When it comes to designing and building, certainty is everything: certainty of what you’re going to get, certainty of quality and time, and the ‘biggie’ for most homeowners, certainty of cost.
Building costs increased in 2016 by between 7.4% and 17% (depending on whose numbers you trust), and with the ongoing shortage of new builds, all is not well in the house design and build industry.
The problem is that the more ‘bespoke’ or ‘custom’ a product is, the more uncertainty you get. When building a ‘one off’, there’s little chance to iron out the bugs, perfect the process, optimise the design and benefit from an economy of scale.
Most residential housing operates on this model. Architects design from scratch – to the site, brief, budget – and it is a long, complicated business. Which is why architects are expensive (although apart from the few ‘starchitects’, often worse off than builders). It takes a couple of years from design to completion, and many people have almost lost their shirts in the process.
The larger house-building companies have this sorted, and carry out the majority of new house builds. Punters know their product because they stick to certain design rules, use standard materials and repeat the same building methods. It means they can deliver to a certainty of cost.
However, the problem with this is two-fold. Firstly, most people I know would love to have an architect design their house. They appreciate that architects have the skills to make houses that better suit the specific site, that use space better and generally work better. With most house-building companies, the focus is to optimise ‘buildability’ and profit. Good design comes second. (In fact, ‘good design’ is an esoteric concept since it is only when you live in a well-designed home that you realise how it impacts the quality of life.)
Secondly, it is still too expensive to build. There has been zero growth in productivity over the last 20 years in the construction industry, whereas agriculture, manufacturing, forestry and other services have seen marked improvements. The industry also has embedded problems where every man and his dog is a ‘middle-man’ and needs to take a margin. ‘Margin on margin’ is a phrase you often hear in the building industry. This is exacerbated by the fact that suppliers often add margin to pay for the rebate back to the builder, plumber or electrician.
Other issues such as material supply monopolies and cartel-like behavior are a factor, and an unfortunate part of operating in a volatile, small-scale industry.
So the question is: how can you have both good design and certainty of cost and delivery? Or even reduce the cost of building? It’s a question Box™ has grappled with for nearly a decade.
The first thing we did was to become both an architectural practice and construction company. We are Registered Architects and Master Builders. The benefit of being ‘joined up’ is that the architectural design and build process is simpler and more cohesive because we have a team of builders and designers looking at the project from day one.
Recently, we’ve moved into prefabrication. The key to leveraging the benefits of off-site production is to, as much as possible, standardise the components by using a toolbox of materials from the same selected group of suppliers. This does not mean each house looks the same. It means we use a common ‘kit of parts’ to design and personalise the houses. The benefits are fast build times, tried-and-tested best quality and, in some cases, reduced costs.
So while the process of building a house can never deliver 100% certainty (you need death and taxes for that), we are refining the experience by a) building houses off-site in a controlled environment with strict quality assurance processes, b) not reinventing the wheel every time we design a house and c) using a broad range of skills from our in-house team that can both design well, cost accurately and deliver a confident build.