Getting past shit: How Box rethinks, reshapes and restarts

A random tweet gave Dan Heyworth, co-founder and CEO of Box, a combined architecture practice and construction company, cause to pause and reflect.

After five years at the helm of Box, Heyworth saw his own experience reflected in a Twitter post. It read:

The Creative Process

1. This is awesome

2. This is tricky

3. This is shit

4. I am shit

5. OK this might work

6. This is awesome!

Heyworth is not an architect. He is not a builder. He wanted to be a fine art portraitist but after a brief stint at London’s Chelsea Art School, he is not that either.  So he did the next best thing: he learned the language of love. With masters degrees in French and Business Studies, he was snapped up by a Parisian ad agency as an international coordinator “making sure the L’Oréal ads, created in France, translated well into the rest of Europe”.

Although Heyworth was born in Wellington, he grew up on a private housing estate in Surrey, England. The Weymede is a Span estate, being named by the originators, architects Eric Lyons and Geoffrey Townsend, whose vision was to “span the gap between suburban monotony and the architecturally designed bespoke residence".

Built in the mid-60s, the estate comprises a collection of modernist terraced homes set on 15 acres alongside the River Wey. The architects’ aim was to intimately connect the homes and the landscape. The wider goal was to build affordable houses in an environment where “forced interactions” had the flow-on effect of crafting “genuine community”. Today Span developments have a cult following. In many, cars are banned. Twenty years on, Heyworth’s childhood spent roaming these safe, wide-open spaces, enjoying summer afternoons on the banks of the river, and endlessly kicking a ball against the yellow-brick walls, still colours his thinking. For young families the development was a huge success.

This is awesome.

When his own renovation of a loft apartment in London – where he landed after his stint in Europe – became fraught, something clicked. “I realised that architecture used to be about the practice of design and construction. Now, the two disciplines were disassociated. The business model was broken.” The result was a service that produced uncertainty of cost and time, plenty of waste, and was very expensive. Figures indicate that only around five percent of New Zealand houses have input from an architect. Heyworth believes that is a tragedy. “The impact of this on the quality of our built environment cannot be overstated.”

Following his return to New Zealand, with bohemian bonhomie, he hankered to reproduce the design efficiencies and sense of community of those Weymede days. He joined with a group of like-minded individuals to answer the question: “How do we get architecture to more people?” That’s when Box Living – as the company was first known – was born. Somewhat naively perhaps, he believed the collective skills of the four company partners; an architect, builder, project manager and himself, could be the winning formula of resolution – the key to recreating the utopian dream of Weymede in the current day.

Heyworth had worked as a consultant in Europe and the UK, helping small and large companies to innovate and enhance their value chain, evolving products and systems to make them more efficient and more profitable. A blueprint to reduce the cost of designing and building by getting the team together much earlier on in the game was devised. “I wanted architects to start to think like builders and vice versa.” Then, by standardising the way houses were designed and built, and reducing waste, they would make the process faster and more cost certain. “We’d use a quick-to-erect post-and-beam structural system more often used in commercial buildings.” The fledgling company was all set to bring accurately designed and built homes to a whole new audience at a fixed price. ‘This is awesome!’

This is tricky.

Did it work? Sort of. Business grew 50 percent each year as the public responded to the aesthetic of their product and the promise of a guaranteed price. They quickly hit the 250-houses milestone, earned architecture awards and made it into glossy lifestyle magazines both here and abroad. But there were times, many times, when cost overruns were absorbed and the bottom line was affected. Guess what? New Zealand building sites weren’t always flat. There was trouble with crane access to lift the post and beam into place. The dwellings were technically difficult to construct. The modular boxes, an integral part of their design ethos, were too difficult to erect on sites that were restricted, steep or an awkward shape. “The houses looked good but they were not solving the problem they set out to solve,” says Heyworth. Hmm… ‘this is tricky’.

This is shit.

Although Heyworth had managed to sell the idea to clients, the reality was their system wasn’t providing the break-through benefits they had hoped for. “I was racked with self-doubt.” ‘This is shit..I am shit’. He considered giving it all away but by now the company had grown to a staff of 30. That was a lot of livelihoods at risk.

So the core team literally returned to the drawing board. They knew they had a strong aesthetic and common purpose but there had to be a cleverer way to deliver a project to site. “We began to change the way we thought about buildings.” Heyworth looked overseas for inspiration and answers.

OK, this might work.

In the US, practitioners like SHoP, named “the most innovative architecture firm in the world” in 2014 by Fast Company magazine, were coming up with interesting ways of doing business that took advantage of a particular technology to help solve the design-build conundrum. BIM (building information modelling) is 3D modelling software that contains multiple layers of information including, of course, the physical attributes of the house. Heyworth discovered that it was receiving the largest uptake in the US among building contractors, as opposed to architects. Then, in April 2016 in the UK, a mandate came into effect stating a Level 2 BIM compliance was a requirement for all public-sector projects. Heyworth delved deeper into the attributes of the programme, wondering if it could help Box. He discovered that overall this complex technology can simplify the entire process from architects through to contractor, subcontractor and client. “The beauty of BIM is that the builder can sit with a draughtsperson and sequence the build of a project in virtual reality before it gets anywhere near the site. That way they can identify areas that require design attention right up-front.”

A great chunk of an architect’s fees are the hours spent observing so the building is put together properly. Often documentation is geared towards getting council consents, not necessarily smoothing the path of actual construction. BIM offers a way to collaborate with the many contractors on a project to identify the tricky bits, like how to integrate the engineer’s structure, rather than, the often wasteful, detailing of the entire plan to the nth degree. “It is a way to avoid those on-site issues that throw the schedule and budget out of the window. Builders know this will happen so they, too, allow for this in their costs.” With BIM, Heyworth estimates a savings benefit of 10-20 percent. “We are using technology to bring greater collaboration and control to the process, which in turn increases our margins.” 

Another idea. Rather than sticking slavishly to their modular post-and-beam system, the company changed tack. They would use a building methodology suited to the site. “Our modernist style remains as does our commitment to standardisation,” says Heyworth. ‘Ok, this might work’.  

This is awesome!?

A fresh direction gave Heyworth a burst of enthusiasm for what he and the team were trying to achieve. “The core idea is right but the execution is constantly evolving,” he says.

In the near future, he expects the industry landscape to change and an increase in companies that practice architecture “in the truest sense of the word” owning the process of both design and construction under one roof.

As far as the tweet sequence goes, Box is in a holding pattern – step 5 of the creative process. Coming full circle back to ‘This is awesome’ is tantalisingly close.