Welcome to the third in our series of Design Case Studies with Altherm Window Systems, which we've created to help give insight into the process of designing and building a home - and staying within budget as you do so. 

This week, we visit the Signal Box in Masterton by Melling Morse Architects. The home won our 2008 Home of the Year award. Since then, we're sad to report that Gerald Melling, who ran Melling Morse Architects with Allan Morse, has passed away. We hope this post serves as a reminder of Gerald's cleverness and the original, thoughtful homes he and Allan created together. The photographs are by Paul McCredie.

The Signal Box by Melling Morse Architects, our Home of the Year in 2008, is whimsically inspired by the signal arms of the nearby railway station.
Make no mistake: Stephanie Chilcott loves her house. “It’s really lovely – in winter, I walk in when I get home from work, and it’s usually about five degrees warmer than it is outside, all thanks to the sun,” she says. “I wanted a house designed for me, and that’s what I’ve got. I found it really rewarding”. 

Once she had purchased her site near the Masterton railway station, Stephanie’s next challenge was to find an architect. With an estimated budget of just over $200,000, she found many architectural practices wouldn’t even allow her to make an appointment to see them, as they considered her budget unrealistic. Eventually she called architects Gerald Melling and Allan Morse, creators of a number of successful low-budget homes. She found them happy to take on the project.

In the kitchen, the 'PH5' lights are by Poul Henningsen. The artwork above the sink is by Bill Hammond.
In order to save money, Stephanie decided to manage the project herself, hiring the builder on a labour-only basis and ordering many of the materials and joinery. She estimates that doing this probably saved her $50,000. Despite this, her budget blew out, requiring her to eventually spend a total of about $350,000.

There are two options Stephanie believes she should have considered at the beginning of the process. One would have been to employ a quantity surveyor at the outset of the project to provide a more rigorous estimate of how much it would cost to build Melling Morse’s design. Stephanie says had she known how much the house would end up costing, she would probably still have gone ahead with the build, but saved herself the stress of needing to refinance part-way through the process. 

The home's entry hall is a cool respite in the heat of summer. The artworks are by Gavin Chilcott.
The other option she could have considered to keep costs from blowing out would have been to employ a builder on a fixed-price contract (a fixed-price contract means the builder agrees to complete the job for a mutually agreed sum). Some architects believe fixed-price contracts are inflexible and can create tension on a building site if unforeseen complications arise that require the builder to spend extra time on the job – something that is especially common in renovations, where the condition of the original building isn’t always clear. In Stephanie’s case, she did ask two builders to quote for fixed-price contracts, and both of them estimated a price of about $350,000. Those estimates turned out to be accurate, but at the time, Stephanie was convinced she could do it cheaper, so she employed a builder on a labour-only arrangement, which means the builder charged an hourly rate for his services. 
In the dining area, the concrete floor and insulated block walls retain solar heat.
Is the cost blowout an architects’ problem? Not necessarily. Architecture schools don’t teach students how to estimate costs, so most architects are judging a building’s budget from their own experience, or from an estimated average square-metre cost, which can prove to be inaccurate depending on the time required to realise an unusual design. It’s worth having a frank discussion about your financial situation with your architect, but to take the pressure off, a quantity surveyor or a project manager can work on your behalf to ensure your initial estimates are accurate, and that a building project comes in as close as possible to its original estimate. Architects will also manage the building process for you, for a higher percentage of the costs.

The living room features a vintage settee by Peter Hvidt. The artwork above it is by Gavin Chilcott.
The other thing Stephanie says first-timers should be aware of is that they need to budget for costs such as GST, council fees, architects’ fees, engineer’s fees, securing a building permit, drainage fees, and so on. Architects and tradespeople generally assume a budget figure to be net costs (this is so their fee, a percentage of the build costs, is based only on the net figure) – so if you tell an architect you have a budget of $200,000, he or she will create a design up to that amount without including potential ancillary costs unless specifically directed to do so.

The bedroom in the home's "Signal Arm" is a series of stepped platforms.
Q+A with Stephanie Chilcott

HOME What would you do differently if you were to build another house? 
Stephanie Chilcott The key thing is that I would probably pay money for a quantity surveyor or go for a fixed-price build. My advice would also be to be quite direct with your architect. [A budget blowout] is a gradual process that creeps up on you. Some building costs had escalated by the time we started. I could have finished the house more cheaply on the inside, but that would have cheapened it. You’ve got to finish a house the way it was intended, but that must be a serious dilemma for lots of people. 

HOME You managed the project yourself in order to save money. Was that challenging? 
Stephanie Chilcott You don’t need special skills to manage a process like this, but you do need to be able to interpret a plan to understand a little bit about the construction process. You need a really good relationship with the builder. I offered my builder a little bit more to manage the site – he had sub-contractors he liked to use so he used them. It’s important to have a clear discussion with your builder about who’s responsible for what. You don’t want to be involved in site management, deciding when the subbies should come. You shouldn’t spend any more time on the building site than you have to, but go down there only when required. If you go there too much, you start making changes and you’ll find yourself spending more money. You have the plans, you’ve got a builder – you let them get on with it. 

A small study is located on a landing on the way up to the bedroom.
 HOME Did you enjoy the process? 
Stephanie Chilcott I found it really rewarding to watch things come into three dimensions, to watch the house grow and change. The driver for the house was I wanted something designed for myself, and that’s what I’ve got – it’s been designed for me, for how I live. The proportions of all the rooms are perfect, and that’s what you’re paying for – design skills. The house has a valuation for more than it cost to build, and it has a value above the dollar stuff because of its inherent qualities.

"It was either going to be a complete embarrassing disaster or something a bit special," said architect Gerald Melling of the home's signal arm inspiration.
Before his death, Gerald Melling formed a Wellington-based architectural partnership, Melling Architects, with his son, David Melling. David still runs the practice today. Allan Morse has his own firm, Allan Morse Architect, also based in Wellington.