The Finish Line: Building Walls in the Land Down Under
September 27, 2011
Every American I know wants to visit Australia. It’s sometimes called “The Land of Milk and Honey” and it is. Next to Canada, Australia is more like the U.S. than any other country I can think of.
From an EIFS construction standpoint, there are some big similarities and some important differences. Although they drive on the wrong side of the road, doing business there is easy and fun and they speak English, mate.
Australia, Compared to the U.S.
Australia is a big place. The flight from the country’s largest city, Sydney, to Perth (the only major city on the west coast) is only one hour shorter than the flight from Perth to Singapore which is on the Equator, near Borneo and Indonesia (see map).
To put things into perspective, the land area of Australia is approximately 3 million square miles and the population is about 23 million. The land area of the U.S. is about 3.8 million square miles (including Alaska) with a population of about 309 million. By comparison, California’s population is about 37 million. Almost everyone in Australia lives on the East Coast. The center of the country is dry, flat and uninhabited. Most construction is on the East Coast with some on the West Coast (Perth).
Construction in Australia
From a global perspective, both Australia and the U.S. are young countries. Australia and the U.S. also share a common heritage in their English roots, thus construction techniques are similar in both countries. Australia’s construction practices, like those in England, are more conservative than they are in the U.S. Parts of Australia, especially the sprawling Sydney metro area, will remind you of California, especially the San Francisco Bay Area.
There’s another similarity to the U.S.-the country has the dry climate that California does. This creates fire risks which affect the building codes and the way buildings are constructed. More on materials later.
Unlike California, yet near the western edge of the Pacific tectonic plate, serious earthquakes are rare.
Australia, like the U.S., has a “melting pot” culture of people from many countries around the world. This cultural mix has its influence on Australia’s construction labor force. Both countries are progressive, modern, Anglo-oriented nations and have similar lifestyles. This is why Yanks feel right at home when visiting.
There’s no such thing as a brutal cold season in Australia. Although there are a few areas that have mountains, even the coolest part of the country (in the south near Victoria) is hardly cold. The northern end is close to the equator and is hot (like in the film “Crocodile Dundee”) and sparsely inhabited. The point is that for most of the country there isn’t a need for insulation. Thus, highly insulated wall systems-like EIFS-are not in huge demand. The good news is that the stucco look is popular there, so EIFS fits into the market aesthetically.
Australia was founded as a penal colony where criminals could be housed as far away from England as possible. Many Aussies are still of English descent. This has changed quite a bit since World War II. Now there are lots of people who hail from Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Greece and all over Asia. This diversity brings new skills to the construction market. These skills include those used to working with plaster, stucco and EIFS. Unions can be strong in the Australian construction industry, including the plastering trades. Getting an EIFS project done often involves some specialized training, including working with the unions.
Australia has vast mineral deposits, but few forests. This affects construction techniques. Because of the danger of fire, Australian buildings tend to use fewer combustible materials like wood. The popular James Hardie product line of HardiBoard (Hardi is an Australia-based multinational company) was developed partly in response to the need for fire resistive walls, especially in homes. There is also an extensive use of ceramic tile for roofing. As a result, many homes look like those in southern California where there is often the risk of fast-moving brush fires during the windy, dry time of the year.
Because the building codes in Australia are very much like those in England, the use of EIFS is not common.
It’s hard to talk about Australia without talking about its neighbor, New Zealand. It is arguably the most beautiful small country in the world with a wide-ranging climate and fabulous scenery. It’s modern and they use EIFS in construction. New Zealand’s culture is much more like England’s than is Australia’s. Kiwis (the term New Zealanders call themselves-after the odd flightless bird that lives only there) are more reserved and soft-spoken than Australians. With more than four million people and nine million sheep, lamb is popular and inexpensive.
New Zealand is right on the edge of the Ring of Fire-a horseshoe-shaped seam between tectonic plates that runs up one side of Asia and down the Americas-and earthquakes are common. Most are imperceptible, but once in a while a big one hits as it did last year. Much of the devastation from the recent major earthquake in the Christchurch area (on the southern island) was to older masonry buildings (see Photo 1). These buildings, although sturdy, did not fare well in the extreme shaking of the recent quake and toppled. New Zealand’s modern and progressive building codes are very specific about dealing with this sort of problem and the chances of such destruction taking place in newer buildings are slim.
New Zealand’s construction practices are much like those in the U.S. New Zealand has a major forest industry and the construction industry takes advantage of that fact. Timber construction is widespread, especially in homes and even in mid-rise commercial buildings. In New Zealand, it’s possible to find timber framing studs instead of metal studs in the exterior walls of commercial buildings as is common in the U.S. and Canada.
Gypsum is not mined there, so traditional gypsum-based drywall is different than what we know of it here in North America. They mix their gypsum with volcanic dust (there’s no lack of that), creating a gray-colored core. The core is harder than plain gypsum, so it is a bit different to install than the drywall American contractors are used to. The volcanic dust-mix drywall is more brittle, so cutting and fastening it requires different tools and touch.
New Zealand uses EIFS. Because of the prevalence of earthquakes, the flexibility of EIFS is desired for its ability to take the bending motion imparted onto a building by a quake. It doesn’t crack or delaminate as easily as more brittle, traditional materials.
So if an opportunity presents itself to do some work in Oz, check it out. It’s a long haul to get there but worth the trip. Construction practices are quite similar to those in the U.S. and Canada and business practices are very much the same as what we’re used to here.