Lockwood's third generation says sticking to what they do best is working

Lockwood Homes have stood the test during the harshest weather for more than 60 years, but it was the Canterbury earthquakes where the design came into its own.

While other modern homes built on concrete pads were destroyed, testimonials from Lockwood owners credit the patented house design system for coming through the quakes with only minor damage.

Lockwood Homes director and building contractor Andrew La Grouw says despite a history of building on pile foundations in an earthquake-prone country "we forgot that in the 90s and 2000s".

"We've ended up adopting Australian building methods en masse; floating concrete pads, bricks on the outside ... it's all symptomatic of adopting group house building methods from Australia."


He says after the earthquakes there is a new respect for timber-framed construction.

"You can't really beat a beautiful timber house to live in and it's amazing how many times I hear people say 'oh I couldn't live in all that timber'. I wish they'd just go out and stay in a Lockwood bach or something and try it out because it's really lovely."

La Grouw, 38, is the third generation of the family to be linked with Lockwood Homes. The Nelson-based Lockwood franchisee follows in the footsteps of his grandfather Jo La Grouw snr, who developed the interlocking building system with business partner Johannes van Loghem in the early 50s, and his father Joe La Grouw, now managing director and owner of the company.

One of the first houses built using the system was the family home where La Grouw snr lived until his death nearly two years ago.

The designs even caught the eye of Saddam Hussein in the early 80s, who ordered 300 or so to use around his military installations.

One even famously survived a rocket attack, although La Grouw says that was more good fortune than good design - the rocket went in through one window and out another.

After growing up on building sites and in the Rotorua factory, it was a natural step for La Grouw to join the family firm.

"Our family gatherings, when all the uncles and aunties got together at my grandparents' house, I have to say it sounds really boring but what they talked about was Lockwood. It was almost like I was indoctrinated."

While his wider family is still closely tied to the building industry, as draftsmen, interior designers and developers, he and his father are the only two still directly involved with the Lockwood business.

La Grouw took on the Nelson franchise when the long-time local Lockwood builder retired.

"So now I'm basically one of Lockwood's customers in that I order materials from their factory, but I also sit on the Lockwood Group board as well so I have a little bit of involvement with the governance of the company."

La Grouw says it's been a difficult environment for local manufacturing - Lockwood employs 60 people at its Rotorua component factory - particularly when competing globally against other engineered timber companies.

"Jobs will be won and lost on where the dollar is. Right now it's not really working in our favour."

While La Grouw says New Zealand is not a particularly cost-effective place to manufacture, the company has spent the past six or so years ensuring its manufacturing processes are as efficient as possible.

His own experience as a builder has been of "extraordinarily difficult trading conditions". Taking over in Nelson just before the global financial crisis saw him go from a full order book to spending an uncomfortable couple of weeks losing money as clients panicked and pulled out of contracts.

He says it took just five months to come right, something he credits to Lockwood's unique design niche.

"I think that's really been our survival secret for the last few years. We've been watching the other building companies who are all doing the same thing and it's a very blood-red ocean out there.

"They're killing each other and we've sort of been able to sail through the blue seas I guess and just stick with what we're good at which is quite different."

The company can build straight off its selection of 80-plus plans, but La Grouw says Lockwood customers - typically baby boomers building their second or third house - generally opt to build to their own design.

Success in the 1970s and 80s was driven by building lots of standard houses and La Grouw says the company is a little bit undone by the stereotype of "funny little wooden boxes" that is a hangover from those days.

La Grouw aims to show how a constant programme of innovation, introducing more insulation, tougher exteriors and modern design elements, has created homes to appeal to a new generation of owners.

With two daughters - a 2-year-old and newborn - he also hopes one day to hand over the business to a new La Grouw generation.

"My daughter has got her first Lego set, which she loves, and that's where I started."