Facing the Future

Favetti Bricklaying

Favetti is well versed in new methods such as Speedpanel and other techniques. But there is, says Ray, a danger that brick will fall out of fashion – as has been forecast so many times in the past. “In commercial work, brickwork is being phased out. I have seen that over the last 15 years. Everyone is trying to get rid of the wet trades and where they can use other systems such as dry walling they start to do so.”

Favetti Bricklaying used to have a lot of work in the realm of car parks and retaining walls, such as for apartment blocks; but much of that business has gone to other systems, Ray explains. For high-rise towers, “everyone is going for more glass and curtain walls because they are fast. We used to do toilets in brick – now they are all dry walls. The only real work left in towers are fire shafts and small jobs where there are a lot of services.” If cost is the only factor, brickwork is simply not popular these days.

But there will, Ray believes, long be a market for brickwork when it comes to quality buildings designed not only to act as a roof over the head but also a statement of intent and a work of quality. Universities and schools, for example, “always love their brickwork.” The finish is still favoured for many government buildings. It’s a vested interest of course – Ray wants his company to prosper long. But he also has an eye for the aesthetic aspect – the way an imaginatively finished building can have a presence that a mere tower or block just cannot achieve.

Ray hopes one building in particular, now nearing completion in Sydney’s CBD, will “start to stir up some interest among architects to come up with more creative buildings. Hopefully that may bring back some face brick work into the landscape.” He further hopes that may lead to a revival at Favetti of the use of some of the skills, practised every day a century ago, that have fallen out of fashion of late – “when people were building Gothic arches and corbels.” He cites the buildings of Sydney’s world famous inner city destination The Rocks as an example of the durability of the look of brick. “We hope something like that will happen. Maybe not in the balance of my working life, but if it doesn’t happen and happen fairly soon, I think the art of bricklaying will no longer be an art.”

Not that there is a shortage of general work yet. The company is busy laying a million bricks’ worth of housing for Defence personnel; Defence infrastructure work at several locations including Holsworthy barracks; refurbishments, including additional car parking and a loading dock, at the Opera House; blockwork for the car park at the Royal North Shore Hospital; and many other commercial projects for its 80-odd bricklaying staff. Favetti is not just a layer of bricks but a supplier too, adding value by helping engineers specify materials and processes which can often save thousands of dollars and weeks in the completion.

But that one building in particular is a real standout, though, and a project that Ray describes as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” It is one that has brought Mr Favetti senior out of retirement to help supervise and bring his immense experience to bear. It is a project that a few (mainly younger) bricklayers said they would rather not get involved with but most of the company’s older staff jumped at. It’s the wacky, wonderful and already famous (or notorious, depending on your architectural views) Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, a key component of the city campus master plan for UTS – the University of Technology, Sydney. It features an extraordinary, surreal façade that uses brick in virtually four dimensions – and Favetti, supervised by Ray, his father and their Supervisor Gus Galati, is in charge of the whole of the bricklaying process.

Self-evidently, UTS wants to make a statement as well as provide enhanced teaching, research, and office accommodation. When finished, per schedule, in late 2014, it is intended to form “a key destination on the ‘cultural ribbon’ that extends from the Sydney Opera House down to the UTS, passing through key sites such as the Powerhouse Museum and Darling Harbour,” according to the university itself. Whether you live in NSW or not, you will have seen the design, by Frank Gehry, one of the world’s most influential architects. It looks like nothing more than a crumpled child’s toy of a building on an 11-storey scale, comprising just over 16,000 square metres. It “will have two distinct external façades, one composed of undulating brick, referencing the sandstone and the dignity of Sydney’s urban brick heritage, and the other of large, angled sheets of glass to fracture and mirror the image of surrounding buildings.”

Gehry himself describes the exterior thus: “The east facing façade that contains an entry from the UPN is made of a buff coloured brick similar in colour to the Sydney sandstone. The form of this façade curves and folds like soft fabric. The brick will be set in horizontal courses and will step or corbel to create the shape. The texture of the surface will be rough and will emphasise the mass of the material. The shape flattens as it wraps around the north and south corners. Large windows punch this façade. The west-facing façade that contains the ground level entry off Ultimo Road is composed of large shards of glass façade. This glass will be slightly reflective to fracture and mirror the image of the surrounding buildings of the neighbourhood. Sculptural brick towers will stand at the northwest and southwest corners of this façade.”

Essentially, the brickwork will either make or mar this project, and it has been an awesome responsibility for Ray and his team. Despite his nearly 30 years in the business, it was also a steep learning curve – the sheer complexity of the project has meant productivity much lower than usual (perhaps as low as a quarter of the normal rate). “You could not build more than two or three courses at a time,” Ray explains, until someone came up with ties that stabilised the brickwork enough for Favetti to get more courses done per day, “going up rather than going around,” something Ray found out by carrying out trials at tender time to check how many courses were feasible per day. Because no one had done this before, the techniques have had to be fine-tuned (to say the least) during the actual construction phase; for example, Favetti was instrumental in persuading the architects to change their mind over the use of American standard larger, so-called ‘metric’ bricks on grounds of stability and minimisation of cutting to achieve curves after building the trial mock up at their workplace.

Ray says that bricklaying itself is a fairly repetitive procedure with minimal thought involved – just accuracy, although even that is under threat now and even the need to read the level is something often dispensed with. But the Chau Chak project (it’s named after Australian-Chinese businessman and philanthropist Dr Chau Chak Wing, who donated $20 million to the project, plus an additional $5 million for Australia-China scholarships) has meant every worker has to focus on what he is doing and get the thinking cap on. That is why a number of younger bricklayers decided it was not for them and why some of the older craftsmen warmly welcomed the idea of reviving some of their skills. “It’s one of the most challenging projects anyone who has ever worked for me has done,” says Ray. “It’s a highlight for me and many of my staff have said it’s a highlight of their career.”

If, as is almost a racing certainty, it also proves a highlight of Sydney’s street scene, the Chau Chak building might just spark a comeback for brick. And if so, Favetti Bricklaying is the company in pole position to help out.

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, 5:23 AM AEDT