Old-School Traditions

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-By John Boley

One of South Australia’s fastest growing builders, Unique Urban Built, is bucking the trend in a below-par market with the successful mix of solid skills and old-fashioned values. Since its inception in 2007, this building company has gained momentum in a difficult market with a balance of skill, knowledge and good, old-fashioned values.

Joint directors, Nathan O’Neill and Michael Buckerfield, founded the company after recognising a need for hands-on builders who could complete small projects to the highest quality, and decided it was a perfect time to share their dream.

The company was developed at a time when the future for small business in South Australia was somewhat unknown. However, despite launching during the early days of the GFC, Nathan says the company managed to win a wide range of design and construct projects, as well as small commercial additions and alterations.

“We started coming into the tier 2 and tier 3 projects,” Nathan says. “We then focused on nurturing these relationships and always working with integrity. It is crucial to balance all the factors of business to be able to achieve the results we do.”

The company is largely trade-based and has been designed with key areas in mind for potential clients. “We have a lot of very skilled in-house trades,” Nathan says. “We have an old-school approach and given we use a lot of in-house tradesmen, we are often told we resemble a traditional building firm.”

Nathan says this allows the company to keep its pricing sharp and to control projects under its own banner. This approach is also beneficial in keeping and managing good staff. “On site, they know the values we seek and, being a part of the Unique Urban Built family, they understand our expectations regarding a high level of integrity,” Nathan says.

This more traditional approach is an attitude, says Nathan, that is increasingly popular and strikes a chord with his clients. “I think it is coming back a lot, especially with issues such as liability, and also with the changing scope within government areas at present – a lot of clients are now recognising the benefits of having in-house tradesmen and people complete their projects.”

In South Australia’s less-than-buoyant construction market, Nathan admits he might be making some competitors not merely jealous, but annoyed. “Yeah, probably,” Nathan laughs, “but, I do it with a smile on my face. The only alternative is to go under.”

Nathan explains that the team always concentrates on making sure clients are at the forefront of what they do. “We build to the highest standards and make sure the building we actually put on the ground is the best we can do,” Nathan says. “It’s the journey that we really concentrate on; the end product is always good but we’re here for the long term and we’re always pleased to get return work with people and to keep building those relationships.”

Nathan is optimistic about prospects for Unique Urban Built. “Our future is bright,” he says. “We have a lot of work coming up – larger projects throughout Northern Adelaide. We just focus on what we are good at. We started out with a progressive plan and vision and we’ve always put our hand up for difficult jobs, whether it be tight access, tight budget or difficult timelines,” Nathan says. “We are excited by challenging work, but more so had the confidence in our abilities as tradesmen and businessmen to get the job done.”

There is no doubt that this duo make great business partners. Michael is tending more to the Construction Management and keeps busy talking to staff and suppliers on site, while Nathan spends most of his time in the office these days. He says he doesn’t really like the office, but, “I do enjoy the work. This is the first job I ever had that has been inside.”

Outside, he worked in building and then spent four years in the Army as a Cavalry Commander before doing his trades. Some may say this background has afforded him some of the many skills sought after in a professional market and a building firm more specifically. Nowadays, Nathan states, “I do try to get out at least once a fortnight to do some work outside on site. It’s not because I need to; just to keep my eye on the ball and to know that when I speak to tradesmen and building people there is some sort of grounding.”

Currently, Unique Urban Built employs 24 people. One of the team’s current projects is in Broken Hill, NSW, a Training Facility at the hospital as well as a Medical Research Centre. Another project just completed is in Port Augusta, SA. “Our expertise is in commercial building, anything up to the 20 million dollar mark, and we operate Australia-wide,” explains Nathan. Currently the company is working on a lot of civil projects, as well as an upgrade to the Trinity Gardens Tennis Club – involving new courts and construction as well as a roadway. Nathan believes it is important not to put all the company’s eggs in one basket. “We don’t have one direction; we take on civil, building, high end fitout work.” At present at least a half of the company’s work is for local government right across the state.

The Broken Hill project in particular is a joint initiative between NSW Rural Health and the University of Sydney. This was a new training facility needed by the University, a split-level two storey building with multiple car parks and roadways, and the building itself, for training doctors or nurses, is highly regulated, with oxygen and gas. Double brick construction was employed, with suspended concrete slabs, and the construction is attached to an existing heritage building constructed in the late 1800s. “There were all sorts of special challenges. But we got handed another project by the university because of the way in which we handled ourselves on site, and we are working on a Research Office now in conjunction with Skills Lab. We are using a few local trades however a lot of them come from Adelaide.”

Within the Port Augusta Project, Unique Urban Built dealt with a major renovation including fitout, façade and extension to rejuvenate the Housing SA Port Augusta office. Existing internal brickwork was modernised and the façade was made with alucobond. “Our difficulty was that the building was very old and dilapidated, and we were working to a tight timeline,” [the client had moved its head office while the project was carried out, so they wanted the project finished just as soon as possible] “and there were some complications surrounding the extension, but we worked effectively to deal with that. In turn, we were also able to work on an extensive electrical package and air conditioning for the client.”

Unique Urban Built has completed works Australia-wide and has proven that it has the skill and management to tackle difficult tasks in tight timeframes. The company has consistently demonstrated its ability to apply difficult building concepts and received a Master Builders Award in late 2009 for the redevelopment of Yalumba Winery at Angaston, South Australia. “[Awards] don’t get you jobs in themselves,” Nathan says, “but they’re great to have and well recognised in the industry. At the end of the day it’s your price, capability and personnel that get you jobs.”

Nathan says that for a company just five years old to be gaining so much business on the basis of satisfied customers is something fairly special and a testament to the qualities of the staff. “We’re not the cheapest but we are always competitive. We get a lot of projects through existing clients partly due to our relationships and also because of how we conduct ourselves on site. There’s nothing like repeat business.”

Does Nathan fear taking on more than the company can handle? “Spreading yourself too thin is for the person who doesn’t work hard enough; we get more work, we just work harder!”

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July 27, 2021, 4:24 PM AEST