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Jeremy Gates began his career through a carpentry and joinery apprenticeship in the United Kingdom. He then moved to London to start his own business undertaking structural renovations and extensions, which he ran successfully for 15 years. In 2008, he and his wife Sue moved to Melbourne, starting fresh in a new country with different industry requirements. “Once you move here, you can’t be registered as a builder straight away,” says Jeremy. “You have to have at least four years’ Australian building experience. So, I worked for high-end builders in the Bayside area of Melbourne – several of those had won many awards – and successfully applied to be registered as a builder in 2012.  Then we set up our own company focusing on architectural renovations, extensions and new builds.”

Named after an environmental theory developed in the 1980’s, Gaia Construction strives to provide informed and practical advice on the use of sustainable materials and building practices. Their first major project not only served as an initial testament to the strength of their values, but it also earned them great industry recognition. “Having recently come from overseas and not having a history in Melbourne, we decided that the best way to show people what we can do was to undertake our own property development,” says Sue. “So, we built three townhouses in Elwood, Melbourne, that we completed at the end of 2014.  We won a Master Builders Excellence in Housing award for our development and, as we live in one of the townhouses, we use it to showcase our work. Since then, we’ve had a steady flow of inquiries and jobs. We’re relatively new, and we’re still quite small, but we’re really enjoying the work we’re doing.  We’re always looking for ways to offer greater value to our clients and ensure that they enjoy the building process as much as we do.”

Given their current level of success, size doesn’t really matter for Gaia Construction. Jeremy’s overseas perspective on energy efficiency and experience with European methods and materials now emerging in Australia is certainly a benefit to the business, especially in terms of cost-effective building materials and methods. “There’s more than one way to do a job, and I bring a lot of my overseas experience into what we do” he says. “If I can get involved in the job early on with the architects, designers and engineers, I can make suggestions drawing from my experience, often there are simple changes that can make a build cheaper and quicker without compromising quality”.

Building a sustainable and healthy home starts at the design stage and Jeremy is happy to collaborate with potential clients, architects, designers, sustainability consultants and energy assessors during the design process and the selection of building materials.  “Once we start building, what we really concentrate on is waste minimisation and management, because that is something we can control” Jeremy says. The Gaia team re-uses materials like bricks wherever possible and works with waste management companies that are committed to re-using and recycling demolition and construction waste. “If we do a new build, we have a waste management company that recycles over 90 percent of waste materials,” says Sue. “Also, we use green accredited sub-contractors wherever possible, for example green accredited painters who use low and no VOC paints and manage their waste in a more environmentally friendly way. Our supervisors are on the same page as us when it comes to waste management, and we’re looking at sending them through some green accreditation as well.”

One of the interesting projects that Gaia Construction is working on at the moment is a renovation in partnership with Danielle King, founder of Green Moves Australia. Ms King, a sustainability consultant, recently purchased a poorly performing house which she is transforming into a comfortable, energy-efficient home with the help of Gaia Construction. In order to measure the improvement in energy efficiency post renovation, Ms King conducted a blower door test before commencing works and she will conduct a comparative test once the renovation is completed.  A blower door test measures the air tightness of the building envelope and, with a significant amount of winter heat loss in Australian homes attributed to uncontrolled air leakage, improving air tightness is key to improving energy efficiency.

“All the windows have been changed to double-glazed windows,” says Jeremy. “We’ve gone around and sealed up all the gaps around the windows, which we do as standard, we’ve retrofitted insulation in all the walls and insulation will also be retrofitted in the ceilings. It’s just very simple, easy things to do – make sure there’s no gaps or holes in the floor, ceilings or walls; install insulation; and use self-closing externally vented fans and energy efficient appliances.  We’re demonstrating what you can do to a badly performing house relatively cheaply to not only save on energy costs but also to create a comfortable living environment year-round.”

Winning a Master Builders award for their first major development was certainly a highlight for Gaia Construction, and Jeremy and Sue are very proud of this achievement; they believe it was their attention to detail and innovation that set them apart.  With its striking polished concrete and timber exterior, articulated lines and interesting configuration, the building is a refreshingly different multi-unit development.  Jeremy highlighted the small site – only 315m2 – as being the key challenge of construction.  “In order to complete this project within only 15 months, we needed to be extremely well organized and we couldn’t have achieved it without our highly skilled and reliable employees and sub-contractors” says Jeremy.

The sustainability features Jeremy and Sue incorporated into the development include double glazing throughout, extensive use of insulation, LED lighting, rain gardens, solar photovoltaic panels, recycled timber and recyclable materials.  Also, the use of pre-cast concrete meant less site waste and dust, faster construction and going forward less ongoing maintenance, a greater thermal mass helping even out variations in internal temperatures, a resilient and long lasting building and panels that can be reused or recycled in the future.

“For the three townhouses, the highest energy efficiency rating we achieved was 7.6 Stars and the average was 6.9 Stars, which is significantly better than the 6 Star standard” continues Jeremy. “Once again, we did simple things to get higher Star ratings – we insulated under the slab, we insulated the garage roofs – and these simple things, which cost relatively little, significantly improved the performance of the building.”

In addition to the presentation of the award, Jeremy has been developing his relationship with the Master Builders Association of Victoria since he began the process of becoming a registered builder in 2009. He and Sue attend annual conferences, members’ nights and training through the organisation, which enables them to remain up-to-date on developments in the industry and the latest products and network with suppliers and others in the industry. “They provide a range of support services as well,” says Sue. “Legal advice, insurance, occupational health and safety advice – it’s great to know that they are just a phone call away. They also have a referral service, and we’ve had quite a few people contact us through that providing a source of work for us. So, being members of the Master Builders Association is very important to our business.”

Gaia Construction is also a member of the Alternative Technology Association (ATA), a non-profit organisation that promotes sustainable living and environmentally friendly technology, according to Sue. “We’ve done some volunteering in the community through the ATA,” she says. “They run “Speed Date a Sustainability Expert” events where sustainability experts provide free advice to the public on energy efficiency, sustainable building, solar power and hot water and landscape design amongst other things.  We’ve participated in these events, looking at people’s plans and giving advice and recommendations from a builder’s perspective. We really enjoy doing that – talking to people about their plans, sharing our ideas – to steer them in the right direction.”

“Some people come along to these events and they don’t know how to start the building process,” adds Jeremy. “So I say, ‘You’ll need to get plans drawn up.  A designer or architect can do that for you. When you have your plans, you might need planning permission.  You’ll also need to get an engineer on board.  It’s a great idea to involve a builder early in the process so they can work with the designer and engineer.’  If a person is looking to build and they tell me their budget, I can advise them whether their plans are achievable within their budget and, if not, what modifications they could consider to reduce build costs.”

From Jeremy’s perspective, a major issue that is likely to affect the industry in the future is  a skills shortage due to the lack of apprentices coming through. While they would be more than happy to help out the newcomers, as a small business working in a very competitive industry Gaia Construction cannot afford the additional costs involved in training an apprentice. “It’s a competitive industry out there,” says Sue. “It’s not only the cost of paying an apprentice, but also for Jeremy to spend time training them. If we’re going to take an apprentice on, we’re committed to giving them a great training experience, and that means Jeremy taking time out of his day to spend with them. At the moment, we just can’t afford to do that and remain competitive.”

Currently, Jeremy and Sue aim to continue growing Gaia Construction’s portfolio and reputation. “But we don’t want to expand too quickly,” says Sue. “We want to maintain our close, personal working relationships with our clients; that’s a really important aspect of our business. Jeremy spends a lot of time meeting with clients and talking with them on the phone, often in the evenings and during weekends, to make sure that all of their questions are answered and we’re all on the same page. We allocate a carpenter supervisor to work exclusively on each job and he is there every day from start to finish providing consistency and pushing the job forward. We’re committed to maintaining our high level of quality control and personal relationships with clients.”

When asked whether there are any other comments he would like to share with readers, Jeremy goes back to his commitment to sustainability – “Making a house more energy efficient can be done quite cheaply. If you insulate your house properly, fill in all the gaps and draught proof, install energy efficient lighting and appliances and improve your glazing, your house will be a much more comfortable house to live in, you will save on energy costs and you will reduce your environmental footprint.”

Gaia Construction
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