Tony Houston estimates he's built 500 to 700 homes, including the first new house when Hobsonville Point became a major urban development last decade.
So when he shipped houses here directly from China last month, people had a couple of reasons to sit up and take notice.
Having run G.J. Gardner's successful north and west Auckland franchises for many years, Houston has now teamed up with his wife Robyn Neil to form Neilston Group, merging their surnames to come up with the name.
The first three modular houses from China are now up and Houston plans to finish 200 new Auckland homes by 2022, saying if we built our cars the way we build Kiwi homes, they'd cost $2 million each.
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Building more standardised homes in China and shipping them here in only two to three weeks, with another month of on-site works, is his answer to unaffordability.
On Hobsonville Point's Nugget Ave, Neilston's Tu2 Development has bought the Te Uru superlot from an iwi and is now holding open homes at the first of the three finished glass and black steel-clad homes imported directly last month from Guangzhou.
"But don't call them container homes. They're not, they're bigger than containers for a start," scolds Houston, talking from 23 Nugget Ave, for sale for just over $800,000, and this week beset by visitors who he had to turn away.
"See all those hand marks on the glass?" he says, pointing to the open-homers keen to see inside. "Ring the 0800 number and make an appointment," he tells one couple.
By February he expects to have the next homes here from China and on the site. Earlier this week, 60 potential first-home buyers had entered the Axis affordable ballot to get a home at least 10 per cent cheaper than other places in the area - which somewhat surprised Houston, as he'd expected more to apply for the housing lottery.
Watch: New homes - From Guangzhou to Hobsonville Point
By mid-2021, Modul's price sheet shows $650,000 homes will be completed at a dozen sites on Nugget Ave. Instead of the living kitchen and dining areas being upstairs, as with the first three, those areas will be downstairs for better indoor-outdoor flow, with bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs.
Houston admits all did not go according to plan and insiders say he found the Chinese venture far harder than he initially thought. "We've had a lot of mistakes," he says, "we call them learning opportunities, we've had a great deal of those over the period. We made a list of, rather than things that went bad, things that went good, and we struggled to find something," he admits. But now, he says, the mistakes or problems have been "designed out".
He cites the higher standard of painting in China, but "things like tiling and silicone, not as good as you'd see here but we've obviously changed all that." Also, instead of four containers, only two will be built for each home: the lower-level 8m long unit and the upper-level 12m long unit, between 3.2m and 3.6m wide.
Tony Frost, founder of manufacturer Ecotech Commercial, which has units made in China and imports them, said he had exclusive New Zealand rights to Yahgee International products, which he sells to Houston. Yahgee makes modules in Shanghai and Guangzhou.
"Yahgee is the largest modular housing manufacturer in China," said Frost, making about 20,000 places annually. About 60 Yahgee residences are already erected in New Zealand, from Dunedin to Northland, he said.
Many arms of the state are backing Houston, either with documents, deals or their time and travel:
• Auckland Council's compliance head Jeff Fahrensohn went to China two years ago to see house-building but not with Houston
• Auckland City councillor and planning committee head Chris Darby said the new Modul homes were a refreshing addition to the housing sector
• Kāinga Ora is selling Mt Roskill state housing land to Houston's business to build 130 houses in streets such as Balfron Ave, in a three-way KiwiBuild/state/free-market concept, replacing two older homes with nine new ones on the same site
• The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has issued Modul with multiproof certification, meaning fast-tracked building consents to speed approval, although resource consent is still needed, as are code compliance certificates. Foundations must be laid, services connected and landscaping done, taking around a month.
Houston said he wanted to "graphically show" the affordability issue with a photo of a plasterboard sheet on sale at Home Depot in the United States for US$9.33 a sheet; the same product here goes for $30.69 from Mitre 10. "I don't want to have a go at Gib but that graphically shows the problem we've got - plumbers are $80/hour. All this is why KiwiBuild hasn't worked because you can't make any money out of KiwiBuild homes."
He plans a further 13 homes on Nugget Ave then 130 homes at Kāinga Ora's Roskill South, working with architect friend Allan Shanahan, best mates since they were six when they met at Marist Primary School, Mt Albert.
Houston wanted to be a builder when he left school but instead went into the garment trade, working for Cambridge Clothing in New Lynn before both men headed to Australia.
"By the time Allan and I came back to New Zealand – I was in my 30s then – we were keen to start our own building company."
Shanahan & Houston ran for 10 years, and the pair then started Style Life Homes before realising how difficult it was to compete with G.J. Gardner.
So Houston and Neil bought G.J. Gardner North Shore, which they sold last decade, and in 2008 they bought G.J. Gardner West Auckland.
As for a string of multimillion-dollar prefab housing failures like eHomes, Matrix and ABT, Houston says their mistake was building in New Zealand, not China, where costs are so much lower.
Now, all eyes are on him and the business to see how his scheme pans out.