more lean offsite manufacturing process.”

Building and designing a home with standardised components can often cause people to choose other options, but this is readily based on misunderstanding of the principles of this sort of building, Dan says. “Standardisation and uniformity are two very different things. Standardisation doesn’t mean every house is going to end up looking exactly the same, in fact, each house will vary greatly. It’s this conversation we are trying to start to change people’s mindsets about this way of building.

“Because of the costs of building, we have reached a tipping point where architecture is really relegated to a very select few.” People are instead opting to remove costs and choosing to use group home builders readily, despite the still high cost of building even with home building companies.

It’s a complex issue to work through, but it’s one Box is tackling house by house as they slowly introduce New Zealanders to concepts that have had a polarising effect on residential architecture around the world, and one that could see a much larger part of the population able to enjoy architecturally designed homes.

Visit Box on ArchiPro here to peruse some of their award-winning residential architecture.