14th November 2016

4. Duffy/Allpress Update & Interview with Peter Swain from Summerhill Construction

Project360 caught up with Peter Swain, owner of Summerhill Construction to learn more about his successful building company and to get his perspective on the Duffy/Allpress build and how it's progressing.

Can you provide some background information on Summerhill Construction?

We’ve been going for 14 years, which is getting up there in terms of one of the longest running building companies in Queenstown. The crew includes myself and 7 others. It’s only possible to work on one job at a time – they always overlap towards the end of one job. If we’ve got one going we’re looking for the next one.

What attracted you to undertake the Duffy / Allpress build?

The size of it and the level of finishings. It was another step up for us. It’s quite different to anything we’ve done before. It’s a block internal build with plaster on the inside. There’s no room for error on this job. It’s quite a challenge to coordinate with all the subbies before blockfill. Once the block is laid there can’t be any changes to fitting locations. 

What stage is the build currently at?

We’ll be starting the roof shortly.  The slate turned up yesterday. We’re doing this build in four stages, and we’re onto the third stage now with the blockwork. The last stage will be the garage. Once we’re onto the garage they’ll block all the access around the back for deliveries. The slate came from Wales. It’s a greeny / blue slate and a client supplied item. There are a couple of other houses in the area with slate roofs but this is the real McCoy slate which will look good with the copper spouting. This is another reason that I was attracted to this job, because it is quite different but it’s very old school with the slate, the copper – that’s what they used 50 years ago. And a lot of the fixings are quite old school and sourced from the UK. The toilet systems are the ones with a cistern high up on the wall with a chain, and the baths are made out of nickel.

Have there been any challenges specific to this build that you’ve experienced so far?

Putting the basement in right beside a stream. We were quite lucky with the weather but there was a lot of water seeping in during the build. Just after winter when we had those bad days of rain, the pump shorted out.

Another challenge is just co-ordination. It’s basically four small houses in one – what you have to do for one house you have to do for four. Stage one now needs to be ready for the roofer. Stage two needs to be ready for us to put the rafters on. Stage three is ready for the blocklayer. You’ve just got to take a step back and look at the whole picture. If you’re inside the building, you can’t really see what’s happening. So I make it a rule that once a week I walk around the whole building taking notes. If you don’t, you get stuck on one stage and the others fall behind. So that’s my Saturday morning job.

How does Summerhill Construction manage the diverse range of trades on site?

The best thing is the whiteboard in the office and just making time to sort out issues. Your building is like having another kid. As soon as you wake up you’re thinking about building. You can’t really slacken off for too long. You do need a break but you’ve got to keep on top of things, the priorities being staff, subbies and materials.

Have there been any changes to building processes / legislation over the last few years that have impacted on the way you work?

Health and safety. I think it’s a good move forward. I’m for it. People my age have taken short cuts for too many years and have gotten away with it. It’s people of my age that definitely need to change their attitude.

What frustrates you about the building world?

Clients don’t always realise what’s involved in the building process. They can be a bit naïve about how things work, such as pricing a job. Especially clients from overseas. They pften don’t appreciate the amount of engineering we’ve got to do here for earthquakes. Also they don’t appreciate how cold our winters are, and therefore the insulation needed.

The whole process around tendering work is also a frustration. I tendered for about 6 jobs that I’ve missed out on – that’s a lot of money. Each job costs about $12 - $15k each to submit a tender. You don’t get that back if you don’t win the job. A lot of big companies specify that the job gets “scheduled down” so it just comes down to your hourly rate and your margins. But over here, for a full contract you’ve got to price everything and it just costs so much money. It is slowly changing – the builders are saying that this is just money down the drain. It goes back to the architect and the way they prepare the tenders.

Another gripe I have relates to retentions. I’ve had a job where there was about $90k worth of retentions held by the client. So you get 50% of retentions on practical completion. Then you have to wait 90 days to get the balance as long as you tick off the items on the defects list. So why isn’t that money put in a trust and earning interest? It’s quite a risk - I’ve never had a problem but I’ve heard of clients reneging on paying retentions to builders. There could be a tiny scratch on a wall for example, and potentially clients could hold back thousands of dollars because of it.

What would you like to see more of in terms of building / the way people build?

I would like to see more females in the industry. The old days are gone where you’re constantly at the end of a shovel. I reckon females would be excellent at the finishing work. There’s less physical work now.

What advice would you give to potential clients who are embarking on building their dream home?

Definitely get an independent project manager involved. Someone to liaise between the client and the builder. Clients think they’re saving money by not having a project manager but that’s not the case at all. It’s a foreign industry to most clients and it’s so much easier when there’s someone independent involved.

How has Project360 helped you / challenged you?

They’ve brought professional services. And for me it’s just good to have that support, and a second opinion about things.

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