The idea of the "kitset" home is nothing new. Le Corbusier was one of its earliest known advocates. In 1914, he developed the "Domino" house, a modular system of vertical planes and stairwells that could be configured as needed - an approach he hoped would help with the economical and innovative reconstruction of decimated French cities after the war.
In New Zealand, the heritage of the Lockwood is our benchmark. These pre-fabricated timber homes have stood through testing times since the 1950s. But many architects since have yearned to create a design-and-build product that delivers a bespoke look with a set-in-stone budget. And failed. Could the boys at Box Living be any different?
Dan Heyworth, general manager of the company, sure hopes so. He's taken heart from the fact that Box Living was recently named a finalist in the Best Design Awards. "We've done a lot of work on the system so it's amazing to be recognised."
Heyworth has joined forces with architect Tim Dorrington, builder Nat Jakich and their money man, Heyworth's brother-in-law Nat Holloway, in a team he believes can navigate the complexities of the legal and financial side in the office and the design and build side on site.
With 10 homes now completed and eight under hammer and nail, they're certainly getting some traction.
When Heyworth met Dorrington five years ago, he encountered a like-minded spirit. They both knew the statistic: only 5 per cent of homes in New Zealand are architecturally designed. "Usually you have to go through a lengthy process and have very deep wallets," says Heyworth.
They were equally dismayed at the figures because, undoubtedly, there was a growing awareness of how good design could enhance lifestyle. They were determined to plug a gap in the market with an approach that melded craft and common sense.
The Box Living point of difference, as they see it, is that your plan can be customised but your end cost and completion date is guaranteed.
Although it took the team four years to develop the system, the secret is basic: there are more knowns than unknowns in the make-up of the houses. First up, they all feature a timber post-and-beam exoskeleton with stainless-steel cross braces that has been approved for seismic, wind and gravity load. "It means none of the walls need to be load-bearing which frees up the design in terms of window allocation," says Dorrington.
The company originally investigated steel framing imported from China or Australia. During the course of their research, its cost escalated 200 per cent. Out went the steel in favour of Kiwi-made Glulam timber. "It's engineered a bit like Bentwood furniture and is immensely strong," explains Dorrington.
Details such as flashings, corner junctions and bracing are always pre-locked and loaded. "You aren't reinventing them each time. When it comes to drawing up each house for council approval, 50 per cent of the information is already there."
But it's the remaining 50 per cent that adds the X factor - designs that have won the hearts and minds of clients from Kawau to Clevedon. Dorrington has based the concepts on the mid-century "box" style of the Case Study houses in Los Angeles. The buildings of developer Joe Eichler also get the big tick in terms of inspiration. A passionate modernist, Eichler brought innovations such as atriums, open-plan living, concrete-slab flooring, and tongue-and-groove decking to about 11,000 homes, mainly in the California region during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Dorrington describes the Box Living houses as a series of "floor and roof cassettes" which are pre-made then assembled on site, a real time-saving factor. As Heyworth points out, "this takes away much of the messy, dirty, risky business of building and brings it into our modern age."
Their love of the rectangular cube is not allowed to strangle the look - the joy is that you can break free of the box, too.
When a Wellington couple in their 20s approached the team for their first home, they had tired of being shown draughty old villas and had a building budget of 300K.
They settled on an L-shaped home with a stairwell that separates the open-plan living zone from the raised bedroom block. Floor-to-ceiling glass sliders allow the surrounding greenery to flood the space. Beneath, the garage is clad in opaque corrugated polycarbonate that acts like a lightbox and at night, glows like a beacon in the bush.
It's a fun and funky result just perfect for the couple with built-in window seats, a timber screen in the stairwell and shots of colour in the green front door and vintage-style yellow light shade above the dining table.
Sections of the exterior skeleton pop in or out to form a modern version of the bay window. "There's some articulation in the facade. This is not a container," says Dorrington.
"The clients are rapt," adds Heyworth. "They were pretty interested in architecture and had a vision for what their bush-clad section could become."
It's this type of attitude Box Living appeals to - people who prefer the casual style of plywood cladding and cabinetry with routed apertures for handles or are happy to have cost-effective polyurethaned strand-board flooring, made from wood flakes. "Instead of covering it up, I want to elevate it as an honest material," says Dorrington.
Of course, there is always the option to up-spec - from plasterboard walls to plywood panels, from grooved ply on the exterior to cedar boards. Which is exactly what the owners of a recently completed holiday home in Kawau did.
Theirs is a beach-house that soars beyond basic. Its board-and-batten cladding, extreme cantilevers and pa-like fencing along exterior walkways give it a distinctive Kiwi feel. Dorrington: "It's a dramatic house and its planning is quite different. The clients asked for many sleeping spaces (not necessarily bedrooms) and for it to be crafted around a courtyard where they knew they'd have many parties."
So the concept can be shaped and shimmied to sites, briefs and budgets but once you're quoted a price, that's it. It'll stick. Their website presents options from $100,000 to $500,000.
Joe Eichler's mission was to bring architect-designed homes to the suburbs of middle-class America. The Box Living dream runs along similar lines.
"It hasn't been easy and we've all had to make sacrifices to get here," says Dorrington.
In Eichler's day, tradition was to put fake pink flamingos on sticks out on the front lawn to indicate an open-door policy. If you saw the flamingos at cocktail hour, you could go in and share a drink with neighbours.
For Heyworth, the ultimate goal is to, through good design, improve people's quality of life: "We want our houses to encapsulate Eichler's same sense of community. When clients feel part of the design process, they become emotionally involved. They live and grow with the house. Ideally, they will stay forever."
* The winners of the Best Design Awards will be announced on October 5. Please see bestawards.co.nz for more information.