Over the Internet vs Over Dinner.

My first contact with Yo Shimada was by email. We spoke about the idea of working together on my house in Australia. Though we spoke at length, swapping ideas and talking about how it might be, it felt I was just flirting with the idea of a Minimalist Monument to Moi, with no real hope of it becoming anything more, because it had begun over the Internet and as we’re told, people you meet over the Internet can’t always be trusted. They could be from Nigeria.

I had to find out if this person was real or just a figment of my architectural imagination. So I travelled to Japan and organised to meet with Shimada san in a bar on the top floor of the Cerulean Tower Hotel in Shibuya, Tokyo. He had to travel 562km from his home in Kobe to meet with me, and he was to make the return journey on the same day. Though the Kobe/Tokyo trip is comfortable by Shinkansen, the famous Japanese high speed train, it is still quite something to commute 1124km for a meeting with no promise of a contract.

View of Shibuya from the Cerulean Tower Hotel

View of Shibuya from the Cerulean Tower Hotel

In coming to Tokyo to meet with me, Shimada san had made a real commitment and so did I by traveling to Tokyo. That afternoon over a beer in Shibuya when we discussed the possibility of working on a house together, we turned an idea into a real life project. I was finally going to build a Japanese inspired house and a Japanese guy was the guy who was going to design it.

You can’t do that shit by remote control. I wasn’t about to entrust the design of my home to somebody I had never met in another country. I suspect Shimada san felt the same way about entrusting his time to a foreign client. The earlier conversations over email felt perfunctory because of the distance, and it was hard to know what kind of person was typing into the keyboard on the other end. I had to meet Shimada san to know if he would inspire me to want to build something different and to endure the associated pain and stress of doing that.

As it turns out, he did inspire me, even despite the language difficulties. I felt charisma beam from the guy and I got the immediate impression that he was a good listener (even though we communicated through our respective stand-in interpreters). It says something about the power of face to face communication that even if you don’t speak the same language, you can still connect better than you can on email. You really can’t work people out over the Internet. You can’t gauge character. You can’t convey sense and understanding. You need to do that face to face. And that’s what we both did, a year and a half ago in Tokyo.

Me getting ready to meet Shimada san for the first time. Nervous?

Me getting ready to meet Shimada san for the first time. Nervous?

It’s not that you can’t convey subtlety by email. It’s a great medium if you want to be cagey or duplicitous. What’s difficult is trust.

There’s a point of course to discussing the failures of the Internet and its ability to convey and gauge things like trust. Today we’re at a very fragile point in the X-House project, a juncture that deserves that kind of face to face interaction. And there’s a lot of money at stake. We’re about to hire a builder.

We’re about to get into the nitty gritty of negotiation over the finer details of the design and costings. These issues require discussion, workshopping, touching and feeling, preferably in the same language but even if that’s not always possible, at least in the same room.

Three members of the team who do speak the same language: Ishii san and Shimada san from Tato Architects, and Yohei Omura from Phorm.

Three members of the team who do speak the same language: Ishii san and Shimada san from Tato Architects, and Yohei Omura from Phorm.

To complicate the matter further, the Minimalist Monument to moi is a joint effort between two different architectural offices: the team at Phorm Architecture and the team at Tato Architects. Thankfully both offices have at least one person onboard who speaks both English and Japanese. Until now, all of their multilingual agonising over the finer details of the builder’s set of drawings has been done via Skype. Which is OK, but there are times when you really need to see things in person, like how well the water runs off the sealant that is proposed for the compressed fibre cement cladding. Or to feel the gauge of the marine ply lining being proposed. Or to bounce ideas back and forth with engineer Rod Bligh over sketches done on the fly.

And then to engage the builder in these same conversations.

So it’s time for the second coming of Yo Shimada.

He arrived in mid September, making his second journey from Kobe to Brisbane to revisit the site and attend meetings with the Australian team on Australian soil. It would be just the second time the entire team had met in the same room. The first time was before the X-House had even been conceived.

This time he brought with him his assistant, architect Chihiro Ishii. It was her first trip to Australia but there was no time for a tourist’s tour of the beach or the bush. Fresh off the plane, the first stop after a quick team lunch was the site. Shimada san led Ishii san to the pad at the very top to survey the view. I asked Ishii san whether the photographs we had sent her had done the site justice. She said it looked familiar but that it looked smaller and the slope looked more difficult than it did in the reference material. Ishii san had been working alongside Yohei Omura from Phorm for months, to finalise Yo Shimada’s drawings prior to our presentation of the plans to the builder for quoting.

She’s a hard worker in the Japanese style where personal life often takes a back seat to work life. She had been married only a week prior to this trip to Australia and had delayed her honeymoon or any kind of celebration. I couldn’t help admiring her dedication. I also couldn’t help feeling a little guilty for dragging her away to Australia on a tight schedule with no time for sightseeing, but once again I felt the depth of commitment that this team of architects has to the project. And I could see it was helping her to be on the same page as the architects at Phorm, just by being on the same patch of dirt.

Getting a 360º view from the top floor.

Getting a 360º view from the top floor.

Shimada san had wanted to photograph two things while on site that day. A 360º view from the height of the kitchen/living area. He seemed very keen to convey the view I would have up there more literally. I’ve spent a long time working in the creative world of advertising where mock-ups are often required to help a client “imagine” what their imagination can’t deliver. I’m of course curious to be taken this one step closer in my mind to the finished product, but it’s not a deal breaker. I can wait. I can trust. But then I thought maybe it was something that Shimada san needed to test for himself. In any case there was fine tuning required to the design and this was part of the process.

Testing the reflections from the underside of the cantilevered deck.

Testing the reflections from the underside of the cantilevered deck.

Shimada san also wanted to test how the lower deck, as it cantilevered out over the slope would reflect the colours of the undergrowth from its underside, especially if we were to line it with something reflective. These are the sorts of ideas that architects like Shimada san think about as a project progresses from concept to realisation. These are the details that can’t be conveyed via Skype.

Paul and Yohei from Phorm waiting for the builder.

Paul and Yohei from Phorm waiting for the builder.

We also met with the first of the potential builders on site. They’d already been comprehensively briefed by Paul and Yohei, so it really wasn’t about showing them around or giving them any further detail. No, this meeting was purely about engaging my own and Shimada san’s radar for people. Did we feel the builder understood the project? Of course we did. Paul and Yohei had already done the groundwork there. But did we even want to work with these people? Did we feel like they were on our wavelength? Did we get a good vibe from them? Could we see ourselves having an argument with them and getting beyond it to resume the job. Or having a beer with them after it was all done and dusted?

Building a house is stressful. Building a house with very few local precedents could turn out to be a nightmare. To embark on that journey with someone you don’t like, could spell horror car crash disaster movie. Sooner or later the relationship is bound to become strained, so choosing a builder does require an assessment of character and relationship and a spooky reading of the chemistry between the parties involved.

I don’t want to deal with one of those bully builders you hear about who make you feel as if you’re being weird or anal just for asking questions. Nor do I want to deal with a builder with no confidence and who won’t back their own decisions. I’m not saying the builders we chose are anything like that (they’re not), but I want the opportunity to gauge the type of person I’ll be dealing with and you can’t do that via email or by viewing plans and reading well crafted rationales or even by speaking by phone or Skype. There are some things you can only gauge by looking someone in the eye and talking to them.

The team discuss the engineering with Rod Bligh.

The team discuss the engineering with Rod Bligh.

There was one meeting that I didn’t attend where some key changes to the design detail were spoken about and settled on, and only, I suspect, because they had time to do it face to face. It was a meeting between Shimada san, Ishii san and Yohei with the engineer Rod Bligh. So much had been successfully conveyed during the months of their discussions via Skype and email but there was always a suspicion of ideas lost in translation. Over dinner at Rod’s house, the design for the house’s eaves was revisited once again and some key issues pushed around.

The first was an unresolved issue over the way Shimada san had wanted the eaves to be, merging seamlessly with the ceiling detail over the deck. The goal was thinness, minimising the cross section of the eaves to the very limit of what the engineering could achieve. They’d discussed this off and on over the preceding weeks, by email. But over dinner they found a way to deal with it. And in another conversation, I presume during second course, Shimada san and Ishii san’s minimising lens was also focused on the balustrade. How thin could we get it without sacrificing safety? Please pass the salt and I’ll tell you, or something to that effect I can imagine the conversation going.

Visualising how thin the balustrade could go...in Bunnings.

Visualising how thin the balustrade could go…in Bunnings.

The minimising of details is what will make this house. It’s not going to be one of those houses that dazzles you with multiple features. It’s what’s been taken away from this house that will make it unique. That’s why every opportunity that the design presents, things that are often overlooked as standard, like eaves, like balustrades, like window frames, must be dealt with in detail and designed. To maximise the minimalising, if there is such a concept. There won’t be much in this house to distract, which in a way will expose so much more of the house and the things that live inside it. Minimalism draws more attention to the detail and finesse you display in the few possessions you have.

Like the furniture, for example. There won’t be much. A table on the deck with some chairs, some counter stools around the kitchen bench, a sofa, a bed or two, and that’s about it. There are, however, three specific pieces of furniture that have been earmarked by Paul Hotston for special consideration. Shimada san’s design of the two bathrooms in the X-House creates a very public role for the bathroom wash stands, for two different reasons. The master ensuite bathroom on the ground floor is walled by glass. So the wash stand and everything else that happens in the bathroom will be visible to visitors as they arrive in the entry foyer of the house. Conversly, the guest bathroom on the top floor is contained and hidden within a timber box. To save space within the box, the wash stand has been placed outside that bathroom, in full view of the kitchen and any visiting diners on the deck. Meanwhile, the writer’s desk hasn’t been hidden away in an office area either. It stands on the ground floor, centre stage really, in the entry foyer.

Yo Shimada's chest of drawers stair furniture.

Yo Shimada’s chest of drawers stair furniture.

What this means of course is that these three pieces will be playing a leading part in the performance of the design. So they will need to be finely crafted pieces, designed for the house, not just purchased for the house. These aren’t off the shelf pieces. Take a tour through Yo Shimada’s houses and you’ll notice a theme at play. The furniture often blends function with form, performing roles not necessarily ones for which they would normally be intended. Like a wardrobe that contains a stairwell. Or a cabinet that acts as a step.

It was with serious consideration for the importance of these pieces of furniture that we took a trip out to Samford to visit the studio of a great local furniture master craftsman. He used to run a Danish furniture business in Woolloongabba, but he had retreated from the world of retail to concentrate on his craft out in ride-on mower country. His name is Roy Schack and he’s a master woodworker/furniture maker.

Paul introduces Shimada san to Roy Schack.

Paul introduces Shimada san to Roy Schack.

He showed us around his studio. It was the cleanest workshop I’d ever seen, almost surgical. Over coffee, Shimada san and Ishii san explained to Roy the intricacies of their design for the X-House while Paul and Yohei explained their hopes for how the furniture might work within the design.

There was some synchronicity in the timing of our visit. Roy and his wife were off to Kyoto in the coming months to begin renovations on the house they’d recently bought there. So he clearly had an interest in things Japanese. There was also some similarity between the finely crafted pieces in Shimada san’s other houses and the work that Roy did. So, after a couple of hours of discussion on timber types and the potential for Roy’s furniture within the design, we resolved to start thinking about scheduling the commencement of the furniture package in parallel with the appointment and scheduling of the builder.

Ishii san explains the design to Roy.

Ishii san explains the design to Roy.

I could tell that Roy wasn’t a guy to be rushed. Still we were talking furniture even before we had begun work on the foundations for the house that would contain it, so there seemed to be plenty of time to get this right. And of course it was a perfect opportunity to meet with Roy while Shimada san was in town.

The five days that Shimada san and Ishii san spent in Brisbane were five action-packed, incredibly productive days. It must have been exhausting for them. Hell, it was exhausting for me just watching from the sidelines as these discussions took place. But it was also incredibly vital that we had the opportunity to do it now, before we had appointed a builder, so we could finalise so many of the details that would be required for the preparation of the quote.

On a side note, the builder we chose, from the three who submitted for the job, turned out to be MCD Constructions. A guy by the name of Cameron McDonald runs it. I have heard good things about him from a few different sources, including a few different architects not involved in the process. His price was also the lowest of the three who quoted.

Finalising plans at the offices of Phorm Architecture.

Finalising plans at the offices of Phorm Architecture.

We’re currently finalising construction drawings and fine tuning aspects of the budget that MCD will be working to, prior to signing a contract. Paul Hotston is managing most of that process although I have a mate in commercial property development who has also volunteered to look over my shoulder and explain the finer details of the estimating process. He’s useful because, well, I’m not. I’m useless with figures. I don’t really like talking about money either. But I feel a whole lot better talking about it now that I’ve met the people who’ll soon be sending me requests for money, lots of it. These requests of course won’t be made face to face. They’ll come via the Internet, on email probably. But at least I’ll know none of them are coming from Nigeria.