Reflecting on the past two decades, Neil Kaiser credits his longevity at Chow:Hill to people, opportunities and a passion to create.
Described as someone driven by integrity, honesty and an absolute commitment to do the right thing, Neil has spent the last 20 years at Chow:Hill demonstrating why he is a man of principle.
The architecture profession encompasses a wide range of skills and aptitudes and Neil is known for his exceptional ability to work across complex projects, utilising his technical expertise developed some 20 years ago when he worked in the Taranaki dairy industry.
Often described by his colleagues as ‘technically incredible’, Neil is admired for his design co-ordination skills, detailed models and drawings and taking the lead in the production of the documentation.
To celebrate his 20th anniversary at Chow:Hill, we asked Neil to share some thoughts on his career and the industry he loves.
Looking back on your time with Chow:Hill, what’s been the main driver behind your longevity at the firm?
Two things dominate those years when I think of this: the people I’ve worked with and the opportunities I’ve been able to chase.
There has to be a degree of chemistry with any organisation if you’re going to stay for this length of time. For me, working in Health Design teams has been a particularly good fit. I’m passionate about creating useful things – not just beautiful things. I’ve also always had a strong explorer/experimenter spirit. Finding out how things work, tinkering, dismantling and fixing, recycling – they’ve all been things I’ve done for myself and are part of the skills I bring to the projects I work on.
The journey to discovery was more important in the first decade at Chow:Hill than completing the work, and the character of the work I’ve done has been my fuel for many years. Put something new in front of me and it drives new horizons, new summits. Luckily, there were a lot of those every year!
Then, as with all things, the steps become a little smaller and a little less daunting. That’s when the people side of things becomes the more important aspect of what you do. I’ve always had great relationships with staff and clients over the years, but especially with Darryl and the Health Team, with whom I spend the most time. I hope they’ve liked having me around as well.
Of all the various projects you’ve worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?
It’s strange to look back. Naturally, there’s a long list of projects but if I wanted to pick one, it would be Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research at the University of Auckland, Tāmaki Campus. That one isn’t a Health Design project but as I look back, the process and delivered project closely aligned with the things close to my heart. It was also one of the first projects I took through to completion on site.
The process of creating minimal spaces, balancing materials, finishes, embodied energy, and aesthetic detailing on that project presented the biggest personal challenges for me. Working on the Manaaki Whenua project engaged all the senses and drove us to think more holistically about each decision made. Conventional construction methods were tested and abandoned where necessary. “Can it be simpler?” was asked at every turn. The resulting facility is one I’m incredibly proud of being involved with.
How have you seen architecture, design, and construction evolve over the years?
When you look back over so many years and consider just how much you’ve grown during that time, it’s sometimes difficult to separate that from actual change.
My training was mainly on manual paper and drawing board back in the early 90s. We saw CAD – Autocad 11 – added to the course in my final year and the paper-to-digital transition was made the instant I finished my training. I’d never trade my manual detailing and drafting training and, to be fair, it took a few years before it wasn’t just digital 2D drafting.
For most of my time at Chow:Hill, there seems to have only been two trends that affected my projects at a fundamental level – the Leaky Buildings Syndrome and the impacts of the Christchurch earthquake.
Leaky Buildings Syndrome took design back to a more conservative approach in the fabrication of buildings, greater protection from elements, more accountability placed on the design profession to protect our clients and the end users from the capital cost of poorly thought-out design. This changed some of the aesthetic options available at first, but that’s where great architectural technicians shine – [in] the making of elegant solutions that provide the aesthetic quality required by the architect, while ensuring compliance with building codes and durability. It might be said we all got a bit of a kick in the pants and were asked to walk a more professional line. But in a lot of ways it made us all think more and design better!
Then came the Christchurch earthquake. That again exposed the design professions and their processes to close scrutiny and some fell on the Building Codes we worked under. We’ve all seen significant change in the way buildings are fabricated, the primary structure and how that influences the aesthetic of our buildings. Concrete beam and column structures are being replaced with ductile jointed steel frames. Overall building frames are reducing in weight and size. Exterior panels are reducing in weight. Engineered glass façades are starting to dominate – at least in Christchurch. All sorts of elements have been influenced by that event, with flow-on consequences in the way we all work and deliver buildings.
On the flipside, the last 20 years have seen vast changes in the palette of materials and finishes the architect can choose from, and achievements of pre-eminent architects have changed the expectations of our clients. People want a better environment than they used to. They have always wanted more than what their budget allows, but I’ve seen a positive reinforcement of the skills of the architects around me. The dedication and focus on doing more with less, in an aesthetic way, is always coming out in the projects I’m involved with.
What changes have you seen at Chow:Hill over your time here?
Well, I’ve seen Darryl Carey move from working on top of a photocopier, to working all over the country with the Ministry of Health. Maurice Kiely no longer chases bandits down the road, and we’re all a little greyer (and hopefully wiser). I’ve seen Chien and Richard retire, and the new guard, mentored and filled with passion, have risen up to claim Chow:Hill for the next iteration. Four different offices have opened, and literally billions of dollars in construction have flowed. However, one thing that has remained the same is the quality and character of all the staff that pass through our doors. I don’t quite know how it works out that way, but it does.
You’ve been actively involved in architecture and construction for a while now, what keeps it interesting and exciting?
This is a strange one to contemplate. Variety would normally be the spice of life for the average designer, with multiple projects on the go and finish dates every three to six months. But most of my projects are ones that last for years – the current one has been almost the sole project I’ve worked on for the last six years. Perhaps I’m uniquely suited to that type of project, but the fact my roles start at the end of preliminary design and don’t finish until handover to the client probably provides more scope for the landscape to change as I pass. There’s something about the level of ownership fostered in that process that creates excitement and a real sense of achievement.
Alongside this, there’s always the desire to be part of something truly spectacular. The expectation is that the next project might be something standout and amazing. There are always parts that fit the bill in every project. Even stuff like new skills to learn and new ways of working. The projects you remember the most are when every part comes together so well that the process, the people, the design, and the final built outcome all remain in your memory throughout your career. I have a few of those, but as Chow:Hill matures, I hope the opportunities remain to be part of those projects in the future.
If you could choose any other profession, what might it be?
If I had to choose, I think it would be a creative, tactile thing. I like the idea of being a true artist – maybe painting, writing, photography, music, or physical art, cabinet or furniture making. I’m not sure, but I think those activities are the things that truly raise my spirit and make my heart sing. Whatever it would be, the joy of ‘making’ and the pleasure given to others would have to be the central part of what I’d choose. There would also have to be teaching and mentoring involved. Watching others learn and grow is just as rewarding, if not more so, than my actual ‘doings’.
Let’s go back to when you first started at Chow:Hill – what’s one thing you wish you could tell your future self?
Stop and smell the roses! So often we spend all our time chasing the dreams, getting promoted, learning new stuff, but really, at some point, that’s not enough any more. I’ve committed a lot to my work at Chow:Hill, sometimes, like all of us, to the detriment of my personal life. All that stuff gets you so far, but there should be time enough for all the spiritual parts of your soul. We are who we are and you can only manage that. I think I could have done better and learned a few more skills along the way if I’d worked a little harder at what I wanted to do, rather than what I had to or I expected I had to do.
June 30, 2020