Deep South

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-By John Boley

To Tasmania for a change, to the southern tip of the continent and its capital Hobart, home to around half of the half-million or so people living in the state.

Masters Contracting Pty Ltd was established by Neil Masters back in the early 1970s. It started as a Mechanical Services contracting business, dealing mainly with air conditioning for buildings, medical gas and fume cupboard installations and electrical services.

We spoke to Dennis Cooper, Director, and Geoff Lane, Managing Director, recruited in 1985 to Project Manager, about the company’s progress. Neil retired around 15 years ago and Dennis and Geoff became sole owners about five years ago.

Declining to speak about the state and its economic climate, Dennis and Geoff said they preferred to concentrate on what was happening within Masters Contracting, where “business is good. The business has been busy for the last 10 years since the last downturn in the industry. The government stimulus package through the last few years has kept a lot of people in the building industry, including contractors and suppliers, busy. We have always got a positive outlook that we will always be busy.”

Masters Contracting’s core business is Mechanical Services as applied to the building industry. “We look at all the heating, ventilation and air conditioning, plumbing and gas installations in commercial, industrial, educational, laboratories, hospitals and any commercial work including ongoing preventative maintenance of the buildings’ engineering services.”

Projects worked on are predominantly in southern Tasmania, “but we do work away.” The company has specialities in medical gas installations and laboratory fume cupboard installation and testing. “Also we are NATA accredited for testing laboratory fume cupboards. We are the only company in the state that has that; that is a world recognised accreditation.”

The firm has even worked way down south in Antarctica. Dennis explains that he has experienced three winters in Antarctica. “Davis, I was there for 2000, Mawson for 2002 and Casey for 2003. My main task down there was air conditioning the heating systems in the buildings and putting together a report on the condition of the equipment and any deficiencies in the system that could be upgraded to make it more efficient. We still do a lot of design and construct work for the Australian Antarctic Division. We have now built a plantroom in a 40 foot container, the plant itself being built by Masters Contracting in Hobart, which is shipped down.” The plan was to bolt additional containers together to form a building which was pre-fabricated in Hobart. “This has just been completed for Casey Station and is on site now; it went down by ship.”

Such work is always done if possible during the summer, and then once the facilities are up and running they can be used to work in throughout the brutal winters. “That’s the plan of attack. So all the preparation work is done down there as far as building foundations and other items are concerned and then the actual buildings pre-fabricated in Hobart are being shipped down south and assembled.” Masters Contracting is regarded as the expert in such a specialised field. “They usually come to us for design because we know what is happening down in the stations as far as water flows and air flows are concerned,” although being a Commonwealth-funded project, of course each job goes out to tender to a minimum of three companies.

Masters Contracting was awarded the contract for the mechanical services installation at the renovation of 199 Collins Street, Hobart, something of a landmark project as its developers were aiming to secure a 4 star green rating and a 4.5 NABERS rating – a performance related rating based on the building operation impact on the environment and one of the first Greenstar projects in Hobart. The design of the air conditioning system was underfloor displacement, using floor grilles to supply air to the space. This was also the first Greenstar project that Masters Contracting had been involved in, allowing Geoff and Dennis to put to good use the skills they acquired in the Greenstar Accredited Professional Course.

The project was a success. “We didn’t have to go back and change things to get that rating; it was all clean cut and straightforward.” It is one of perhaps as few as half a dozen Greenstar buildings in Tasmania at this stage. “Greenstar has not been around for that long a period of time and it all depends on whether the building developer wants to take it on.” However, more is in the offing. “We see more and more all the time. Government projects will require Greenstar ratings. Energy efficiency is a big thing in the industry now.”

Another project currently in progress is for the Royal Hobart Hospital where Masters Contracting Pty Ltd is the Mechanical Services contractor for the new commercial kitchen facility at the Hobart Airport site. The scope of this project includes refrigerated cool rooms and freezer rooms, air conditioning and ventilation, steam, compressed air and kitchen canopy exhausts. This is a project that the company is well suited to considering the skills base within the firm and a staff in excess of 20 including electricians, refrigeration mechanics and Mechanical Services plumbers. “The project involved the majority of aspects of the HVAC&R industry, and so provides an ideal learning experience for our apprentices and variety for our tradesman.”

Dennis and Geoff say they have generally been lucky where staff retention is concerned and a couple of their tradesmen have been with the company from day one. In addition, “we support one of the Apprentice Group Schemes where we hire apprentices and on most occasions we would employ them as tradesmen once they have finished their apprenticeship. Because they’ve gone through our system, they know our guys, know our jobs and how we work, and we normally keep them on as tradesmen.”

Geoff and Dennis (who, incidentally, have been working together since the days of their own apprenticeships) describe Masters Contracting as a medium sized company. “We have been around a long time. I like to think that we are pretty well respected in the industry as individuals as well as a company.” No job too big or too small? “We’re not the largest company, but we have the technical expertise to be able to do the bigger jobs at least as well as others could do them.” The company remains Tasmanian owned, employing Tasmanians, and both directors stress they maintain close relationships and an open approach with their clients and consultants. “We are always willing to discuss options, better solutions, or more practical solutions to achieve a better or more economically viable outcome. We are happy to work from a client’s plans,” but if the Masters team members can see a more efficient, better, easier way of doing it they will make constructive suggestions. “We are proactive in that regard. We also encourage our tradesmen to come out with any suggestions. They are the ones installing it so we like to encourage them to offer practical solutions.

“We’ve both come from a really practical background so we know from our own experiences how tradesmen on site can often view jobs and look for better ways of doing things. We encourage that, just as we encourage training amongst our guys – to attend training for their benefit and the company’s benefit.” The company has an OH&S system in place “which is working well for us and achieving results. We’ve got a really good health and safety record anyway but it is just enhanced by the systems that we have put in place.” The company also has National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB) accreditation for testing, adjusting and balancing of HVAC systems.

No shortage of work in Tasmania then, but Masters Contracting will consider projects on the mainland. “We would look at it and base it on its merits in terms of whether we think we can do it competitively. We recently quoted some work in Western Australia in one of the mine sites.”

Geoff and Dennis are both members of AIRAH (the Australia Institute of Refrigeration Air Conditioning and Heating) and have close to 30 years membership in that organisation. “As a company and as individuals we have put a lot back into the industry.” Masters Contracting is the Tasmanian distributor for the award winning Dynaflow fume cupboards, scrubbers and fans and this has enhanced its standing as an industry leader in the supply, installation, testing and maintenance of fume cupboards and laboratory ventilation. “We are long standing members of AMCA (Air Conditioning & Mechanical Contractors Association) and have held national executive positions.”

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 25, 2021, 9:01 PM AEDT