Scott Cordwell is the son of a saw miller, a country boy who seems to know a thing or two about a thing or two. I first met him a few years back when filming a house he’d built for rock star Brian Ritchie just out of Hobart. But that was just part of a remarkable career, which has had its fair share of sliding door moments.
Text: Peter Colquhoun
SC: Oh yeah, ol’ Brian from the Violent Femmes. He’s a big fish in a small pond down here.
Building houses for retiring celebrities was never on Cordwell’s radar, but not long after that job, this knockabout builder from Tassie found himself in the international limelight.
It was just another message left on his phone. Not recognising either the name or voice, he forgot to return the call. Then by accident a friend mentioned that the great Melbourne architect John Wardle was looking at doing some work in the Apple Isle. “Wait a minute, I think that’s the name of the guy who’s just called me about a job.”
SC: I called him up and we ended up doing some apartments in town.
That was just the start of a remarkable relationship between Wardle and the firm Cordwell Lane of which Scott was a director with his business partner Michael Lane. Then, when Wardle purchased a sheep farm for himself on Bruny Island, Cordwell decided to rebuild the old bunkhouse. This next job would turn heads around the world.
SC: The first words that came out of John’s mouth were: “I want to build a very simple shed.” He had three foolscap drawings, which were sketches. One was a floor plan, one was a couple of sections. He said, “This is what we are trying to get at.” We never ever got a full set of drawings; the whole thing evolved like that for the next two years…
Known as the ‘Shearers’ Quarters’ the building went on to win both the Australian and World House of the Year in 2012. Built of simple industrial materials, it consists of a warping roof plane and 7500 lineal meters of timber. That’s 7.5 kilometres, a lot of it recycled off-cuts from apple crates. The problem was Cordwell was working on his preferred lump sum contract. This left him very venerable once the complexity of the project grew.
SC: It really wasn’t a place contractually you’d want to find yourself in… in the end we were good! We worked it out, but it wasn’t a good way to travel.
PC: What did that experience with architect John Wardle give you?
SC: I really learned a lot from John in his understanding of country buildings in the landscape.
PC: In what way?
SC: I understand the purity of country buildings – that they’re built fundamentally for a reason. There’s a real pared back beauty...
PC: You’ve worked on new and old buildings. Is it hard getting the balance right between preservation and innovation?
SC: You can transform, but still maintain that tactile beauty you get from old timber buildings.
PC: Why did you choose building as a career?
SC: My dad said, ‘You need to get yourself a trade.’ The idea of going to university just wasn’t a thing. I also remember coming back from footy one morning at a mate’s place and his old man was sitting across on a table. He was a house builder and he had a pile of money on that table, done for cash. I thought, ‘This guy’s rich…’ I understand now that this money was coming from the client to pay suppliers, but I thought then building could be a career.
Getting experience in the city during the 1980s was also important, but as Cordwell explains you need to be careful what you wear.
SC: I’d never been to Sydney or Melbourne, I’d never left Hobart. And I was walking down Oxford Street wearing my King Gee shorts, tank top and tool box. I was looking like one of the Village People and there were these guys walking hand in hand, giving me a bit of a whistle. Back in the day I was going to the gym, all tanned up, doing all right and here I am with shorts on like Warwick Capper. I thought, ‘Wow, this is an unusual place...’ I earned a lot of money, but pissed it up against the wall and had to come back home.
Cordwell believes carpentry is the best way of becoming a master builder and short-term pain needs to weighed against long-term gain.
SC: If you look at the pay rates of their peers, carpenters are probably third on the totem pole behind electricians and plumbers as far as pay rates go. Electricians are paid a lot more.
PC: What advice can you give for young carpenters wanting to progress?
SC: When I first started I wanted to be that guy who’s got the nice clean ute, who doesn’t have the dog in the back and a thousand invoices sitting on the dashboard with the crack of your arse showing. We started out being clean-cut, good looking and reliable, but then people’s perceptions were that we were camped out too close to the big end of town. We were almost apologising for being too successful and, in a smaller market, that sometimes doesn’t work in your favour.
In a relatively small market, trying to run and oversee a large building company is perilous. Recently Cordwell and business partner Michael Lane have downsized and gone their seperate ways.
PC: What drove the decision to split up? Was it a change in philosophy or a difference of opinion?
SC: No, not really. One reason was a loss of control over how you’re being presented by your contractors. We had created a pyramid of authority where we were getting pushed further and further away from the point.
I didn’t know what was happening on these jobs until I’d turn up and everything had gone to s**t, thinking, ‘How did it get to this?’ Having to apologise to a client or having to unravel and fix at our cost, because I didn’t have my finger on the pulse.
At the end of the day, the bloke who runs the show has to be out there and be accountable, not necessarily to bang the nails in, but in a leadership role to let the guys know what your responsibilities are and to maintain your culture.
Cordwell believes the best ratio for workers to management is around nine to one.
SC: If you’ve got nine guys out there, you can do the bookwork (probably with the help of your missus). For me, I’ve got 20 guys, so that means I’ve got the support of an administrative assistant and three very good foremen, spread across about five to six jobs. That’s the sweet spot for us.
PC: Do you see yourself doing some designing yourself now, after working with the best?
SC: One thing I’ve learned over these years is: no matter how clever you think you are as builders [architecture] is a trade in itself. It’s a discipline that takes years and years of honing and perfecting. It pulls together engineering, architecture, building and art all in one. I have clients who have come to me asking, ‘I see what you’ve done down there. I want you to build me something like that.’ I say, ‘Well, you go see that architect.’ They say, ‘No, no, no I don’t want all that expense.’ I say, ‘That’s not how I work, I could mimic something up, but that wouldn’t suit your block. You cannot beat and you cannot replace good design!’
PC: But architects generally can’t build either? It’s a two-way street?
SC: Oh sure, it’s a collaboration. I know architects who also think they can knock that up and have almost cut their fingers off. So there’s a mutual respect.
PC: What sets a country builder apart?
SC: I think it’s our versatility. I did notice working in the big smoke a carpenter may come in and just fit locks, another crew would come in and just hang the doors. Other guys do the roof. Down in Tassie you just don’t have the market supply, so you have to learn every single thing. That sets the country boy up with a broad range of skills.
PC: What has building given you?
SC: I think at its core, it’s through the accumulation of training as a greenhorn, learning how to frame a house and maybe one day build your own. You become the conductor of all activity on-site. You garner an understanding of how things work. Then, as a man and this may sound chauvinistic and a bit old school, there’s something nice about not relying on anybody. I can pretty well design my own ways through life now and I’ve learned that through my skills with building – how to deal with people, how to resolve conflict, make things stay and hold up. I think building gives you a good fundamental skill set to take you anywhere. It gives you a lot of confidence of what you can do.
After almost 30 years in the business, it’s time for a change. Now approaching 50, Cordwell and his wife Penny, a country girl herself, have just bought a farm outside Hobart. It seems even for a country boy from Tassie, life can always be simpler...
PC: What will you do with yourself?
SC: On a Tuesday if I’ve got no work on, I’ll just go out and trim the grass or feed the ducks.
Who can argue with that?