Two sides to every (house) story

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We’ve said it all along: when you combine a design-and-build crew under one roof, you achieve better results for clients. But although these two disciplines have existed side by side for eons, they have traditionally operated as separate businesses, so surely when they are integrated there are challenges? How does this actually work in the day-to-day?

At Box™, Director and Project Coordinator Nat Jakich and Design Manager Tony Borland-Lye are exemplars of the plan in action. These two are charged with leading their respective teams to support the ethos of a one-stop shop.

“Collaboration and feedback is an ongoing part of our culture,” says Nat who has seen these good intentions evolve since the company started 11 years ago. “In a sense, we’re trying to remove silos at every stage of the process.”

Setting up systems for closer interaction is the cornerstone: encouraging points where the design team interact with the construction team. That seems obvious and easy. But that’s also when personalities come into play. “It takes a certain designer to listen the right amount to a builder and vice versa,” Nat admits.

Leading from within the team, Tony will regularly engage Nat’s thoughts on an informal basis too. “I like his realism. He’s not just into working more closely with us because it will make construction easier – he always has the clients’ interests in mind. Often our discussions will be about the most cost-effective way to achieve something.”

Even at initial stages, these conversations take place. “I might talk to Tony about how a house is anchored to the ground as there is so much cost in a foundation and we often work on tricky, tight sites,” says Nat.

It’s a dialogue that needs to continue from concept to completion. One typical complaint designers have is that builders don’t actually look at the drawings – they assume they know how a detail will be built. “We design things a certain way for a reason,” says Tony.  One typical complaint builders have about designers is that their ideas are unworkable at the coal face. “The ideal is that we make sure a design is sensible and buildable before it goes out of the office,” Tony emphasises.

That’s where the architectural technicians come in: they are the people who translate the ideas of the design leads whose passion is, after all, architectural expression, into workable drawings. “We used to call them draughtsmen,” explains Nat. “I always say that technicians are the first people to build a house – even if they’re doing it in 3D, virtually, on a computer.”

Regular meetings between the design team, technicians and project manager focus on the construction methodology used as they gather around the screen. “There is always more than one way to do something but the beauty of us all being in the same office is that we can make the building better,” says Tony.

For Nat’s part, he sees real value in builders being shown a plan digitally so any tricky parts can be worked through beforehand. By looking at the layers of the model, a good builder can have important input. Examples of things that could be picked up include the efficiencies gained in repetition, or how extending a beam a bit further might help or potential issues with water-tightness or overcomplicated corners. Nat: “Often it’s just a gut feeling that we have about a job.”

Tony is quick to point out that the end result is not a compromised or dumbed-down design. “It’s just smarter and simplified.”

And there are surprises. You might think it would always be the design team pushing the boundaries. But Nat has been known to suggest a cantilever when he sees the benefits. “Believe it or not, a cantilever can actually be more cost-effective in certain circumstances.”

There are some things, though, Nat would never presume to make a call on: roof-lines are one. “They are such an important part of the design,” he says. Although the details are still subject to his canny eye, ever looking out for the client. “I’m pretty budget-conscious and at a recent project, where a membrane gutter had been used, it wasn’t worth it because that gutter was in a part of the house that was never seen.” An external gutter was put on instead. Tony says, “It’s great to have Nat and his team collaborating because, as a project evolves, sometimes you miss seeing the wood for the trees – if he has a good reason to change a design detail, I’ll go with it.”

Another example where outcomes are tossed around between design-and-build minds is in the use of steel or timber. “Builders prefer to work with timber as it is more forgiving and flexible,” says Nat.  On the other hand, there are occasions when the situation calls for the opposite. “There was one job where having more steel in the structure would have been beneficial. It didn’t cost the client any more but with steel the building would have gone together easier. So it cost us time – but that’s how you learn.”

Although the teams have already faced many diverse situations and collaborated on the better outcomes, there are still discoveries to be made. Part of the journey is to get better at listening and to share information in a timely way – before it’s too late or too costly.

As Nat says, “As Box™ has developed, our builders, technicians and designers spend more time together. We really do understand the quality and value of integrating learning from everyone.”