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Divine Intervention

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A Victorian builder knew that merging old and new – integrating a heritage church with a brand new apartment block – would require sensitivity and intricacy to produce a seamless masterpiece.

Housing author

Kerryn Ramsey

When HIA member Dave Martin took on a complex renovation and build in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, he knew he needed a talented team on board. He began by using his current crew as well as bringing on new members. At this point, he had a team of 65 workers.
'We were all working hard on this project, so by the end, I knew I needed to make a few changes,' says Dave. 'After putting together a new business model, I trimmed our team back to a mere 13 people.'
Before long, Dave realised this was one of the best business moves he'd ever done.
'Having a large crew was too much to manage,' explains Dave, whose company, Martin Builders, recently won the national 2021 HIA Australian Renovation/Addition Project award. 'Now we have a really tight team with strong shared values.'
Heritage Fitzroy church alongside starkly modern new apartment block.

Nowadays, Dave hires more subcontractors and 'we get on the hammer and saws when required,' he explains. 'Personally, I had three kids with another on the way; I had various projects on the go, so something had to give. I needed to change the work/life balance.'
He's found that despite decreasing the size of his team, he's still getting the same turnover and completing high-quality work. 'That's been really good from a practical and financial perspective, as well as on the mental health side,' he says. 'Now we have a fantastic subcontract team who are aligned.'
Dave had a better state of mind when managing the business and his projects. The Fitzroy church construction, which stimulated Dave to change his business structure, incorporates 13 new residences ranging from one- to three-bedroom apartments. The build required the refurbishment and transformation of a 150-year-old church, an 80-year-old church hall, and the construction of a brand new apartment block.
Glenn Morris from Zest Developments brought a team of talented architects and consultants together to tackle his vision on the project. While the bluestone church was reimagined by architect James Stockwell, the refurbishment of the church hall and the new three-storey apartment building was designed by Kerstin Thompson Architects.

Dave had already worked with James Stockwell Architects on the striking zinc-clad Croft House in 2013. The team was now prepared to transform the original Presbyterian church into three extraordinary loft apartments. 'James's eye for detail and creativity is amazing,' says Dave. 'He has a real construction and detail mindset, but he's also easy to work with.'
Dave explains there had to be a balance between traditional architecture and modern additions. 'The building had a lot of fragile, brittle components, and there was a lot of heavy-duty construction going on. We had to protect the original elements and work with the architects, who introduced beautiful modern detailing. With other builds, you're usually more aggressive, and you move faster with the construction, but since these buildings were so delicate, we had to be very careful.'


The architects' material palette allowed Dave to experiment, particularly with the slate roof and extensive windows. 'Overall, the palette was simple but beautiful with off-form concrete and natural timber,' he says.
Floor-to-ceiling glass panels, particularly in the church's new skylight and dividers between the church's apartments, required absolute precision during installation. The floor panels are made of 48.56mm-thick heat-soaked, triple-laminated clear glass. Each panel has notches to allow for fitting around the old church building's existing trusses. 'I'd never used that much glass on a floor before,' says Dave.
Restoration work was detailed by Michael Taylor Architecture & Heritage, with the church's stained glass window becoming the star attraction. Some of the lead had buckled and fallen out, so restoration and replacement were required. In addition, pre-existing lining boards in the rafters were in good condition in the top-storey apartment, but new boards had to be fitted for the lower floors.

Another point of difference for the complex was the personal customisation on offer. 'There was a layer of complexity when each of the 13 apartments had their own one-off individual, customised style,' says Dave, who has been working in the industry for the past two decades.
He first worked as an apprentice carpenter in Leongatha in South Gippsland, where he completed his apprenticeship, then expanded his skills in Western Australia's Bremer Bay. 'When I returned home, I had some requests from family and friends to build their new homes, and that was the start of running my own business.' Launched in 2007, Martin Builders became an HIA member and now manages a design and construction company.

As a side-project, Dave has joined with aerospace engineer Danny Almagor to create The Sociable Weaver Group, a sustainability and design hub. 'We have the same values and goals in what we want to achieve in a built environment,' he says. The two innovators also run Small Giants Developments, managing multi-residential building. 'We recently completed a 9-star apartment building in Hobart where all the apartments have a north aspect,' says Dave.

His tips when running a building and construction business is to 'just listen', referring to clients, architects, designers and industry colleagues. 'Always make your points clear but be receptive, and try not to hold on too tight. I mean, I've had awesome relationships in this industry. But there have also been blow-ups and disagreements in the past. The key is putting in effort and utilising patience.'
Dave was thrilled when he won the national 2021 HIA Australian Renovation/Addition Project award recently. 'We just put our best foot forward and hoped we'd come out with a win. The whole team was really excited when it was announced.
'It reinforces the leads and interest we're having from potential buyers or project opportunities,' continues Dave. 'It signals that we have real credibility in the industry for this type of work, and we're noted for a certain standard of quality in this country.'



James Stockwell Architects (church) and Kerstin Thompson Architects (church hall and new apartments)


Martin Builders


Fitzroy, Victoria


Victorian ash ply, off-form concrete, brick facades from Daniel Roberston; pressed metal panelling

Flooring: Panels by Landson Glass from Taranto Windows + Doors; re-used timber from onsite with Livos Australia floor coatings. Victorian ash tongue-and-groove timber flooring with Livos Australia floor coatings, blackbutt ply flooring from Big River

Cladding: Brick facades from Daniel Robertson, custom pressed metal panelling

Bathroom: Floors and wall tiles from Johnson Tiles

Lighting: LED strip lighting, pendant lighting, surface-mounted lighting from Lightique and Light Project.