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Feature article
Sawmill House by Archier.

photographer: Benjamin Hosking

Sawmill House: Procurement as a Creative Opportunity

We see the procurement process of architecture as a creative design opportunity. Identifying the opportunities in the procurement process has become as important to us as the architectural outcome which spatially realises it. This engagement may be through taking advantage of new funding and habitation trends to alter the feasibility of projects – allowing us to drive the projects as entrepreneurs as well as architects, or upcycling waste by-product to be developed into building elements – and developing products and fixtures that fill a niche while creating a passive income stream.

Sawmill House became a case study for this approach by taking advantage of the non-traditional procurement method of owner-builder. The lessons from this project pivoted our direction to an entrepreneurial approach that seeks to find opportunities in all the systems that underpin architecture.

In early 2012, having spent seven years working for architecture firms in Hobart and Melbourne we began discussing the framework for an inclusive, holistic design studio. In order to create an energetic progressive practice we felt the studio should engage in three areas of design: architecture; objects; and research. Around this time Chris’ brother Ben Gilbert, a sculptor based in regional Victoria, wanted to begin construction on a project we had designed a year prior.

Seeing a rare opportunity to put our conceptual framework into practice and step outside the traditional residential procurement model we decided to take advantage of the owner-builder procurement model. I moved to site and we began construction.

As an owner-builder, Ben took on most of the responsibility for the domestic building work carried out on his land. This required him to obtain the required building permits, supervise or undertake the building work and ensure the work met building regulations and standards. This procurement method requires an owner with some understanding of construction and how things are put together. Luckily Ben, being a sculptor who works on large public art pieces, came with a skill set that complimented and extended the architectural process.

Designing for an owner-builder tends to be a double edged sword.

On one hand, the process is extremely rewarding as it encourages a design dialogue that is as concerned with the pragmatics of the construction methodology as it is with aesthetic or programmatic concerns, allowing time that is usually spent tendering the project to instead be spent discussing the logistics of construction or sourcing interesting materials. Importantly it also allows flexibility, as key decisions can be made quickly throughout the project facilitating a less constricted and (possibly due to being a little naive) more experimental process. This allowed us to change key elements of the design well into construction without having significant effect on the cost. Budgets can be pushed further as the client invests their own time, as well as taking on all of the risk, liability and insurances.

From a bank’s perspective however, this results in the owner-builder being at greater risk, leading to larger deposits and securities being required (if banks are willing to lend at all), putting downward pressure on the project budget. Despite these challenges we saw the flexible nature of the owner-builder structure as a means to extend our creative engagement with the project.

Early in the process my brother and I made the conscious decision to work with minimal documentation. We wanted the outcome to emerge through a physical conversation with each other, to design and build like a tinkerer. To have a concept of what could be, but to let the design develop through the construction process.

This was important as Ben and I have quite different aesthetics, however we shared a common language of making. This was to be a useful tool to draw out reason and intent. We also benefited from both naturally operating through considered risk taking. This allowed us to push the project parameters forward and provided a safe space for adventurous thoughts to be floated and openly considered.

The process also allowed us to realise ideas quickly, working through physical iterations and prototypes made to scale, testing, then making. As such the design could develop as a continual physical dialogue rather than the top down designer-builder hierarchy.

This came as a sharp and rewarding contrast to the traditional procurement process we had become accustomed to, in which a set of drawings would go through multiple revisions before being sent out for tender, then many months later be constructed, only being critiqued during site visits. By this time the idea had passed or been superseded by the next revision created off site in an office.

Sawmill House by Archier.

photographer: Benjamin Hosking

Sawmill House by Archier.

photographer: Benjamin Hosking

As a large-scale sculptor my brother was extremely interesting to work with. He has boundless energy, a fantastic skill set and more importantly came to the project with a firm belief in the value of architecture. This belief meant he was willing to invest his time and money into what was essentially a large prototype.

On reflection the process also hinged on the ability to have rigorous, sometimes heated conversations. By this we mean a willingness to engage in honest dialogue where one could potentially change the other’s position through reason or example. The times when this conversation broke down the project suffered. The convenience of having ready access to materials and volumes with which to experiment made conversations surrounding usability and design somewhat easier and more concrete.

This owner-builder process required the design to be flexible and open to change. Design decisions would be reviewed on site, physically deconstructing and modifying both large and small elements of the build. During this process we would critique our methodology, making conscious notes on how to improve not only formal decisions but also the construction process. As a practice we have found the process enriching.

We are acutely aware, however, that we are in a privileged position having access to knowledgeable craftsmen and workshops in which to prototype. Sawmill House provided us an opportunity to acquire a broader range of skills while the procurement process allowed for immediate feedback from design discussions. The process also allowed us to harness failure as an opportunity to learn and risk taking as a chance to discover new possibilities.

Through our involvement in the construction of Sawmill House we developed a flexible methodology that informs the design and procurement of all new projects that now enter the studio. Rather than setting an aesthetic agenda Sawmill House has informed a flexible design methodology of experimentation that focuses not just on the physical architectural response, but on the systems that deliver and bring the project into existence. Importantly construction inefficiencies are now seen as both commercial and design opportunities. This attitude was developed through a critique of the construction materials and methodologies used in Sawmill House.

The successes and failures of Sawmill House cemented our view that the standard procurement methods for architecture limit, from the position of other stake holders, the potential avenues of engagement for architects and create barriers to benefit from their involvement. The freedom of the owner-builder process allowed us to experiment with details and finishes that would generally be out of reach and the process afforded the client the chance to procure a dwelling that would have been well beyond their means.

The overall experience has contributed to a pivotal shift in the studio; focusing now on designing systems that bring architecture into existence as much as the aesthetic ‘architectural’ response.