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Why New Zealand’s housing market should draw inspiration from those building on Mars

Plane journeys can be mind-numbingly tedious or, if you’re fortunate, mind expanding. Sitting next to a robotics enthusiast qualifies as either, depending on your point-of-view.

For Dan Heyworth, CEO of New Zealand design-and-build house company Box, an economy class flight from Christchurch to Auckland came with a complimentary Eureka moment.

His learned cabin companion was an academic en route to the big smoke as part of a Kiwi contingent to attend a conference about building houses on Mars.

Scientists are now pretty sure there is water in the subsurface of the Red Planet and NASA has the mandate and the budget for a prototype dwelling, so the possibility that some day humans may actually inhabit this domain where no man has gone before is no longer so remote.

Intrigued, Heyworth asked his travel companion which architects were involved in the conference. “Good heavens no,” she reportedly exclaimed. “We need practical people!”

With potential habitats stretching beyond the earthly realm, robotics boffins, chemical engineers, material scientists and even astronomers have been catapulted into the house-building game.

“It suddenly came to me that perhaps we aren’t looking in the right place for accessible housing solutions,” Heyworth says.

“We need to invite different types of people into the design process. It’s a certain route to madness doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”

Within the New Zealand landscape, unlocking the mystery of the affordable quality housing conundrum is possibly still light years away.

Yes, there has been innovation in the technical processes of design. The introduction of centralised Building Information Modelling (BIM) for instance, or new materials such as engineered timbers that allow the faster erection of the base structure.

But, it’s still a frustratingly high-cost, wasteful industry in which to operate.

Prefabrication, touted for the benefits of controlled conditions and speedier builds with less on-site labour required is widely seen as “the future of construction”.

It’s unnerving then when companies such as eHome (once New Zealand’s biggest off-site residential home manufacturer) and, more recently, modular builders ABT Construction go into receivership – and at a time when the house-build game is pumping.

When an eye-wateringly massive upfront investment in technology and machinery is required, it makes an SME operator think twice.

Overseas, companies such as Blu Homes in the US and Modscape in Australia appear to have cracked the code. The first offers clients an end-to-end approach including mortgage/construction finance packages, the latter promises a fast and furious 12-week build.

Inspired by his mid-air encounter, Heyworth is looking to companies outside the industry for answers.

He’s heartened by a success story from 70 years ago. Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad was born on a farm in Sweden and, from a start-up enterprise as a teenager selling matches around his neighbourhood, grew up to head the most innovative furniture retailer in the world. His vision was for simple, inexpensive, ready-to-assemble pieces.

He became a billionaire industrialist that shook up the industry with his methods. “We don’t tend to celebrate functional, accessible design – but it’s really hard to achieve. How many businesses are there like Ikea in the world?” says Heyworth.

Getting to grips with the economics in the supply chain is a significant piece in the affordability puzzle. Kamprad searched the four corners for suppliers at the best prices so one question to ask is: how can we get materials into New Zealand more cheaply?

To this end, Box is investigating options to source pre-made components from China and further afield in Europe. If this pans out and lands supplies here less expensively, it will be one small step for man but hardly a giant leap for mankind.

“Ideally a company such as ours would be able to spend 50 percent of our time on the day-to-day putting up of houses and the other 50 percent on R&D to discover new concepts of living. Of course, we’re trying to do it all on cash flow, which is tricky.”

Popular media doesn’t help either and Heyworth wishes coverage would move beyond ‘house porn’.

This annoys him because there is so much focus on glorifying architecture, which is often achieved by a client who is able to throw pots of money at the design.

“Most people can’t afford those types of houses. What’s important is how to make architecture more available and less exclusive.”

He would much rather read about interesting pockets of innovation and says publicising such original thought would have the advantage of encouraging investment in design, from both government and the average punter.

He is hopeful for the prospects of Wikihouse, the open-source software where components are cut out by a CNC machine and which low-skilled labour can assemble. If that is commoditisation of architecture, then so be it. “It’s exciting and the right direction.”

But he’d go one step further in his flights of fancy. “Imagine if you could feed clay from your section into a machine that you rented for the weekend and by just adding water it printed out a home,” says Heyworth.

Today this may seem like moonbeams in a jar, but look up – within 50 years, there could be houses on Mars.  

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