Irving, TX (PressExposure) June 28, 2011 -- SURPRISINGLY, COMPARISONS TO IKEA don't offend Dan Heyworth, of new modular housing company Box Living, in the slightest. The global success of the Swedish company lies in a thoroughly modernist principle, to provide nicely designed products at mass-produced prices, and as a result open up a new market with a younger demographic who appreciate design but can't quite afford it. "Box Living is 'architecture lite'," says Heyworth. "It's modular, so you just put it together like building blocks. A lot of the design work has already been done, and our builder can just fit it together for each site."
Lest the words 'prefabricated' and 'modular' cause a shudder or a vision of identical tract homes sold by the metre on tiny treeless plots, Heyworth's business partner, architect Tim Dorrington, says that their approach to the design of their product is based firmly on the modernist architecture of the 1940s and the work of architects such as Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood in creating new houses for a post-war America.
Indeed, there is an element of the production line in the Box Living approach - Dorrington provides the initial designs (and will continue to refine the designs over time), Heyworth operates as general manager and 'the Two Nats' (project manager Nat Holloway and construction manager Nat Jakich) take over once the construction phase begins. Henry Ford would approve.
Though modular housing has some history in New Zealand, it has been gaining traction overseas for some time. The duo describe LA-based Marmol Radziner Prefab, the hugely popular German Huf Haus prefabricated houses and Zenkaya eco-homes (from South Africa and Mozambique) as personal favourites.
"We've spent three years doing research and development on Box," says Dorrington. "We wanted clean lines, spaces that felt expansive, and underlying honesty in the materials, where the structure is the structure and there's no frivolous ornamentation. Our ethos is that the building should only be as big as it needs to be, and generally, that means our building footprint tends to be smaller."
So what is the Box, exactly? It consists of three rectangular modules (10m, 14m and 18m long) that can either stand alone or be configured and stacked to answer the client's specifications and the site. There is also a collection of 'off the shelf' standard compositions Box has developed. The examples given by Dorrington and Heyworth include plans for a beach house, town house, suburban section, rear section or a bush retreat, but it can be adapted almost infinitely.
The team's three existing projects illustrate the range of homes possible. Box Living's original prototype and its flagship product, the framed Z Box+ (pictured here), was installed as a single-storey, three-bedroom house with cement-sheet cladding on a site in Muriwai. It has been designed in such a way that a second storey can easily be added later if the owners need more room. There is also a large timber-clad beach house on Kawau Island with two storeys, four bedrooms, and rooftop decks, while the smallest Box Living variant is a studio flat in Clevedon. The team is also currently developing BoxLite, a more cost-effective option without an exposed frame.
The key to Box's flexibility and to its desirability to their market, Dorrington and Heyworth say, lies in the way it combines a standardised but elegant architectural design and high-performance core materials, with a bespoke finish. Dorrington works alongside the clients to specify cladding, linings, floors and fittings, effectively customising the end result.
The Box's other important feature is, of course, cost. But it's more than a reaction to dwindling budgets and increasingly cash-strapped first homers, says Heyworth. "The building industry hasn't progressed much in the last 50 years. It is still dirty, imprecise and expensive. You only hear of the projects that go wrong. We thought there had to be a better way of designing and building. The Box is quick to build and cost-effective - but still has architectural input."
Heyworth adds: "We were frustrated by the uncertainty of cost, and the amount of time it took to produce a custom-designed building." It's this degree of uncertainty, he says, that puts such houses out of the range of people who would perhaps appreciate the aesthetic but lack the readies to realise it. "And by comparison to the existing building companies, our costs are good: $1,800 to $3,000 per square metre, depending on the site and specifications. Square metre-wise it is more expensive than a building company - but the cost is fixed, it's quicker to build and uses space efficiently, so final prices are comparative. And it's a better product."
He has calculated that for every new home erected there is, on average, seven tonnes of waste: "That's seven tonnes of wasted material you've paid for." To counter this, the Box model is based on a 1200-millimetre measurement, because most sheet materials are manufactured to that size - meaning less time spent cutting onsite and less waste. Overall, the process is more sustainable as well, using recyclable products, and high levels of energy and water efficiency.
The base design uses posts and beams made from laminated timber, which is much stronger than ordinary wood, with equally strong stainless steel cross-braces. The walls can be clad in any material, but the important difference is that they aren't load-bearing, so the clients are free to move them, replace them with glass or take them out altogether. The plan works well for sloping sites, too - the building can cantilever or be supported on piles so it 'floats' and needs less expensive excavation work.
"Our clients tend to be younger - thirtyish people with tight urban sites or sections by the sea," says Dorrington. "They appreciate design and have a strong sense of what they like. We're not shoe-horning the house into a site, and it's easy to customise - and the look is significantly different: it's a lot more striking, similar to the American east coast architecture of the 1940s."
The overall beauty of the house, says Dorrington, is due to the visibility of its working structure: you can see the building's 'bones'. "In terms of design, it's a nice place to live with a good progression of spaces, so people will enjoy living there and stay there longer," says Heyworth. "Ninety five percent of buildings in New Zealand have no architectural input at all. What we've done is create a tool that lets anyone fit the right kind of house for them onto a piece of land, taking into account good design principles, budget and environmental factors - a democratic design".