A Cut Above

Gransden Construction

George Allingham set up Gransden in 1996 with his wife Pauline, initially to carry out small renovation works and then medium sized houses. They team gradually moved upwards to architect-designed upper-end houses. “We just seemed to be both interested in that sector,” says George, “and the projects we have been involved with have gradually got bigger and bigger. In the last couple of years we have also carried out some projects involving luxury apartment buildings. Generally, we have developed into a company that is able and willing to take on more complex tasks – construction, refurbishments, renovations and additions.”

Some extensions and additions can be quite sizeable – one recent project was $3.6 million, considerably more than most complete new houses. Even if it is not a boom time, there is still no shortage of well-heeled customers. In the case of Gransden, the clientele is overwhelmingly composed of self-made successful business people and they want a decent deal. “I have never built a house where money was no object,” says George. “Likewise, I have never yet come across a client who has made his or her money easily or started off with a solid base. All of them are tough business people who know what they want and the house is usually the reward for years of hard work and determination.”

Most of them are not young, many heading toward retirement. “We do build occasionally for well-known people and that can be fun and interesting,” shares George. In this type of market, everyone is demanding; people want just what they want and will settle for nothing less, he says, but the image of the wild eccentric celeb is nowhere near the reality; most customers are realists who primarily look for value for their hard-earned money as they see their project, which in many cases represents a kind of advertisement of their success, taking shape.

Clients’ engagement with their projects varies considerably, though. “We have some who ask how long the job will take and just say they will see us when it is finished, while others are intimately involved – there is no hard and fast rule.” Clients rarely come direct to Gransden but more typically come via a chosen architectural practice, which in many cases sources the company as the recommended builder. “We do have a good relationship with a lot of the top architects in the region as well as some of them over in the eastern states.”

The Perth metro area is the company’s favourite stamping ground, says George, simply because it is logistically simpler to manage the projects. “It is more difficult for us to manage jobs out of town, although we have done so in the past,” he says. “We have just finished a project up in the hills which we took on partly because of its size and scope – but it helped that I have a supervisor who lives relatively close by. Generally, we stick to the metro area.”

The region has its own challenges, of course, and Gransden thrives on projects that require a little out-of-the-box thinking. George says riverside projects are interesting, not least because river-front property is increasingly hard to come by. “So the sites we find ourselves building on are increasingly steep sides or rock sides,” he explains. In one recent case it was necessary to excavate 20 metres into rock to build the house actually in the rock itself with just the top level (of four) at street level. Such work involves anchoring systems or shoring systems, “of the kind you really would not normally expect to see in residential building.” At one project in Bedfordale, Gransden had to quarry the rock out of the site, then broke it up and crushed it onsite, and then used it for the ramped earth walls in the house; the remainder was used for embankments around the site, paths and footways. This kind of work holds George’s interest. “I enjoy it. Not everyone is keen on it but I am always game for it. Another benefit is that we get to use unconventional materials that builders like to use as opposed to the run-of-the-mill stuff.” The Bedfordale house, for example, used a lot of Canadian slate cut to size, quantities of stone sourced four hours south of Perth, and a series of flush solar panels in the roof.

Environmentally, the houses Gransden builds are becoming ever greener. “People have the money to do it,” and while they still look at the value, as keen business people will, their receptivity to new ideas and greener thinking is rising rapidly. In many cases the houses are virtually standalone and grid-independent. George points out that many of the ‘exotic’ materials specified by architects and interior designers for these high-end projects are actually the kind of materials we used to use all the time but which have become too expensive for most mere mortals – the Canadian slate in Bedfordale being a good example.

Other finishes such as copper and zinc are eminently practical and long-lasting, but have become rare as cheaper, if less aesthetically pleasing, alternatives have taken their place for the majority of housing. “But they are starting to creep back into housing again,” shares George. “Now we are building houses that last longer, or are intended to, and still look good in fifty years or even a hundred.” While a lot of finishes are sourced from abroad (zinc sheeting, for example, generally comes from France), a lot more is local. Gransden is fortunate to have a considerable number of suppliers who are “very solid on quality. We know where to find certain products and they know where we are.”

Gransden has a small workforce but George likes to have several projects on the go at any one time. “But we are lean and mean as far as staff is concerned. We don’t maintain a large office; there are four key staff and three to four hundred subcontractors that we have access to.” In terms of skills, George says, a lot of younger tradies are keen to work in this sector and he is happy to take them, teaming them wherever possible with more experienced workers to help their learning. They also need to behave better than the industry average perception, given the kind of building site they work on. “It frustrates me because a lot of trades have a reputation, that is undeserved, as being rough and coarse; I don’t see that generally. If someone is meticulous about his work he is usually meticulous about himself too and how he does his business.”

Certainly, Perth has a number of extremely well-to-do suburbs (one thinks immediately of Mosman Park, but there is also Nedlands, Dalkeith, and Peppermint Grove). Chronicler Bill Bryson characterised them [in his classic Australian odyssey Down Under] as “residential zones of startling, showy wealth… a stunning demonstration of the proposition that money and taste don’t always, or even often, go together.” George says there is no accounting for the taste of his clients and there is sometimes a kind of ‘conflict of interest’. “But most times when they have engaged an architect the client has decided on a certain style and around the more established suburbs they are more attuned to good taste, but some of the larger, newer suburbs have houses that are, shall we say, not quite as tasteful.”

He is optimistic, though, and notes a general improvement in taste and style over the last few years. “Thankfully. As you can see from the website, the styles of the houses we build are generally conservative and have an enduring feel about them – that is mainly because of the architects and designers we work with; they are the kind we naturally gravitate towards.” He cannot recall turning a job down because of its appearance, but Gransden takes care to make sure before taking on a project who is involved at both client and architect level, just to ensure a comfortable fit. The result is generally something of which both the client and the company can be proud.

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 17, 2019, 5:45 AM AEDT