He is arguably the greatest builder of Australian architectural houses of all time. At an age when most people have retired, John Fielding has just returned from heli-skiing in Canada. We arrange to meet on-site at a project overlooking Sydney Harbour. He arrives in a collared grey shirt with a genuine look of amazement and pride at what he sees.
“Sometimes I wonder how they’ve dreamed up their ideas,” says Fielding, referring to the imagination of the visionary architects he works with and the sculptural curves he is currently running his hand over. Bouncing from ladder to scaffold with the dexterity and curiosity of the 15-year-old ‘brickie’ apprentice he once was, he describes with passion his genuine love for building and design.
JF: From an early age I had a liking for architecture and got concerned about how buildings were built. I remember at the age of about 14 we were building the family home and I argued for weeks about the roof design until I got my way.
PC: What did bricklaying teach you?
JF: It taught us a lot about structures, waterproofing and set outs, but not about the end result. You would leave the building when the structure was done so you never knew a lot about finishes, but I wanted to learn.
Did you ever consider a career as an architect?
No, I never considered being an architect. When I left school I couldn’t even spell ‘architect’ and at that time architecture was a very different profession. Nowadays architects are much more approachable and have a genuine interest in the building process and working as a team with the builders to produce the best result.
What type of buildings do you like?
I like simple buildings, ‘less is more’. When I travel, I am often focused on the details or innovative ideas and ways of building. Japan in particular has been a source of inspiration for me. For example, the precision and finesse in their details or the way someone will have built a cutting edge extension to the back of an historic 16th century building.
Are simple buildings harder to build?
Always, absolutely always. You cannot hide anything.
How do you instil in young tradespeople the standards you set?
I think apprentices and tradespeople often don’t get the right opportunities. We get people who have never had the chance to perform at their best level come to us. They have that passion, more so than people think, but it starts from the top down. If the management aren't passionate, then the team never have a chance to excel.
What advice would you give to architects in getting the best outcome?
Make sure the budget is correct to do it properly, and that the architect, builder and client form a working team. That’s really the key to our success.
No matter what we’re asked to do, we never say, ‘That’s a ridiculous idea, it can’t be done.’ The attitude is always: ‘OK, that’s what they want, how can we make it happen?’ How the architects are telling us to detail something mightn’t work, but we always think about how we can build to the design intent.
Any frustrations with architects?
Generally none at all. We have a common goal and just work together for the best results.
In terms of your company, how much of it is building and how much is running a business?
We have people in the office running the business. I’m out on-site 90 percent of the time and we have four to five projects running at any one time and always a couple of smaller ones. We also have a maintenance division where we look after houses that we’ve built. Architects have often also asked us to maintain other houses that we didn’t build.