Located in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Armadale, Huntingtower was a collaboration between builder/developer Agushi Construction and architecture practice Workroom. The four-bedroom residence is now home to Agushi founder, Bear Agushi, who shares his experiences of the project.
How did you become involved in the project?
We (Popi and I) had been considering downsizing from our previous home, which we had recently built, but felt was too large. We noticed this property up for sale and thought it would be a great opportunity to build ourselves a custom home that suited us better with respect to size, amenity and aesthetic.
Have you worked with Workroom on any previous projects?
We had used Workroom on a few of our own development projects in the past, including our previous house. Workroom was the obvious (and only) choice of architect and interior designer because we had enjoyed such a wonderful relationship in the past. We absolutely love their aesthetic and their style and would never have considered using anyone else.
How long did the build take?
Were there any other particular specialists that you had to work with on-site?
A house this complex and detailed requires specialists across all trades beginning with consulting engineers through to joiners and landscapers. The ground floor and first floor concrete slabs have gigantic spans and cantilevers, so we engaged an amazing engineer who designed concrete slabs, which we built with their site input. The joinery detailing in particular was unique and tricky to get perfect and we relied heavily on advice from our joinery with the design to ensure every detail was perfectly considered.
What was the relationship like on the build with the a/ architects and b/ client (realising this is asking you to be a little self reflective here…)?
Our relationship with Workroom (architects) is very close, as we’ve worked on numerous projects together over the years. As a result, the communication between us is awesome – whenever we are unclear on a detail we know we can pick up the phone or SMS them and get a fast reply. The relationship with the client was even better because we were the builder and client! This makes things so simple because if we as client want to change something, there is no admin in getting it all documented and, subject to the architect’s approval, we can act fast. If we as builder don’t like the way something is detailed or see a better way of building something that’s been detailed by the architect, we don’t need to jump through hoops to make a change to the design and build. Overall, the collaborative approach to the design and build kept the process highly efficient.
What were the particular challenges on this job and how did you address them?
Getting the spaces right was the most critical thing. Because the land was significantly smaller than our previous house block, we still wanted to incorporate a lot of rooms into the house, as well as a great outdoor area. We really challenged Workroom to come up with a floorplan that gave us all the internal and external spaces we felt we needed. We do 99 percent of our living in the kitchen, dining and living rooms, so it was super critical this area was spot on. From there the rest of the plan simply flowed.
From a construction perspective, the hardest part was dealing with a tight site. The basement took up such a significant portion of the land that there was very little space left for deliveries on-site. Even getting cranes into the job was hard due to the street trees and limited space on-site. So the build became a logistical nightmare at times.
Now that it’s finished, what are your favourite elements of the project?
My favourite object in the house is the staircase. The staircase was such a tricky thing to build. We built this ourselves, which meant all the risk fell on the shoulders of me and my team, and that meant getting it perfect the first time. Thankfully, we nailed it! My favourite room in the house is the front lounge room, which has two sides of full-height glass overlooking the sunken garden and tree-lined street. The room feels so secluded and green. It’s beautiful.
Conversely, is there anything you’re unhappy with or would like to do more work on?
The one small regret I have also relates to the staircase. I was so obsessed about creating the widest possible staircase I didn’t keep it off the side wall enough – currently there is a small gap between the staircase and the side wall and I think I should have made this bigger, so you get a true sense of the fact that the stairs are not actually connected to any of the walls – they are completely freestanding (cantilevered), which is a pretty amazing feat given how much weight is in them and complexity involved in building them. It’s a tiny thing that no one really notices. I think it’s impossible to create anything bespoke and original without having a few minor regrets.
Bear Agushi on…
What was the best advice you received as an apprentice?
Pay your bills on time, because the faster you pay, the more pull you have with your contractors!
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made on a job?
Not listening to my architect when he disagreed with my opinion on something we built years back!
Who are the best and worst trades to work with and why?
I don’t want to look like I’m playing favourites because I love all my subbies. We don’t shop around subcontractors and search for the cheapest deal. We use the same subbies on every job. We are like a footy team. Each contractor plays their role in the team and I know their strengths and weaknesses, and I utilise these strengths to get the best out of them every time. Occasionally, I have to replace a subbie who may have become complacent or lost key staff, but that has only happened a few times over the past 10 years. What I would say is that there are neat contractors and messy ones, and the messy ones are the ones who do my head in the most and they are the ones I need to give a kick up the pants occasionally because I’m a neat freak! But I still love them just the same because they respect me and my team and work with us to get a mutually beneficial outcome on every job.
What advice would you give them to make your life easier?
Clean up your mess!
What sort of margin do you put on new builds as opposed to renovations?
We only do new builds (no renos). I don’t like to discuss margins because we only work on fixed price contracts. I always tell my clients that every builder has a different percentage they say they put on a job, but we generally charge the same margin. At the end of the day it’s all about getting good value out of your subbies and running an efficient business so you can pass on the best value to your clients.
What are the biggest disputes/misunderstandings that occur with clients usually about?
I hate confrontation, so I go to massive lengths to manage my clients’ expectations from the outset of a job and all the way through. To avoid any misunderstanding around the details of a project, I make sure that we’re all on the same page from the beginning. I’m lucky that I get to work with great clients and actually remain friends with many of my past clients.
What are the secrets of a good working relationship with architects and/or clients? What advice would you give to other builders in this regard?
Manage expectations. Make sure that everyone is on the same page from the word go. And be honest from start to finish.
If you weren’t a builder, what do you think you would be?
An accountant, as that’s what I was after I left uni, until I realised it wasn’t the job for me and got into the building game.
Would you advise your daughter to become a builder?
I would love her to follow in my footsteps as long as she has a passion for it. The creative side of what I do is what spurs me on. Working with amazing designers and clients is the buzz that pulls you through the mundane and challenging times. So if my daughter thinks she would be into it, I would love her to have a go at being a builder. If she is to know her stuff, and she knows her subbies’ stuff as well as they do, then it’s irrelevant if you’re a man or a woman. She can exert her influence and be highly successful in this male dominated industry.
Images courtesy of Bear Agushi (under construction) and Darek Swalwell (completed project)
Interviewer: Madeleine Swain
This project was originally featured in issue 02