Master Plumbers President and Cooke & Dowsett Director Scott Dowsett has over 25 years of experience in commercial plumbing,
employing 380 full time employees. He’s been a Committee Member of the Master Plumbers Australia Construction Division since 2006 and is also currently the Division’s chairman. Kate Stephenson spoke with Dowsett about how he sees construction industry plumbing evolving over the next decade, discussing broad emerging trends Australia-wide. His insights in the construction job and recruitment situation and predictions for growth are certainly eye-opening.

Cooke & Dowsett are by definition of their vision statement ‘the future and strength in plumbing’, forward thinking in their outlook. Holding a license in each state, and also in New Zealand, they have led the charge in progressive plumbing projects including Box Hill Hospital, Simonds Stadium and the three towers project in Perth.

In the wake of the mining boom

‘Unless you were operating in the thick of it in Western Australia, in my opinion, while the mining boom has lessened, it’s not been as bleak as the forecast predicted,’ says Dowsett.

‘Cooke & Dowsett were involved in the mining sector at Barrow Island and Wheatstone, two of the largest oil and gas infrastructure projects in Australia. There were ricochets in Queensland, and certainly in Darwin, where construction projects ground to a halt almost completely. Mobs were getting geared up to do work out there and projects just fell through. But on the whole, nationally the fallout wasn’t nearly as bad as what we had initially expected.’

‘Where one boom ends, another begins. The last five years have seen a significant surge in the housing market in metropolitan Perth, a place where it was once a struggle to find a hotel for the night only a matter of years ago. Like any industry, Perth had to reinvent itself. The Government and private enterprise put a lot of money into residential developments and shopping centres to fill in demand created by
new build apartments. This cycle is also evolving in Victoria – where residential properties have sprung up, there becomes a need for amenities and leisure facilities to support them. The knock on effect then pushes construction development to the public sphere, with requirements for new hospitals and schools. In the wake of the mining boom, the WA Government and private industry found opportunities to fill those holes.’

New roles for the digital age

It’s all change in job roles too. ‘With the advent of new technologies and digitisation of the industry, new roles and responsibilities are being created, and old ones are being left behind.

‘When I did my apprenticeship, the skills I learned and materials I worked with were very different to those of my Father‘ says Dowsett. ‘The next generation will be different again.’

‘Traditional builders are required to do more than they used to. It’s all about raising the game in terms of project management. And even the expectations behind what constitutes project management has been ramped up considerably.’

‘In Victoria, we build very quickly. There isn’t much time for on the job training anymore. If you have a person on the team who you are trying out on a different skill set and they aren’t keeping up with the job, you can’t slow the job down to give them time to be trained. The industry needs all-rounders who are tech savvy and adaptable. There’s more project administration and contract administration involved. With the advent of offsite construction, new roles are being created in the business side of commercial plumbing projects. We’re
increasingly seeing more demand for offsite managers controlling factories for offsite materials and an increase in roles such as planning or procurement.’

Building Information Modelling and 3D design is the future

If you’re building something onsite, you work through challenges as they come. If you’re building something in a factory there’s a lot more ability to identify problems early on. Although it’s not yet realised its full potential, Building Information Modelling (BIM) and 3D design are increasingly being applied to enhance and activate design, especially where offsite construction is concerned.

‘Currently about 60 per cent of our projects are in BIM,’ says Dowsett. ‘As yet, it’s a significant outlay which is expensive. I’m not convinced that we are getting the best of BIM yet, but in 5-10 years when the industry becomes more switched on to it and BIM itself becomes cheaper, it will be the way forward. Crucially, BIM will roll into offsite manufacturing and innovation; you won’t be able to apply any of it without BIM design. No doubt programming will become more sophisticated too.’

‘From the BIM model there is so much you can do – things like prefabricated pipe risers and pre casting for fixing into slabs. It’s all driven out of one BIM system. But BIM is as endless as you want it to be. At the moment our restrictions are based on weighing up the cost
versus the outcome.’

It’s a sign of the times that Cooke & Dowsett’s Kirsten Sciulli has recently stepped into a newly created role as a BIM Manager. ‘I trained as a hydraulic draftsperson originally,’ says Sciulli. ‘Revit [3D modelling software] was only just getting started in the architectural world.
At the time I don’t think it had made its impact in the MEP world yet. It’s got its limitations at the moment, but I believe that in a few years it will be realising its full potential and we will be reliant on it for the majority of larger scale construction projects.’

‘Ever since I started at Cooke & Dowsett, one of my big roles has been maintaining the standards of our drawings. This means everything to do with presentation; I deal with line types, colours, line weights symbols and abbreviations. We’ve come a long way since when I first started, and BIM has been an integral part of this project.’

‘I’m in agreement with Scott that we aren’t getting the best out of BIM just yet. Give it 5-10 years and we will be in the golden period where everyone starts adapting to it. To go from zero per cent 3D modelling to 60 per cent in five years is a fair estimation of where we are sitting now, and speaks of growth predictions for the future in terms of 3D.’

‘We’ve found the benefits of BIM and Revit to save our plumbers a lot of time onsite. The software helps us to get into the coordination phase early, particularly when working with other services and sharing plans with externals. There are limitations when you are coordinating and drawing in CAD. It’s a lot harder to visualise what is sitting where. Upgrade to Revit and you can identify potential
problems much earlier in the design phase. You don’t find yourself working out that you don’t have enough room for an installation on site, you can work it out beforehand.’

Cooke & Dowsett’s latest major BIM modelled project is the new Worksafe Building in Geelong at 1 Malop Street, set to be the tallest building in Geelong’s skyline. ‘It’s been a challenge and a steep learning curve from our point of view,’ says Sciulli. ‘The biggest advantage of using Revit is being able to import every last piece of information, from the tiniest object, to the location and being able to manipulate it in line with the job requirements.’

‘No doubt BIM and 3D modelling will be a thing of the future in plumbing training. We’ve had previous jobs where we’ve given plumbers on site iPads so they can access our model and everyone is in agreement that this is much more user friendly than printed plans. There will come a time when all apprentices will have to be across the planning stages and be project managers in their own right.’

Offsite construction is here to stay

The contentious topic of offsite construction is at the top of the agenda in the Regulations debate. According to Dowsett, whether we like it or not, off site construction and bathroom pods are here to stay. According to Dowsett, the smart thing to do to is prepare for the future and work a way round the associated issues.

‘Bathroom pods are a reality that we have to work with. We would miss out on large contracts if we refused to deal with them. We’ve recently completed five projects in WA with pods, A 550 room student accommodation and currently a 330 apartment pod project in
Melbourne CBD.’

‘At the end of the day, it’s here to stay – the innovation comes in learning to adapt to the new circumstance. As long as they are being plumbed by a licensed and registered plumber, bathroom pods should not present a problem.’

‘We’ve dealt with the challenges since the beginning. Over a decade ago, we took nine plumbers to China and were working on an island off Hong Kong. This was in the early days when fraudulent waterMarking was rife. We found WaterMark stickers on the floor and knew we were being set up for a fall. We weren’t contractually obliged to stay there, so we got on a plane and left.’

‘10 years on and a lot has changed in terms of our involvement with the process. We’ve recently done a lot of work in China certifying some pods that we installed in a Perth hotel chain. As the installing plumber, we are 100 per cent liable for the certification and installation of the pods. It’s crucial to our success in the project that what we are installing makes the grade. In this climate, we are used to stiff competition from Asian economies. Our attitude is to get stuck in and use it to our advantage.’

It’s all about standards and Regulations

‘It’s crucial to ramp up the Regulations to protect ourselves and our industry against non-compliant products. So many materials and products are trying to get through that are unregulated and untested. Often plumbing contractors are innocently installing what they genuinely believe to be compliant products. The only way to nullify this is to increase the regulatory authority inspection regime and award the installing plumber increased rights to inspections.’

‘We are a self-certifying industry in Victoria and should be learning from different states and different regulatory authorities. We can do a $10 million job with a $50 certificate of compliance for the whole lot. We don’t want to go back in time, but we do want to make sure
our plumbing is regulated, licensed and inspected to the standard our workmanship deserves.’

‘As sad as it is, sometimes it takes a catastrophe to get things moving. Due to fatalities, we now have stringent adherence to CO testing. Perhaps things like the lead in the pipes at Perth Children’s hospital will be enough to make people wake up and take note.’

‘Over the last few years, we have seen an influx of Legionella from warm water systems installed by unskilled or untrained plumbers. Plumbing systems are getting more sophisticated as the buildings are getting bigger. For the most part, training doesn’t reflect the new working environments.’

‘Master Plumbers Australia are currently working on a paper to find a solution to the issue, which sees the first time they have worked as a collective with all the state to collaboratively push something through.’

‘Warm water systems, the treatment of black and grey water, as well as catching and reusing water all need to be a part of the training. We are running CO awareness courses, so why not Legionella awareness courses too?’

Is the industry in a healthy state?

‘The industry is on the verge of becoming unhealthy. We need to keep a close watch on matters concerning Regulations. Consumer protection is probably the biggest thing. This covers off on importing, products, materials and risks. If you downplay the importance of
regulatory authority and don’t use a licenced or registered plumber, there is a flow on effect in the community. In five years’ time, families will be finding out that due to improper installations and non-Regulated fittings, their investment property has depreciated dramatically.’

‘After having visited the ISH plumbing expo in Germany, witnessing the number and range of new plumbing systems being
offered, we can certainly take away the positive of having a comparatively good point of sale and WaterMark regulatory system in Australia compared to Europe. Because of our stringent Regulations, we are still relatively well protected. But there’s always more we can do.’

What’s next?

‘Plumbing systems are so different to what they were 40 years ago and are only set to change and evolve with the times. The Regulations of the future will respond to whatever is going on in the world to improve its efficiency.’

‘Perhaps the issues of the next decade will consider technology, or even extreme weather conditions. It’s possible that changes in our environment will forcibly change our code. What we can be sure of is that the issues of Regulations, reskilling and upskilling and offsite construction are all interlinked. Every one of these topics flows through to the end game. The only way to work them to our advantage is to be aware, and prepared.’