Home of the Year 2022 judge and convenor Federico Monsalve talks to judges Sally Ogle and Dave Strachan about the awards programme, what they expect of their tour to select the winners, and some larger ideas about our built environment.
Federico Monsalve (FM): You were our first choice for judges and you both said yes immediately. What makes you accept such a time consuming commitment such as this one?
SO: You get to see inside buildings that you would never ever be able to go into otherwise, and as an architect that is such a great opportunity.
DS: Like you said, it’s time consuming but it’s a real privilege getting to see these places and hear the stories of the clients and architects and occasionally the builders. It’s pretty special.
FM: Speaking of builders, both of your studios have a very strong foundation on hands-on building and crafting [Dave started his architectural career as a builder and Sally’s first project out of university involved building her own house, the Dogbox, in Whanganui]. How much does that influence your judgement when you are selecting winners in awards programmes like this one?
SO: Well, it definitely does. That’s the part where your ideas get turned into reality and having an interest in building is fundamental. I mean, I know in our practice we do the thinking about the way things go together as part of the sketch design process, because otherwise you’re trying to take something you’ve designed and make it work instead of starting with how it works.
DS: We’ve got this mantra in the office about what we call the ‘FBI’ which means the “f**king big idea”. Our approach is to make sure you’ve got the FBI sorted out and — I learned this from Irish architecture — then you have the lilies, and that’s the lots of little individual ideas that support the big idea. So, when you’re deciding how you might detail something or the materiality, it should come from that FBI. You don’t go into a house and say, ‘oh, man, what an amazing set of details’ if it’s a [terrible] building, or plan, arrangement, volumes … if there’s none of that big idea then it doesn’t matter how good the details are.
FM: But, how ‘FB’ do the ‘I’s need to be? Are you always striving for re-invention or are they just dictated by context?
DS: It might be just doing an additional operation we think it’s going to be best for the whole. It’s about something you’ve not thought of as a client or a homeowner. That might be the big idea. Like we kick the kitchen from the left to the right side of the building and all of a sudden, everything flows in the organisation and the plan and the connection, the outdoors, or whatever it is, it all makes more sense.
SO: For us, that big idea is often about the clarity of the brief. What is the main thing we’re trying to do here; is it about capturing that view and arranging the house around that? Is it the relationship to the street or the garden? Whatever it is, it’s about making sure that with every development of the design, you step back and go, ‘is it still doing that thing?’.
DS: That’s true. I remember learning way back at university about the fact that you can’t solve the problem if you don’t define the brief. So we spend a bit of time trying to figure out from the clients’ perspective and the budget perspective, what does the brief entail and then the other bit is, what can we bring to it. How does that inform the way you will approach the form of the building? How does it relate to the climate, the context, the land form, or whatever it may be.
FM: And then you ‘go on to the lilies’ as you said, onto detailing and interior materiality. Do we live in a country where the ‘lilies’ are hard to source? We’re so far away from everything and that variety of resources has always been limited, and now with supply chain disruptions it is even more difficult. Is it possible, or even desirable, to build purely from what we’ve got locally?
SO: It’s hard. It is pretty annoying to think of timber framing heading offshore and coming back again when we’re growing it here. But in terms of the supply chain, we’re always trying to look for local materials. We use a lot of macrocarpa in our projects which means we know, for certain, that that’s not chopping down some orangutan habitat to build your deck. That’s something we really value.
DS: I love the singer/songwriter James McMurtry. He’s got a great song where he says: “We can’t make it here anymore”. He’s talking about a whole lot of different things in the United States, but what he’s saying is that it’s all made somewhere else. We don’t make much stuff like we used to.
SO: It becomes pretty difficult when your decisions are being driven by lead-times at the moment.
DS: Exactly, we are having to do substitutions and a lot of forward planning. Like, we’ve hired a whole bunch of 40 foot containers on various jobs and we’re just putting stuff in there well before we need it so that it doesn’t disrupt the building program too much.
FM: This reliance on overseas materials also has a huge impact on sustainability and carbon miles, right?
SO: Sustainability and architecture is a really difficult thing to talk about. It’s important to talk about it but not be disingenuous about the fact that that building is, inherently, quite a wasteful proposition. Lots of things we build in New Zealand come with a huge amount of embodied energy from just getting it here in the first place. One of the ways we think about it is to consider: ‘is the thing you’re building of quality and will it last for a long time?’ If the answer is yes, it would have low energy use over its lifetime.
FM: What do you hope to see in the Green Category of Home of the Year?
SO: I would hope not to see a 400 square metre house with two occupants and a whole bunch of sustainable features. That is not, in my mind, sustainable architecture.
DS: That’s a critical one, this size thing. From a green point of view, you almost shouldn’t have a green category, it should be implied that everyone should be thinking and designing that way, whether it’s build small, build with local materials with a low carbon footprint, build high performing thermal envelopes. And you can’t just say ‘we’ve stacked a few LED lights here and there, so yes, we’re sustainable!’ It has to have a lot more substance: energy monitoring, how has it gone over the first year of its life? How much energy does it use? Have you got any carbon footprint modelling?
SO: I think it’s also complicated, because small jobs would normally never have the budget to do anything like that.
DS: It is also interesting that we are a big timber construction country but we still have to skin it with insulation to make it perform well, and put some kind of cladding on it. And I think, in a lot of cases, for durability reasons, we should not be so scared about concrete. Although it’s got a terrible carbon footprint it has unbelievable durability. So how are we measuring that? I think we’re working on what a building can do in its 50-year lifetime and then sustainable stuff starts to look at a 90-year lifetime, but what about if we looked at a 200-year lifetime?
FM: Can you do bespoke homes, on tight budgets, while still being truly sustainable?
DS: The simple answer is no. You just can’t, you can’t have all those things. Do you want quality, do you want longevity, do you want cost? You can’t have all of them.
FM: If you’re looking for a future where sustainability is built into everything we do then, somehow, the price has to come down, right?
DS: I suppose like computers, maybe it does eventually, but part of it is that we’re at the bottom of the world. We are just at the end of all these supply chains and we don’t have the buying power.
SO: It is also about radically transforming the Building Code so the minimum bar is a lot more energy efficient and thermal performance is a huge step above where it is right now.
DS: Also, our window and door joinery here is really poor. [It] might be double-glazed but it’s terrible for thermal bridging, it’s poorly put together, and you often get leaking in joints. So if you want to do really high performance stuff, you have to go get products from Germany or Switzerland or Slovenia.
FM: Moving on to multi units, there is a lot of interesting work happening in this area at the moment, isn’t there?
SO: It’s really exciting to start seeing some good examples of multi units in more medium density settings. New Zealand has historically had either cheap, tiny, student flat-styled stuff, or really, really high-end apartments and not a huge amount in between.
DS: We are lucky to be involved a lot in that space and it’s a real buzz that we’re actually affecting 100 families’ lives rather than one super elite person who’s got $10 million to spend. That’s quite a cool thing to be part of. But in saying that, it’s still highly constrained and there are some really poor ones which, to some extent, is where there’s a developer framework which is purely profit driven.
FM: Are there any multi-unit developments, here or abroad that you think are good examples of doing things well?
SO: The Cohaus Project in Auckland is pretty interesting. Taking a single suburban site and turning it into homes for 20, or maybe more, people. That’s exciting and exactly what the Unitary Plan was hoping to achieve.
DS: For me, it would be Nightingale in Melbourne.That’s an amazing concept of ethical investors and I think the developer even managed to get some sort of green power from Tasmania and set up a power company to do that. They don’t don’t have a huge developer profit, they just pay the builder, the architect, the engineer, and they’re getting quite high quality outcomes for less than market value markups. That’s housing people in a nice way that creates a really vibrant community.
FM: This year, we’ve also introduced an Interior of the Year category, which is a brand new thing for the awards. One question people often ask is: where do interiors begin and where does architecture end? Is it at the threshold? And if so, are interiors purely about soft furnishings vs. structure? How do you see judging this side of things?
DS: Right back to the FBI: the whole theme, the feel, and the materiality of the place should thread through from inside to outside, then back out again. It should be fairly seamless and, obviously, it should reflect that environment it’s part of. We’ve had situations where someone wants to use a kitchen design and they literally use this thing that lands on the interior like a spaceship from outer space and it doesn’t even connect to where the dining or the outlook is. It should be integral. There are firms like Fearon Hay for example, who have super detailed interiors and they have interior designers who work with them so they are right on the same page… and it shows.
FM: Are you looking forward to touring the Home of the Year 2022 finalists?
DS: Yeah I’ve done [these types of tours] a few times and it’s quite special. The three of us might get on fairly well which will make it easier…
The 2022 Home of the Year winner will be announced in the April/May issue of HOME