DN Building tradespeople tradies Northern Territory

Territorial gain

Finding a niche in renovations and extensions in Darwin, DN Building is weathering the challenges of a cyclical housing market.

Author

Ian Bushnell

David and Sarah Neal crossed the continent looking for something different. They certainly found it in Darwin, about as far away from Port Fairy, on Victoria’s southern coast, as you could get.

Newly armed with his trade after finishing his apprenticeship, David and Sarah blew into Darwin like so many others but stayed to carve out their own building niche in this challenging tropical environment.

As David says, once you’ve done a couple of dry seasons in Darwin you never want to leave.

For five years he worked for another builder while Sarah found a good job, before betting everything on going it alone.

‘I just knew that once I took that gamble I had to make it work,’ David says.
DN Building Northern Territory
David and Sarah Neal of DN Building in Darwin
Kitchen renovation DN Building Northern Territory
These homes endeavour to work with the climate, employing designs that allow for cross-flow breezes
Operating as a sole trader, it meant working flat out for two years until he made a name for himself.
 
‘Once you did a good job word of mouth is pretty good in this town, if you’ve got a good name it sticks,’ says David, who also found clients trusted the HIA logo.
 
They were able to take on a couple of carpenters and an apprentice, who is still with him today and running jobs. Now, his company, DN Building, employs seven permanent carpenters and a crew of subcontractors, as regular as you can find in such a transient place. 
 
David’s focus was always on the renovations and extensions sector of the market, transforming the surviving pre-Tracy houses into modern but still character-laden homes that complement the tropical landscape.
 
He never wanted to be a volume builder, preferring the custom builds. ‘The old Darwin places up here, they all need a lot of love and that seemed to be what I cut my teeth on in the first five years so I stuck with that and it paid off,’ David says.

‘Once you did a good job word of mouth is pretty good in this town, if you’ve got a good name it sticks,’ says David

These days he’s turning around five or six major renovations a year, plus 10 to 15 smaller projects, such as carports and deck extensions.

There’s a lot of pleasure in seeing those old places come back to life. But they are a challenge. Before you do anything there are the termites to be dealt with, spraying under the floor and deploying edge protection to keep them at bay. 

And it’s all steel frames. Many of the old places are bent and twisted, requiring straightening out, and of course, all work has to adhere to the cyclone code so they can survive a Category 5 storm.

That can be a bit onerous but David says Darwin suffered a direct hit from a Category 2 cyclone last year and that’s when you appreciate it.
DN Building Northern Territory
They were able to take on a couple of carpenters and an apprentice, who is still with him today and running jobs
There is a lot of steel work, iron cladding, Cemintel cement sheeting for a really rustic look, long-lasting aluminium windows and more recently hardwood from the Tiwi Islands, which stains up into an impressive red finish.

Termite-resistant Merbau decking is also very popular.

These homes endeavour to work with the climate, employing designs that allow for cross-flow breezes to make use of the elevated airflow, as well as installing full insulation so the transfer of heat isn’t as extreme. Although many prefer not to use it, airconditioning is the fall back, especially when the breeze drops and there is 90 per cent humidity.

David says the cyclone regulations, importing of materials and climate factors add up to about a 30 per cent extra cost in Darwin but clients tend to factor this in.

‘People are aware of the extra cost but are happy to pay it because they know they’re going to survive a Category 5 cyclone, they won’t have to go to a shelter,’ David says. ‘It seems like a lot at the start but they absorb it. They know that the house is going to be standing at the end of that.’

Most of his clients also opt for solar panels, knowing they will recoup the investment in three years and reduce their electricity bill by 75 per cent.

‘People are aware of the extra cost but are happy to pay it because they know they’re going to survive a Category 5 cyclone’

The defined wet and dry seasons bring their own managerial challenges.

David says you can set your watch by the afternoon storms so it pays to frontload the work in the early part of the day. When the monsoon hovers, it’s time to clean out the tool trailer.

The wet can also isolate Darwin, especially if there is a flood in Queensland, cutting supply lines when the lead times for materials are already long enough.

But the dry season is manic, says David. The race is on to get everything done while the weather holds.

David and Sarah have also been able to weather the Darwin economy, which took a hit about 18 months ago when a big gas construction project wound up. The bigger operators have felt it most, but DN Building has never been busier. Sarah, who also does the books, launched for the first time an advertising campaign and refreshed the website. 

One TV ad was so successful it had to be pulled.
tradespeople Northern Territory DN Building
One TV ad was so successful it had to be pulled.
David says the website with clear information, a photo gallery and testimonials has worked well. The key, he says, is to keep it updated with new work. 

While not a big user of social media, the company finds Instagram – where same-day pictures of projects in progress can be posted – attracts new business and engages clients, who seem to appreciate their homes being displayed.

‘Things have changed, you’ve got to put yourself out there a bit and try something different,’ David says.

But he is content with the size of the business and doesn’t envisage growing it any further, saying it was important not to lose control and he preferred being onsite than being stuck in the office.

‘People want to see me on the work site. They don’t want to see my third-in-charge running a job, they want to see my face,’ David says.

‘And that’s one of the reasons why we’re still doing what we do. I’m there, talking one-on-one, after work, Saturday, Sunday…whatever they want to do, I try to make it happen.’
Renovation addition decking

rural renovation

A five-month renovation at Humpty Doo, Darwin on a rural block melded an extended three-bedroom home the family was growing out of with a new living space, complete with a massive outdoor Merbau deck. The project, completed by DN Building, turned the existing kitchen into a fourth bedroom, the living room into a play area and added a new laundry and toilet.

The new living area and kitchen with waterfall-edge Caesarstone benchtops spills out onto the deck with its own full custom-built outdoor kitchen.

The deck’s centrepiece is an original jarrah timber beam, sourced by the owner, from the Seventh Avenue Bridge in Maylands, Western Australia, built in 1913.

The existing buildings were re-cladded and painted so the three stages seamlessly blend together.

‘He achieved melding the existing buildings together beautifully. People who don’t know the house can’t believe it was separate projects. It all blends in perfectly,’ the client says.

Related Articles

Preparing for a crisis

Reputation and trust are the pillars of a strong business. Unfortunately, a crisis can unravel both in the space of a few hours, writes PR specialist Phoebe Netto.

Sun, sand and safety

The holidays are once again upon us, but don’t forget to secure your site before you kick back and relax.

The right advice

As an industry expert, you’re in a position to give your clients building advice, but you’ll strengthen your brand in the long run if that advice equals quality over quantity.

New home businesses

Businesses which specialise in the new homes sector can now feature their brands on New Homes Guide.

Join more than 120,000 like-minded subscribers