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7 January 2021

Outside the Box

Dan Heyworth, founder of Box, has been at the forefront of innovative design-and-build solutions for over a decade. We sat down with him recently to discuss his thoughts on design and modern building methodologies, prefabrication, the Auckland housing situation, and his desire to re-introduce craft into the design vocabulary.


Outside the Box

It is apparent, right from the beginning of our conversation, that Dan Heyworth has developed a healthy disrespect for the business of architecture; not with architects, per se, but with the way the profession has evolved into an elitist service that only the well-off and privileged can afford.

When he started Box back in 2009, he says, he was trying to find a way of bringing well-designed homes to more than two or three percent of people who could afford to go to an architect – and that statistic alone speaks to the fact that the business model for architects is ultimately broken, with the result that the quality of our built environment ultimately suffers, with planners, engineers, developers and builders taking on the role of designer.

“Architects have become more and more marginalised from the built environment; they’ve become divorced from the actual process of creation. Gone are the days of the master builder who was the designer and the builder,” he says. “How many architects or designers do you know who actually roll up their sleeves and understand what it is they have designed and how that translates into physical materials – to the extent that I believe there are some really good builders out there who are better architects than architects.”

Bringing the conversation back to the way Box designs and builds its homes, Heyworth explains there is an unwritten rule within his team that if there is a point of contention between the architect and the builder, the builder will make the final decision. And the reason for this is that not only is the builder the person who’s putting everything together to make the building work, but he’s the one who shoulders the risk.

“And that’s another issue we now have within the design industry ¬– they [architects] don’t want to own any of the risk; they want to push as much risk as they can to the engineers, to the builders, and to councils – yet still want everyone to build what they design.”

“What we have done [at Box] that we have found incredibly hard – and it’s only now over the past couple of years that I feel we have finally hit our groove – is try to combine those elements of design flare and innovation with construction pragmatism. Essentially, it’s about finding people who can relate to each other and who have a mutual respect for what each does and their skills.”

With Box, Heyworth is trying to bring back the idea of the traditional ‘master builder’, offering a combined, end-to-end build process, where ownership of the whole process falls at the feet of the one company.

“When people come to us, they come for our designs, but also for cost certainty and because they know we own our mistakes. Those two things are very important. We’ve taken the focus off the product and put it more onto the process and how we go about delivering that seamless design-build.”

Factory-built homes?

What about prefabrication – surely, this would be a more cost-effective way of building homes? “We don’t do prefab,” Heyworth bluntly replies. This rather abrupt answer is predicated on three years of research on the feasibility of bringing prefab to New Zealand, after which he came to the conclusion that prefab can only work under specific parameters and situations. The first and most obvious is scale, meaning the production of large volumes of buildings in a standardised manner… not just a group of guys building a house in a shed – that’s not prefab, he says. “I am talking about proper automation, of which I’ve seen some great examples in Germany and Sweden; factories pumping out over a thousand units a year, using highly automated technology.”

However, as fantastic and awe-inspiring as the process of prefabrication is, two things occurred to Heyworth: firstly, it is extremely fragile, needing just a small hiccup in the supply chain or the demand pipeline for a business to be forced to close down. You need to keep feeding the machine, he says. Secondly, it seems like they are building battery farms for humans. Loveless boxes, he laments.

A solution for Auckland’s housing

The subject of prefabrication brings us onto the broader topic of housing in our home city, Auckland, and how we can best accommodate the need for more homes – particularly in the central suburbs.

“We have to look seriously at density,” he says. “Possibly along the lines of what Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, recently put forward: the 15-minute city, where residents can have all their needs met — be they for work, shopping, health, or culture — within 15 minutes of their own doorstep. And density to me is homes built up against each other, three to five storeys high. Look at how we used to build in some of the most beautiful cities in the world, like Paris, Vienna, Koblenz and many others where you are able to walk to schools, walk to shops, and walk to the office.

“The idea that we have this sprawling suburbia over here, and the centre of commerce over there, with a big road between the two, and people spending an hour or two a day shuffling between, is madness,” he says. “Back in 1955, urban planner Lewis Mumford said, quite brilliantly, ‘building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity’. Building more roads doesn’t solve the problem. We have to fundamentally look at the way we live and work, and the way that we design cities. I find it an oddity of modern urbanism that we seem to build the opposite of the cities that we tend to love.”

Heyworth also points to the recent problems Auckland has suffered with its harbour bridge as a classic example of the fragility of the system we have built.

“When we look at Auckland, we should be looking at the sum of its parts – at the individual villages of Mt Eden, New Lynn, St Heliers, Kohi, etc – then increase density and create a sense of identity within these villages, making them almost self-sufficient, but still part of the greater whole that is Auckland. Allow people to create and build at a local level,” he suggests.

The rising cost of building

On the question of housing affordability, Heyworth firmly believes that the solution lies in addressing the price of land, not in trying to take the cost out of building homes. He does, however, think we need to be building and living in smaller houses.

“It’s always going to be expensive to build due to our lack of scale. What we need to do is build smaller and more simply. We need to ask ourselves, do I really need this level of specification? And I do feel a bit of a sea change with the younger generation. In a way they want less; they don’t want to be encumbered by all of this ‘stuff’. We need to pick and choose the things that really matter to us.”

Addressing size, Heyworth says that a floor plan of under a hundred square metres is perfectly adequate for a good, three-bedroom house. “Reduce costs by reducing size, not by reducing quality – and that essentially is what Artis is about.”

Artis is Heyworth’s latest prototype venture – a distillation of what he has learnt over the past 11 years of running Box Living. Whereas Box has evolved into a high-end, integrated design-build company that specialises in delivering custom homes, Artis, he says, is about refining a product, by using standardised details, and using the same construction system again and again.

“It’s a product, like a chair or a table. Yes, we can change the finishes, but the fundamental design and the way we go about building the houses is the same every time.”

Heyworth is quietly confident about Artis. The first homes are being built, but he’s not pushing them hard; instead he’s comfortable to quietly build the first 10-15, during which time he will hone the costs and the way they are constructed, and settle on a suitable palette of materials and specifications. And that may take a few years, he says.

Home offices

A dedicated space to work in from home has always been something Heyworth’s clients have asked for… even more so now. Before Covid, there was pushback from employers, but now businesses have seen they can trust people to work from home – and, guess what, they are more productive, he says. Citing a recent piece of research coming out of the US, he says that despite all the economic indicators going downhill, productivity has shot up – and not by a small amount.

“I don’t think the traditional office will die. It still performs a really important function, but I do think there is a happy balance between the two. As human beings, we need interaction, hence the communal office will always be a place where we meet and collaborate. That said, we can be happy and more productive working from home… and it’s better for the environment.

“A while back, a client who was building on a lifestyle block out west asked us, what’s the most sustainable thing we can do for our house? Solar, water collection, insulation? We crunched the numbers and said to him, if you build yourself a study and work from home one day a week instead of driving your V8 into the city and back, that would have the greatest impact on the environment than anything we could possibly do to your house.”

Replacing petrol vehicles with electric vehicles isn’t the solution either. Reducing the number of cars is what’s really going to have the most impact on the environment – and this comes back to the earlier discussion about resilient, self-sufficient communities – espousing the mayor of Paris’ 15-minute city, of having everything we need on our doorsteps.

Back to the future

Despite Heyworth’s drive to simplify and streamline home design and building processes, it’s very clear from our conversation that he harbours a love of classical architecture and traditional forms.

“People know beauty when they see it. They don’t learn it,” he says. “They have a natural affinity for patterns and an appreciation of craft – both of which appear in more classical designs such as the villa. And it’s this richness of detail that is lost in modern architecture. Unfortunately, many architects out there have been indoctrinated by a modernist ideology and have lost touch, or become too lazy to design real beauty. Designing beautiful detail seems to be too hard these days, and if we don’t do something about it soon, we are going to lose the skills to design and build in this way.”

This statement comes as a bit of a surprise, given the very name ‘Box’ conjures up images of stripped-back, minimalist living spaces, devoid of embellishment and superfluous details. Heyworth admits it’s becoming a struggle to reconcile the “sea change” he’s experienced over the past few years.

“There will come a point, if we don’t evolve, when it will be hypocritical of me to work in a business that I don’t think represents the future. Don’t get me wrong, these things are very slow moving. They are generational. But regenerating craft, that’s what I would like to become more involved in, in the future. Maybe that’s how Box will eventually evolve or diversify,” says Heyworth; “building homes that involve a more locally based supply chain and incorporate more craft. That, of course, will come with cost, but hey, we need to be more creative by encouraging young people into these crafts.”

Heyworth is visibly excited by the thought of bringing back craft, of lost skills rekindled. He says it could also make our local neighbourhoods look better, too.


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