It was a tale of two townhouses when architects Jane Aimer and Lindley Naismith decided to design their own homes in the Auckland suburb of Newmarket. 

In this, the second of our series of Design Case Studies with Altherm Window Systems, Aimer and Naismith talk about how the design of their homes was also a masterclass in project and budget management. The photographs are by Patrick Reynolds.

Jane Aimer, her husband Paul Kelly, and their children Gina
and Tom are in the left-hand townhouse, while Lindley
Naismith and her partner John Balasoglou
occupy the right-hand home.

Naismith and Aimer live next door to each other in in twin houses they designed themselves (with the assistance of their partner at Scarlet Architects, Mike Dowsett). Being so deeply involved in their own building process gave them even greater insight into their clients’ experiences, and the challenges of managing budgets. “Nothing hones the mind more than doing it for yourself,” Naismith says. “It gives you an insight into the stress of the project and what happens to people psychologically as they go through it. It’s a heady mix of financial pressure, emotional pressure, time pressure and relationship pressure.” 

The homes have shutters that filter late-afternoon westerly light and are a nod to the heritage homes in the neighbourhood.
From left: Mike Dowsett, Lindley Naismith and
Jane Aimer of Scarlet Architects.
Much of that pressure stems from the common misperception that equates a builder’s tender with the overall budget for a house, when in the final reckoning, the overall cost of a home can be far, far higher than that. That’s because a builder’s tender doesn’t include the costs of all the extras needed to complete a home: lighting, interior cabinetry, landscaping, drapes, bathroom and kitchen fittings and fixtures … the list is long and the size of the final bill can vary enormously. 

The rear view of the homes (which are on separate titles)
shows Aimer's home on the right, and Naismith's on the left.
The gardens are connected by two sliding doors - if either
couple has theirs shut, it's a signal they don't want to
be interrupted (although this is rarely the case). 

The view to the garden from the living room in Aimer's house. The artwork is by Tracey Tawhiao.
In Aimer and Naismith's own project, they attempted to assess the cost of all these extras early on in the design process, just after the builder’s quote had arrived. They estimated a budget for each of the items over and above the builder’s estimate, and as the building process continued they endeavoured to make each of these items adhere as closely as possible to their original estimates to keep the budget on track. “It’s the little increments that can get you,” Lindley says. 

Rooms in each home are arranged vertically around light-filled stairwells - green in Aimer's home, and red in Naismith's.

The staircase in Naismith's home features red plexiglass.
This kind of budget creep – a few extra thousand here, and a few more there – may be the source of the old (and unfair) adage that if you’re using an architect, you should set a budget and then expect to double it. In the relatively recent past, it was indeed considered an architect’s job to estimate a client’s budget. These days, the process of building has become much more complicated, and the possible range of variations much greater. That’s why Aimer, Naismith and Dowsett prefer to get a quantity surveyor involved in the early stages of every project. “We always do a reality check early on,” Aimer says. “We haven’t got a project until the client is happy with the cost of it.” 

A view of the kitchen and dining area in Naismith's home.
Looking into the living room of Aimer's home from the stairwell.
Even then, it remains the clients’ responsibility to control the budget and keep track of expenditure (unless they have employed a project manager or paid the architects to manage the building process). After all, architects have no control over whether their clients choose top-of-the-range kitchen appliances, or lavish bathroom tiles, or other budget-blowing interior finishes that may not have been originally specified. Says Naismith: “There’s a huge responsibility there for clients, and some of them ignore it. Often if things are over budget, it’s not the responsibility of the architect, because of the fittings the client has chosen. You can have fancy tiles and wonderful lighting, but the budget might not be estimated for that level of finish.” 

This sectional drawing shows the way both homes are organised around their central stairwells.
Ironically, when it came to their own project Jane and Lindley ignored their own good advice of getting a quantity surveyor’s estimate, and instead relied on their own best estimates of the non-build costs. These estimates weren’t as accurate as a quantity surveyor would have been. Jane and Lindley’s houses were budgeted to cost about $750,000 each. Because Jane and her partner Paul had a little more flexibility with their budget, they specified high-quality lighting and other fittings, and ended up spending about $250,000 more. Lindley, however, wanted to stick more closely to her budget, which often resulted in her and her partner John choosing cheaper options, and spending about $120,000 more than they anticipated, all the while resisting the pressure all renovators or new-home builders come under to finish a job “properly”. 

Another view of the exterior of the homes. The cottage on the
right was an
earlier project renovated by Naismith.
A little extra here and there may not seem like a big deal in comparison to the overall amount of money being spent, but each of these items adds up. But now their homes are complete and happily occupied, neither Jane nor Lindley thinks they have over-capitalised, and both say they are now better informed about managing budgets than ever. 

Naismith's living room features a Skagen couch from
Bromhead Design and a Lammhults-designed chair from
Katalog. The bench is by George Nelson for Herman
Miller from Matisse, and the 'Tolomeo' floor lamps and
Arteluce table lamp are from ECC.
The mezzanine study in Naismith's home overlooks the dining area.
Mike Dowsett, Lindley Naismith and Jane Aimer of Scarlet Architects

HOME How did you estimate your budget? 
Mike Dowsett After the builder’s estimated price came in, we set a budget based on previous jobs and guestimated figures for additional items. 
Jane Aimer We took a stab at trying to identify things that weren’t part of the builder’s price. The builder’s cost is nowhere near the full cost, so setting that budget early on was really good for us, as we’d compare it to every sub-contractors’ quote that came in, and if their quote was higher, then we’d discuss what we needed to do to get it down.
Lindley Naismith The best way to avoid budget blowouts is to rigorously estimate the budget at an early stage.

HOME When things looked too expensive, how easy was it to bring costs down? 
Lindley Naismith One example is how we put a lot of effort into the stairwells that form the core of our homes. We found the original quote was for them to be built in a highly finished architectural way. In the end we chose a more commercial-style installation and decided to live with the imperfections. It’s less refined, with bolts visible, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Mike Dowsett Originally we had specified commercial-grade windows, but they turned out too expensive so we used standard residential windows that we bulked up a bit so they read as heavier sections.

HOME Why do you use a quantity surveyor on jobs you are designing for clients?  
Lindley Naismith We really push for it even if our clients want to rush ahead. Because we are optimistic folk we want to please our clients, so the temptation to underestimate is huge. So getting a quantity surveyor in involves a third party and takes the project away from us being optimistic.
Jane Aimer If you want a job to meet a budget you have to look at all the line items and make sure they meet budgets. Clients have to be rigorous about that, with our help.

The homes' shared rooftop features a hot tub underneath an array of solar panels.