Neil Sutherland explains how using a design, manufacture and delivery company can give you a better quality of construction.
Interview with Neil Sutherland
Neil didn't take a conventional route into architecture. After leaving school at 16 he undertook a technical apprenticeship with an engineering company for a few years. It was only after finishing his apprenticeship and going travelling around Europe that the wonders of Florence turned his head to architecture. He returned to Scotland, completed his degree and promptly set up his own practice, MAKAR, an architect-led, ecological design and build company.
A unique entity focused on the delivery of great places
Neil summarises MAKAR as not being an architectural practice, builder or manufacturer, but a combination of the three.
His first ten years in business were spent working out how best to develop and design buildings, and was disappointed by the options available to him on the delivery side of things.
When he moved to a live on a farm with his family around 16 years ago, he had land available where he was able to develop and grow his business to include the manufacturing. He now has a couple of large workshops and employs close to 50 people.
Their unique offering means they are currently working at capacity producing homes mostly in the Scottish Highlands, but are also looking to mainstream what they do and make it more widely available.
Certainties can be provided to clients
Neil is able to offer certainties to clients, around design, programme, workmanship and cost. With the alternative being to work with a number of consultants and a builder, he says it can be difficult to find a company who are motivated by ecological progressive areas of working who are able to take on an architect's idea and make it work.
“As I’ve learnt over the years, the intention is the first stage but one has to figure out how to get things delivered. The execution of things is perhaps far more challenging than coming up with bright ideas.”
There are three aspects to a successful project outcome
The first is having a thorough understanding of the client's brief. This involves taking time to sit down with them and really understand their needs.
The second aspect is the site analysis. Every site will have constraints and opportunities, but there's always context; things to respond to, things you want to exemplify or even perhaps reduce.
The third element is a flexible delivery approach.
Neil believes as long as none of these three aspects are compromised, as he suggests happens in the standard approach to the design and delivery of housing, the customer will end up with a wonderful outcome.
Scotland has an abundance of quality timber
Scotland's forestry cover has an unusual species mix, dominated by pine, fir, larch and spruce.
Neil's company is looking to develop progressive ways of utilising that timber, from a structural perspective right through to insulation. They use the common characteristics of those species for different applications and avoid using chemical treatments wherever possible.
Spruce and Scots pine for example can be used for the carcassing of a panel type construction, Douglas Fir for large section exposed beams and posts, and larch is used extensively on the external applications of buildings, such as cladding and decking.
“There’s enough there to do everything we want to do, to do it without chemical treatments, and to work in anticipation of the circular economy, in anticipation of the idea that timber buildings are uniquely adaptable in the sense that they are repairable and you can change them. You can take them apart and put them back together again.”
They work closely with sawmills
In other parts of the world, and particularly in Europe there are many small to medium sized mills, which relate to their local resource and how it's used. In Scotland, many of the small to medium sized mills haven't survived so MAKAR tend to use a few large sawmills along with a small number of smaller ones.
Rather than the usual design approach of designing something and then looking for what you're going to use to build it, in normal situations they would look at the resource available and respond to that, buying the timber directly from the sawmill. They do have a client who has an extensive forestry resource of their own so in a fairly exceptional case they have arranged for a sawmill to contract mill their own timber.
They use a lean process
Lean process improvement is largely used in manufacturing to improve efficiency and reduce waste.
Neil's interpretation is that it's about people; what motivates them to do things carefully, and with a lot of attention to detail, getting things right the first time and really enjoying what they're doing.
“It’s when you go about making things, when you connect the theory and practice of things together, you get a third thing that comes out which is a kind of tangible, pragmatic capability which is not held up as important as it is, in actual fact.”
And Neil believes it is the people who are making things who are the best people to ask about how to improve the process.
An ecological approach to engaging with the world
MAKAR use the term ‘meaningful work' to explain their working methods. It's about their work being respectful to everyone involved, and respectful to things beyond themselves.
“Every time we build a house, we know that it’s going to impact on people’s lives in a very profound manner. MAKAR exists because we believe that great buildings and places change people’s lives.”
The aim is for quality, not speed
The main constraint that MAKAR have with building the houses is the transportation. Their standard panel size is around three metres wide so that it can be transported by road relatively easily.
Such off-site construction methods may be more expensive than other alternatives, but they will be better and more consistently made and speed and cost reductions will come about over time.
The pieces of the house are made in sequence: first the floor, wall and roof panels, then the post and beam elements and finally the modular elements which are the parts of the house that have the plumbing, ventilation and electrics in them.
They try and do as much of the servicing within the modules at their workshop as possible as they believe this to have the best outcomes.
“But the future is about having less and less equipment, more and more fabric first, more and more simplicity around buildings really. But use the word optimisations. So, what equipment you do have you have to make sure it is working well and it’s optimised.“
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