Keeping it Simple

Nettle Construction

John runs his own business, working mainly in the eastern, northern and inner city suburbs of the New South Wales capital, and the company specialises in the residential sector, particularly in high-end renovations and rebuilds. Business, he says, is brisk almost ever since he went solo, having experienced a larger company environment and business partners. He prefers this more comfortable size of outfit and the way he can interact more directly and personally with clients, many of whom he has retained as friends who call him in to carry out subsequent additions or refits years after the first job was satisfactorily completed and in the meantime invite him round for dinner.

“I have been busy all the time since we set up the company, thankfully,” says John. “Obviously it was a little quieter through the GFC,” but even then he was able to quite conveniently move more or less smoothly from completion of one contract to signing of the next. “But it definitely picked up in recent years. I have not seen such good conditions for many years.”

Today, John is hardly turning business away, but is keen to ensure Nettle Construction remains sustainable. “I would rather have the problem of too much work than too little,” he shares. “I am happy with a smaller-sized construction company that can oversee and control the quality better.” Not that he will allow the business to stagnate. “I am taking on more now; I try not to turn work away. But I think there is a negative in becoming too big too quickly. That can be dangerous; it needs to be gradual and sustainable.”

Sydney’s higher-end suburbs, and in particular the area round John’s base at Maroubra, are crowded and long-established, and the idea of building on greenfield sites is long gone. So Nettle largely carries out refurbs, rebuilds and additions to existing structures, sometimes with startling results but always to the wishes – and tastes – of the client. The biggest challenge Nettle faces in the area is access, says John. “Sometimes it can be very difficult.” Things like placement of rubbish bins, complaints about parking and other community-related issues are an ongoing challenge in this crowded suburban environment.

The company employs a small team of labourers and an apprentice, and uses qualified subcontractors, many of whom are retained as often as possible due to their high levels of skill and loyalty. There is something of a shortage of good, skilled craftspeople in Sydney, and John prefers to use smaller businesses which he says often have a greater eye for detail and quality.

What does John mean by ‘high-end’? “My renovation is around $450,000,” he explains. “People spend a lot of money on their houses around here, considering that amount of money might buy you a new house out in the western suburbs.” Nettle’s area contains what John believes are some of the most expensive properties in Australia. At the upper end, $1.2 to $1.5 million projects are more or less the current ceiling – one other recent project was a holiday home in Palm Beach for a shade short of the million dollar mark. It sits, he says, unused most of the year (the owners have their main home just a few kilometres up the coast in Mosman).

Woollahra House, a Tobias Partners design, was a corner house, a 1960s building and an anomaly within its heritage streetscape of single-storey Victorian terraces. Completely demolished apart from a couple of external walls, the house was extensively remodelled with bold design gestures to improve light and space, the crafting of certain material finishes referencing its neighbouring houses. New full-height vertical window sections with deep reveals were put in – a nod to Victorian fenestration, framing strategically chosen views. A glazed rear wall integrates the interior with a small, private courtyard. This design, like many others Nettle has worked on, was an award-winning project.

Clients generally do not go in for leading-edge technology, says John. Of course the projects he works on are more environmentally conscious than they used to be, but ‘green’ is not necessarily a priority in the Sydney suburbs. Nettle is, though, accredited for green-building processes and architects are beginning to be drawn to that kind of product. “But we find that at the upper end of the market, buyers are not really concerned. They might choose an element – environmentally friendly paint, perhaps – but they tend to be more concerned about the project as a whole.” Renovation and building in Sydney “is different to anywhere else, I feel.” Because the property there is so old and established, and also because it is so expensive, it is more complex than starting from scratch with a clean plot of land.

One of Nettle’s favourite completed projects illustrates this well. Kensington House was a small and very run down workers cottage in a heritage conservation area. Knowing that the local council would expect the existing structure to remain as part of the new design, the architect (Nick Tobias of Tobias Partners) created a distinct contrast between the old house and the extension and set up a respectful dialogue between the two sections. Despite its still modest frontage, the works carried out, including custom made circular skylights, double-height void crowned with a huge mechanically opening skylight, and a one metre wide floor-to-ceiling pivoting door separating the old house from the new house, translated into a massive leap in the property’s value to almost $3 million. “On opening, people were queuing round the block to take a look at it,” recalls John.

The majority of architects John has worked with produce designs that are “very pleasing to the eye,” he says. He has built strong relationships with a number of local practices and enjoys the experience. “For some reason, there are a lot of builders who do not enjoy working with architects, but I really enjoy it. I have been fortunate to work with architects and interior designers who can work with me to come up with a finished product that everyone is happy with.”

John prides himself on giving everyone the same high standard of workmanship regardless of the cost or exotic nature of the materials he is asked to work with. There is competition, but he deals with it by dealing with the client in terms of great simplicity. “There is one basic building concept I think we need to work to – turn up. If you turn up when you say you are going to, for an initial consultation, if you do what you say you will do by the stated time, I believe you are 70 per cent of the way to winning the project already. That is why I try not to take on too much; a lot of builders promise the world but don’t deliver, which is what gives the industry a bad name.”

Customer service is not rocket science but it remains too rare, he believes. “You can be a great craftsman, great with your hands, but for many good tradesmen, running a business – managing large sums of money and such – they don’t understand. People are spending a lot of money and it is important that they feel comfortable doing it with you. I am happier walking away at the end of the job and then being invited back for dinner.”

Potential Nettle clients are given “24 questions you should ask you builder”. They are generally straightforward but hint at the problems so rife in the industry that can be avoided with good communication. One question states: “Are there any extra or hidden costs?” In many instances, John says, the architect will suggest a ‘buffer’ in the tender to take account of variations or other unexpected things that crop up. This is important for client satisfaction; although price is always important, most clients can afford the peace of mind that such a buffer can impart, “especially in Sydney and especially with older buildings.” Doesn’t that make the tender uncompetitive? “You know, I think if you bring the subject up at the start, people understand you cannot possibly know or foresee everything.” Indeed, peace of mind is all part of the Nettle service.

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, 4:55 AM AEDT