Urban Melbourne recently had a chat with Harwyn Managing Director Jason Fremder about their prefabricated studio pods and the company's ambitions and aspirations for the future.
Laurence Dragomir: What were some of the driving factors in the development of the Harwyn pods? What made you decide there was a niche or gap in the market?
Jason Fremder: I came to the conclusion that there was a need for a compact professional space combined with function and style. Now where that came from, and I'm jumping slightly ahead, I'd worked from home, I had a home office for many years in fact probably the majority of my professional life. I've spent more time at my home office than my office desk and then I had a daughter and when she was born I still had my home office but it just wasn't quite the same.
One day I was in the back seat of my car, working in the driveway and it sort of occurred to me that this is what I wanted; I want to be at home but I want to be just that little bit separated from the noise, maybe not so much in those words but the experience and so I had this idea and it was very quick because I was performing due diligence on another business. I was already looking for something to do with the business and now I'm not the most stylish person on the planet, I don't want to paint that impression but I'm a modern guy with a modern car and apple equipment. So all of these things are what I wanted the office to be. Any of the things that I looked at on the market that were easy to access seemed like they were left overs from the 70's.
They just didn't seem to have that professional look if I wanted to do something in my house I'd want it to be up to date and I didn't feel like there was anything out there. On top of that any of the things I thought that were not bad, I thought it was a bit hard because they were asking me to get planning permits and start becoming a builder to get involved.
Now you know when I go to buy a car I don't have to understand the mechanics of the car if I don't want to, I don't need to understand the legal system, I can go to a dealer, they can give me the price, I write the cheque and we're done! I've got my car! Now with this I felt this should be a similar experience; why can't you just get one of these units and whatever problems there might be, let's pay someone to solve them. How involved do I want to be? Let's say I'm not an involved person and I was trying to think these are the barriers to me pulling the trigger on any of the companies. It just all looked too hard. I thought it can't be that hard! So I felt like there's got to be people out there like me.
It's the times as well 5 or 10 years ago this might not have worked but today working from home and with technology giving you the ability to move desks so easily, to hot desk, I thought there was a real opportunity in the market place and I was willing after performing some due diligence, we did a bit of research and look a business like this there's an element of risk but I had a very strong sense that there were plenty of like minded people out there in undertaking market research. So what it came down to in the end was designing the right product that met the needs of other potential professionals or hobbyists out there. The combination of we all need space and if we can make the process easy enough and accessible enough to people you'll probably find there's people out there who will respond to what we're doing.
LD: Speaking of accessibility and convenience what is the turn around time for one of the pods?
JF: The easiest way to answer that is... a client came to us, and this is the shortest one we've had, they came to us before Christmas it was the 11th of November and she wanted it in before Christmas. The first she had heard of us was on the 10th of November, so she comes into the showroom, she loves the product, picks the colours and says "I need it by the 23rd of December, what can you do?"
I obviously checked that the colours she picked were available in the time that we needed and we said sure. So from the 11th of November to the 23rd of December she had a pod fully installed and ready to go, she was sitting working in the pod. So 6 weeks is generally the norm but we can do it on a short turn around time we can technically do it in 10 days if it was absolutely essential, all the guys would have to be available and we'd have to make sure that our backlog wasn't too large. I think going forward into the future, 5 maybe 7 years from now I'd like to be able to buy one like you would buy a car. If they have one on the lot, you buy it and you take it home.
LD: So why do you think someone would choose a Harwyn pod?
JF: I think first of all, before any of that discussion even begins i.e. "why choose a Harwyn?" it's important to understand that like everything, a Harwyn is not for everyone. Who it's not for is people after a cheap fix. Because really you could go to Bunnings and I guess for $300 you could get a shed, put some ribbons on it and drop a desk in. A Harwyn would appeal to people such as yourself, otherwise you wouldn't be talking to me, someone that appreciates quality, the value of great design, a customer service focused company. This is a product that let's say you dropped it in the yard and it was sitting there for 10 years untouched. After 10 years you brushed it off, brushed off the webs it would still be in mint condition. This is effectively a commercial building, the build quality of it, it's the products we have chosen and specified and it's fully portable.
It's for people who want to work from home and I think that's a range of people. At the moment we're actually designing one for someone who wants a studio in her mother's backyard. It's 35sqm so two Harwyn maxi's joined together with an ensuite. So where we are and where we're going, I think we're going to be in that range of micro living. But also office space, playrooms/hobby rooms for children who I think are going to extract a lot of value out of them as they grow and in turn their needs grow.
So from a play room to a place they can have fun and not be on top of the parents, then as they grow older and they don't want the parents in their space so they now have their own private room and as they move through to VCE and their final year at school it becomes then a place where they can do their study and work without the whole house having to be silenced. The house can go on with what they do while the kids get to study.
So I think there's a lot of potential uses of which we know which exist but then there's others that we're still learning about, like the one you would have seen on the video on the website. When we started the business we never anticipated that someone with a pilates studio would require extra office space on top of a balcony! It's phenomenal, it's fantastic! And she is just ecstatic. I speak with her from time to time and she just loves it.
So some of the benefits from that sort of work/life balance include commute times, it's environmentally friendly because you're only heating or cooling small space when it needs to be heated or cooled, it's obstruction free, there are cost savings, flexibility, increased productivity, improved health. I'm sort of brushing over them, they're the benefits in point form and I could go on and on and elaborate but those are some of the benefits derived from this sort of setup.
LD: The next question relates to materials. The pods are manufactured in Melbourne but with European materials – any scope in future to source local and/or recycled materials – use of timbers, fiber cement, colorbond etc? ie really localising it to an Australian context?
JF: That's a great question and I'd like to address what you're asking about in terms of the local content. The Harwyn pod is made of mostly 100% Australian product. The components that we're talking about, for example the steel base and the steel portal frames is all Australian steel, 100% welded and fabricated here in Melbourne. Then the next element is our structure PIR (polyisocyanurate) panels are used predominantly in commercial and industrial cooling rooms and the advantage of the panels is the R rating is significantly higher than a EPS foam at 50mm you're effectively getting the equivalent of 120mm of foam.
But more importantly it doesn't draw in any moisture so you don't have a build up of mould. It's also used in medical so it's a sterile medical product and also a good sound insulator and it's made right here in Australia, it's manufactured in Sydney from all local materials. The doors, windows and glass are all local.
If we turn our attention to the cabinets, they're all local, custom made to the pods so as you can see there's already a whole lot of local content within it. Now there's obviously a couple of elements like, for example, the carpet which isn't local for various reasons. A lot of considerations were made when choosing the materials so if we could be 100% local we would. Quality is our number one consideration and priority not just how it looks today but how it's going to look in 15,20 years.
Because it can look great out of the showroom, people talk about sustainability but for me sustainability starts and ends with are we going to put it in landfill in a year or two or is this going to be something that we can use and reuse because these pods are so easily portable when someone finishes there use with it unlike a house which may get bulldozed this does not get bulldozed with it.
The reason we've gone with the ACM (Aluminum Composite Material) panels for the European component, there's a local product which we looked at... well actually it's an Australian company that imports it but we went with ACM for two reasons: an incredible style to the look of the product, we can manufacture we can fabricate them. The way the pods look today we're going to be able to redesign them shortly, which we will do, they'll come with a brand new look, completely fabricated in the new look. The ACM also gives an incredible protection. As well as solar radiation protection it comes with a 10 years manufacturer's guarantee, it doesn't deteriorate. You see the photos and the look of it, this is something important to us.
With timbers, for example, there's a huge responsibility passed back onto the client, if you do not maintain it then it's going to deteriorate and the economic cost of redoing a product like this, today whatever the labour costs are they're only going to increase. We would all love to mow the lawn and clean the car and in good faith we say that but it rarely happens. That's one of the considerations with this what to do to make sure that we aren't giving the client a problem, that we're giving them a complete solution. We're not increasing workloads, we're not increasing responsibilities, we've done all the hard work in deciding the materials, the finishes, the details, all you need to do is enjoy.
That's why we've gone with the ACM but it's not to say that moving forwards we aren't open to new materials and finishes. I don't see anyway that some point over the next few years we're not going to be having 100% Australian sourced product. Not to say we would stop using ACM, because we're huge fans of it. With the way technology is progressing there's things going on that a rep could come knocking on the door tomorrow with a product we haven't heard of or seen. Chances are it'll be local with the way manufacturing is going and modernisation, 3D printing, some technology's going to come and it's just around the corner, no doubt.
In fairness to us I think we have done well with the way manufacturing and local products in Australia are, we've really looked to open up production. I've told this story before but I was hugely inspired by Jayco caravans. I don't use caravans but I went out to have a look at their factory after a friend suggested to go look at manufacturing in Australia. So I went and had a look and they produce 100% Australian made caravans. It's incredible to see the possibilities of what we can do. They pump out 10,000 caravans a year from a local factory...an unbelievable operation. I'm personally really proud that we have local guys and we're giving them work.
LD: Just to finish off. With an eye towards the future where do you see the greatest opportunity for its application? Where are you hoping to take it moving forward? How easy is it to combine pods and do you see that becoming more common?
JF: It's always difficult to predict what's going to happen, we're we plan on going forwards and where we're actually heading, we don't know. But as an example with the client that put two pods together to clarify we designed it so as to put two of our super maxis together. We've engineered it so that we can add any amount together be it 3, 4, 6 etc. no problem. In the future we'll also have double story pods, we'll be able to stack them one on top of the other. We're actually working on that as we speak.
The potential then for business hubs a cluster of 10 pods connected by little decks where various professions are working we've started exploring that with a range of clients and no doubt we'll have one up and running in the very near future. It's these kind of directions that we might head in. We receive enquiries from various types of industries; from corporates, education etc. There's no shortage of industries contacting us. Everyone needs space. As the need for space grows and as we know real estate has become increasingly valuable, how to utilise space cleverly? That's what we're in the business of. I think there are a lot of possibilities going forward.
LD: Thanks for your time Jason and I look forward to chatting again in the not-too-distant future.