"I don't care whether you're driving a hybrid or an SUV. If you're headed for a cliff, you have to change direction.” – Barack Obama, interview with Renee Montagne, www.npr.org. February 6, 2009
If architects think about a Project Home at all, it is usually the ‘designer’ homes such as Petit and Sevitt, Merchant Builders and Fasham Johnson.
My fascination with more prosaic project homes was sparked some years ago by the CEO of Sydney Homeworld publicly saying that “architects had nothing to offer project homes”. A red rag to a bull, as readers of the last four weeks would have divined.
We immediately immersed ourselves in project Homes or PHs, starting at ‘World #3’. Our exigencies and energies were rewarded with several possibilities.
The bottom end
Firstly, we were invited to design some ‘innovative additions’ to an existing range. I quickly discovered how extraordinarily efficient the designs were in cost terms. The ideas laid out in the early Edgar Gurney days still held true, the typologies endured, there were just multiple improvements in details and construction that rendered them a very viable form of ‘mass production’. There was NO room for plan or layout improvement in the dizzying array of houses for greenfield sites, without cost implications – project home death. Nothing to do here.
The Top End
My next project was at the other, ‘designer’ end: Felton Homes, run by Michael Milosevic, an architect by training, had built some well-designed large homes on acreage and retro styled homes with a French Provincial flavour (e.g. the ‘Villandry’, named for a castle on the Loire). Felton wanted a more mainstream display home at Homeworld Four, and we set about creating a perfect PH.
The house embodied as many ideas for PHs as we could squeeze in: planning modularity for repetition; cellular organisation for flexibility; numerous ‘outdoor rooms’ (in four directions); the possibility for multi-generational occupation; less cluttered bathrooms and particularly a bigger, better laundry; solid brick below, parapet walls above with low sloped roofs.
The house was brilliantly built and won a few awards, including from the AIA, and featured prominently in Homeworld advertising. Revenge, of sorts. But ‘The Logic’ was expensive by project home standards, a display home out of place, and not many were sold.
The Hybrid Type
We then noticed that where the standard designs were failing, and some customisation was needed, was in the quickly growing area of the last 20 years of the ‘Knock-Down, Re-Build’ or KDRB.
Brick veneer houses from the fifties, sixties, and seventies were showing their age and not worth salvaging, unlike the earlier Federation full brick houses. Whilst the houses were poor, the land had considerable value, certainly in monetary terms, but moreover to the occupants who had developed ‘roots’ in the area. Modestly cashed up, they wanted to stay in place, with a new, ‘value-for-money’ project home.
Greenfield designs often don't suit these KDRB sites; there are difficulties in approvals (beware the niggardly neighbours), issues of greater site falls and poor infrastructure. KDRB was a more niche market that the larger builders steered well clear of, and the smaller ones stayed away, fearing becoming enmeshed in the personalised detail that goes with being a ‘contract builder’. Here was our opportunity for a hybrid product.
What if we could work out a way to combine the qualities of an architect designed home, with the construction efficiencies of project homes? Together with Cosmopolitan Homes, a diversified builder, we began to make that hybrid model. We designed simple, but elegant, one-off houses to be built using PH technology.
Concept Homes 1
The plans were based on ‘design modules’. Every room was optimised and standardised: four-bathroom types, two ensuite types, two laundries, six bedroom types and any number of living and dining combinations. Each module was individually costed, so that when the modules were assembled, the plan was a home, that could be constructed in the standard way, at a known cost. Crucially this cost would be halfway between PH costs, $1,200/sqm at the time, and architect designed homes at $5,000-$6,000/sqm.
Each plan resolved around a key idea or concept (as before): courtyards at the sides or centre of the house; cellular arrangements for two or three separate ‘apartments’ within for grandparents, parents and children; the ‘upside-down’ house with the living areas on the upper level with roof gardens, the back to front house with garages at the rear; or a house with ‘wings’. All strong and different ideas to the usual library of PH plans. Hence the name: ‘Concept Homes’.
We went out to the market and a number of these homes were built using conventional timber stick frame / brick veneer construction, with low sloped metal roofs. Unfortunately, the building firm then went broke, not from Concept Homes, but from the usual sin of being overextended. With several house still under construction, there was the loss of money, the loss of faith in ‘Homeowner’s Warranty’ (as it was) and a loss in confidence, which was considerable.
Concept Homes 2
Nevertheless, we were convinced that this hybrid model of an architecturally designed home with a strong concept, using an efficient construction approach that could deliver high design value at the ‘halfway price’. The second approach was to revise the construction system.
These ‘second generation’ houses are built using Bluescope Truecore steel, in Framecad technology. Greater accuracy and speed than timber, allowing flexibility in design, with resilience to fire and flood, and a Life Cycle Analysis or LCA showing good sustainability.
The houses are clad in a rendered insulation product (Dulux Exsulite) creating a ‘rain screen’ moisture gap. The bricks are now on the inside in one or two selected walls (as reverse veneer construction) giving additional thermal mass, and better acoustic isolation. The bricks are laid once the house is sealed up, an attractive option for bricklayers who can work when it is raining.
The roof forms were further refined. We were keen to avoid the usual gutters all the way around a hip and valley roof, particularly at a second storey. Using parapets, hiding low sloping roofs, the eaves are eliminated. The roof is often broken into three parts: the front and rear roofs (often over a large outdoor room) slope to a center roof, pitched to the side to the water tanks. Minimum gutters and no eaves at all (specialty shading devices are used where necessary).
Standard internal details were designed: louvres above all internal doors to allow for cross ventilation when the door was closed; ceiling fans in every room and outdoors; no ceiling lights, pelmets over windows and doors with LED strip lights on the upper level and curtains or blinds underneath (the light at night that is reflected off the ceiling comes from the same direction as it does in the day); stair handrails fitted with LED lights; standards for water tanks, photovoltaics and batteries.
The design conundrum is how to present the house to the street with a parapet and relatively blank façade (given a lack of street interaction on most suburban blocks). Our alternative is to use a particular artifice on the front of the building, we nicknamed an ‘artonface’: recycled timber or folded metal screening as a screen to the upper windows, tight timber battens screen a stair; a tiled mosaic between the upper and lower floors, further blurring its project home origins.
Fortunately, we now have a builder who can straddle this hybrid construction system. PH builders were already so successful, they had no desire to take on any complicated architect designed house but there are bespoke builders who understand building in the PH manner, and we can draw ion several of them.
All this design and construction thinking doesn't work unless you follow the PH process, and distinguish between clients and customers. This distinction is lost on most architects, but it is vital to getting costs down. What most ‘home buyers’ want is a guaranteed price, for a certain design. What architects offer is a guaranteed design at an uncertain price.
I have previously written that we need to bring some big project thinking to small houses: to establish the budget up front, then by reverse engineering derive the type, size, and qualities of the house, that is, its design. This is akin to a ‘feasibility study’ – to establish if your client can really be a customer for building.
In our process we ask a potential customer for a firm budget and brief, so we can establish what house we can economically build for them, to avoid the disappointment of a desirable design being unaffordable after approval. We set a small fee (in our own simple contract) to address this feasibility and to prepare (and revise several times) a plan.
Because every design module has been priced by our builder, we know to the nearest $5,000 or so, the cost to build the house, excepting siteworks, infrastructure and substructure costs. The price calculation includes all costs for further design, engineering, consultants, certifiers, and council, the management of the process (dealing with the customers queries and changes etc.) and the use of the details (a royalty).
Once we have an agreed design, we ensure our builder can construct for the anticipated price, backed by a tender that includes all the above costs. We can say to the customer that this is the fixed price for the particular design we have developed with them. This is the preferred approach used by the banks in drafting a mortgage: a fixed fee to cover all costs, no surprises.
Sounds great – not always so in practice. We have lost our way on a few houses where customers demanded far more detailed design than this hybrid concept should, could or would allow. Like most PH builders we discovered variations are the norm. This is where some of the project home builders make a killing, unlike us. We lacked the hard-nosed experience to stand firm or to charge a disincentive fee. Our training as architects trying to please a client, not sell to a customer took over. But we learn.
Despite this, we've completed a number of second-generation Concept Homes using as much as possible of the learnings from the PH trade: organised, simple, rectilinear plans, well sequenced construction materials, in forms that minimise construction difficulties, and sold to a customer for a fixed price.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]
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