Sunil: That’s my house (as we take a quick drive around Hobsonville Point before ending up at the very pleasant Catalina Café).
Crosby: Nice, a touch of mid-century modern. Another one of many Universal staff I am finding out who own a Universal home.
Sunil: I have owned two; the other one in Gulf Harbour I sold to purchase this one.
Crosby: Ok, ok. Now I know you would rather be fishing for Kingies off Coromandel, but for the next half hour you are stuck with me. How long have been with Universal?
Sunil: 15 years, since 2003. I started out as the ‘Design & Build’ designer. Everything we did in Design & Build. We don’t do as much of that now, it was interesting and a good foundation.
Crosby: Understanding client/home buyer needs you mean?
Sunil: Yes. What families of different types want in their homes. The things they really like, the things they want, the stuff they don’t need and all the trade-offs they make. You know a lot of people talk about sunlight, but I was finding a lot of clients that were more interested in shade. We also went through so many options and iterations considering so many factors, especially for kitchens and bathrooms. All that knowledge gets condensed into what we produce now, although multiplied by a few hundred.
Crosby: And your team? I know dealing with architecture firms that, especially when they put a graduate on a large housing project some of the personalised key architectural features get forgotten. You know they get to the point they are just trying to fit 20 terrace homes on a site, or 30 houses into a sub-division. Whereas, they still need to treat each home individually, the best sunlight, the best views, how can the backyard work better, is this the best walls for furniture etc. I wonder if it’s because they don’t get to work on many individual custom homes to hone their skills, early on?
Sunil: When the pressure is on, the little things can be missed. But yes, it’s one of those things with our design team – to consider all the details. The location and context are a big thing as well. I had an example last week for a house in Millwater. The front looked great, but the rear was fairly basic. On many sites that wouldn’t matter, but for this one, the rear was on a steep site prominent to neighbours and the street. The back was more prominent and architecturally more important than the front. So, we got the designer to specifically address it. Nothing worse than looking up the street to see the backside of your house ruining the neighbourhood.
Crosby: And you have quite a big team, architects, designers, administering consents; a wealth of experience. I added it up months ago something like over 250 years.
Sunil: That’s the core internal team, and on top of that we deal with three, sometimes four external architectural companies as well as three or four individual contracting designers. Plus, all the usual consultants, planners and engineers on top of that. Some of my team do plans and documentation, and others project manage external architectural firms or do a bit of both. Just depends what we have on.
Nowadays, we are doing a lot more terraces. Universal are probably one of the largest terrace home providers in New Zealand.
Crosby: There’s a tonne of knowledge your team has, and the systems with standard detail libraries and everything now on BIM. I think I am right, for some projects now you can almost cut and paste the 3D modelling from old projects and put onto new sites?
Sunil: Everyone would like to think that. Our detailing though with our suppliers and sub-contractors is becoming more standardised. Especially as we look to modularise our thinking and always looking for improvements. However, every site is different, and every home needs the design attention, so it works. No two projects are the same. A lot of floor plans are similar but one of our successes, I believe is variation. If you look at Hobsonville Point, we have done really well because of our personal touch. It’s not 100 homes that all look the same. We break every large site into small blocks, maybe four to ten. No block is the same. You don’t get 50 of our homes looking like each other.
Crosby: That means a buyer really has bought into something boutique. That approach has really helped our sales as of late as well. It’s a good philosophy.
Sunil: The hard part is getting external architects to provide the variation and standardisation in the same product. Also, to keep construction quality, details and function similar, so we can provide value for money - but still express each home with individual personalised architecture. We do that on the inside with our interior designer as well. On West Hills…
Crosby: West Hills… That is still top secret, but on the assumption, it will be launched by the time this makes the web-page. A new master-planned community near NorthWest mall. What’s your vision for that community, what do you want to experience when you drive through it in ten years’ time?
Sunil: [Pause for a few moments] It’s the variation, like we have achieved at Hobsonville – but this time we are in complete control. It’s where people are happy. There could be 1000 homes there by then, so a place where people are 90% or more owner occupiers living in the community, a real community. You couldn’t tell it was the same developer, but at the same time it all works cohesively, parks, wetland, the sidewalks everything.
Crosby: It’s shaping up nicely from the plans you have shown me. Now let’s go back a few years – what’s your background Sunil?
Sunil: The old man was a builder – in Fiji. I grew up in Fiji. It was all concrete houses. Single or two-storey, cyclone proof. I came to New Zealand for Uni. Worked for an off-site housing company, doing about 30 stand-alone houses a year.
Crosby: That’s very topical now.
Sunil: Yeah, learnt what worked and didn’t work with that system. Ok, in some instances, but a lot of limitations. Like all of them really - but when it did suit it was quick. Then I was involved doing some lovely large homes for an architectural practice and then went back to Fiji for a short stint.
Crosby: To work for your father again?
Sunil: No. It’s a long story but I became the project / really development manager for a few quite substantial projects in Fiji
Crosby: That’s where you get your development management skills then! – you’ve been the go-to guy for feasibilities at Universal for a while.
Sunil: Yes, more just the design side now, and as the team upskills I am offloading more.
Crosby: You have a great team, what pleases you most?
Sunil: Lots of things. But one thing is to see the thought process they go through, to see the things they take into consideration to create nice results. You know good quality designs and getting consents over the line. Haven’t talked about that side much, but the team is really collaborating well with Auckland Council, and it’s working.
Crosby: Thanks for this Sunil, appreciate it. Just one thing though, back to where you want to be, fishing. I hear lots of stories but have yet to see documented evidence. Assuming I believe you, what is the largest fish you have caught?
Sunil: 364 kgs Marlin – about three years ago. Hey, I’m just the captain now, my son does all the linework - he got a 21kg Kingie not long ago.