It’s generally accepted among humans that tearing things down is easier than building them up. There’s a cathartic thrill to unleashing your destructive energy onto defenseless inanimate objects. So much so that, as of 2017, you can actually pay to go into “anger rooms” brimming with breakables for you to take all your frustrations out on.
While demolition workers do admit they get the occasional stress-relieving thrill out of ripping something apart in the line of duty, they’re also painfully aware that many people think that’s all there is to their job. Far from being a reckless, wasteful joy ride of explosions and hard impacts, demolition is a precise and measured process requiring an analytical mind, high level of skill and adherence to recycling and waste management protocols.
To get to the real underbelly of demolition, we used the innovative hipages platform for a different reason than usual. Rather than sourcing a tradie to work for us, we got in contact with the director of Sydney’s longest running demolition company, Gabrael House Demolitions.
While his company has been in operation for more than two decades, owner Zac Gabrael, has been working in demolition a whole lot longer than that. So we could think of no-one better to dispel the myths that plague the industry. Because we’re sticklers for fact checking and corroborating evidence, we also got input from Nathan Schokker whose business, Talio, operates alongside demolition companies, cleaning out sites to get them ready for the construction phase.
Myth 1: demolition is chaotic
Contrary to popular belief, demolition is a very well-thought through and methodical task. As Nathan explained:
“A lot of people think you just drive along with a bulldozer, knock everything down and figure it out later. But it’s a lot more in depth than that.”
There are many factors that contribute to this necessity for precision and planning. The most important being the safety of yourself, your crew and the people and properties nearby. Zac couldn’t emphasize enough the importance of having this awareness in everything you do on a demo site.
“Precision is very very very important. You’ve got to be very aware of your surroundings, you can’t rush things. You can have properties that overlap properties and if it’s not planned and executed right, a section of the building you’re taking down could fall into the neighboring property.”
When you’ve got an experienced crew who know what they’re doing and are experts at the precision side of things, their execution can be so masterful it’s mesmerising. Nathan has been spellbound by the skills of demo workers on more than one occasion. He recounted one time in particular when a bloke was tasked with stripping aluminium frames from windows.
“I probably ended up standing there for like an hour just watching this guy. It was amazing. He was able to remove the aluminium with the same level of precision and delicacy as you’d get working by hand. But all in a tenth of the time.”
Myth 2: demolition is easy
Since it’s not just mayhem and destruction, but an ordered deconstruction, it follows such order requires analysis, planning and careful execution. Zac explained:
“You’re literally a problem solver all the time. What you put into place is what you get out of it but things don’t always work out the way you want them to.”
So you need the foresight to be able to assess all the variables and make a solid plan, coupled with the ability to make changes on the fly and keep the operation running smoothly even when things don’t quite go the way you anticipated. And, no matter how long you’ve been doing it, demolition will always find a way to take you off guard.
“I’m still learning. And I’ve been in the game for a very long time. You can’t be arrogant, you’ve got to respect the work and be very cautious, you know. Each timber type is different. Some just break like a toothpick. But if you’re breaking hardwood, for example, it’s like an elastic band. It will rebound, whatever pressure you put on one side. So if you’re not careful, you send it flying. You’ve got to be really careful before you start anything. Read the situation, have a look what kind of material you have. You’ve got to look at every job differently. And work out what’s the worst case, what’s the best case, and everything in between.”
Myth 3: one demolition contractor is the same as the next
There’s a time and place for bargain hunting. But hiring a contractor of any kind, demolition included, is not it. What you really want is the fairest price, not the cheapest price and the way to work that out is to get detailed quotes so you can see what each company has included and accounted for.
In no field is this more important than demolition. Dirt cheap quotes often lead to corner cutting and, in demolition, this has resulted in a few unscrupulous types engaging in illegal dumping to avoid tip fees and, even worse, the costs involved in properly disposing of asbestos and hazardous waste.
Having been in the industry as long as he has, Zac is fortunate enough to not have to compete in price-cutting wars.
“We have our own regular clientele, government bodies, councils, builders, and lots of word-of-mouth recommendations from private home owners.”
However, for those who are less established, the drive to win jobs has, unfortunately, led to a wave of illegal disposal practices which gives the entire industry a bad name. Thankfully, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is getting more and more strict with rules and regulations to make these practices impossible.
“There’s a big effort going on at the moment to weed out the bad guys in the industry, which is good.”
There’s a requirement now for both the tips and the contractors to keep waste management records. Zac explained you need to be able to show consistency between the jobs you’ve done, the waste involved and your tip receipts and other records.
Even with the illegal dumping issue coming under control, there are other ways people cut corners. A cheap quote could mean cost-cutting in truck and machine maintenance, PPE, worker’s comp coverage and other important safety requirements. This isn’t necessarily the case. It’s just always worth getting a detailed quote so you know how the price was arrived at.
Myth 4: demolition is wasteful
Building materials and techniques have advanced and have changed a huge amount. But this still leaves demo companies dealing with asbestos, lead paint and other hazardous materials. As Nathan explained,
“you can’t just knock it all down, scrape it into a pile and then that’s it. You have to be much more clear as to how you’re gonna handle it and what you’re gonna do with it.”
With the EPA heavily involved in monitoring the industry, and tip fees as high as they are, most demolition companies put a strong focus on salvaging and recycling as much as possible. As Nathan puts it,
“There’s always heaps of really awesome old stuff that you can find and use.”
This has to be undertaken in adherence to EPA rules and those who don’t comply face heavy fines and penalties. However, the EPA are generous in their allowances for what can be recycled. According to the New South Wales EPA,
“Using recovered concrete, brick and asphalt materials for the construction of pavements, earthworks and drainage has several advantages, including potential cost savings and conserving natural resources. Recycled materials can perform as well as, and in some cases better than, virgin materials. They can bind together well to reduce potholes and scouring, and can also require less brooming to finish.”
Myth 5: a sole trader can’t break into the industry
Throw all these rules, regulations, competition and price cutting in with the fact that demolition machinery isn’t cheap and you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s no room in the industry for small start-up operations. Zac says this isn’t so. You just need to go about it in the right way. While there’s more than one way to find yourself a niche in the industry, Zac’s path was to work his way up slowly, exploring every aspect of the demolition world.
“I got into demolition when I was young. From labouring, I went to supervising and then from commercial to residential. I worked for a major firm doing high-rise demolitions in the city. I had about 120 guys working under me. I was still young but from there I thought I’d try my own thing. So I bought a little machine, bought a little truck and started advertising in papers.”
There was no such thing as Google back then so Zac got all his work through newspaper and Yellow Pages ads. As the work came in and his business grew, he upgraded to a bigger machine, bought more trucks, then bigger trucks, additional machines; until he had a fleet and crew to operate it all.
Nowadays, in the age of the internet, this kind of development is supported by sites like hipages, where tradies can get access to millions of dollars worth of jobs a year; and the Machines4U marketplace, where you can get a good deal on top quality second hand machinery to get you under way and then, as you progress and upgrade, you can sell your old equipment for free. While Zac had to build his business old-school, modern day labourers are just a mouse-click away from the resources they need to be their own boss.
Myth 6: demolition is just another job
While sharing his knowledge with us, Zac was reclining by a lake, enjoying the views while taking his lunch break.
“I just think what what we do for a living is great. Because even though it’s dusty and dirty and everything else, we’re outdoors. We’re never stuck in the same job because we have a quick turnover. We’re on different sites all the time. Right now I’m on the water. I’ll be at Bondi later this week, then Coogee, I mean I’m all over the place.”
And it’s not just the changing scenery that keeps Zac stoked about his job. While we’ve done away with the myth that demolition is just blowing things up and smashing things, Zac does admit there is a joy to the destructive element of his work.
“I do love knocking things down. I love a challenge. You know, you get bored, sitting there doing the same thing every day. For us, every job is different. Sometimes the ones that look easy are harder than the ones that look hard. But I like to be challenged every day, so it works. You’ve got to love what you do, otherwise why do it?”