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Umow Lai “spreading its wings” into new markets

Geelong Library & Heritage Centre

Building services engineering consultancy Umow Lai has opened a new office in South Australia with New Zealand next on the cards for expansion.

Recently appointed managing director Andrew Oxley told The Fifth Estate that the plan is to keep building on the foundations set by former managing director and founder Dominic Lai while also “spreading our wings” into new places.

“But we’re committed to remaining Australian owned. There’s been a lot of mergers and acquisitions of competitors. We are not seeking this,” Oxley says.

The company has a total of 190 staff across its offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and the recently opened Adelaide office. Oxley says the company will be ready to recruit new staff in New Zealand and South Australia “pending decisions on some major opportunities.”

Innovations in energy

Oxley says the firm likes to stay tapped into the latest thinking through its world tour program, which involves sending senior employees overseas on educational tours.

The company’s ESD director, Shane Esmore, has recently returned from a global study tour around energy and technology disruption where he went through 85 buildings over three weeks.

Oxley says Esmore has brought back some interesting ideas about energy efficiency and passive house, among other insights.

He says that although Australia is starting to embrace the design principles of passive house, it’s largely focused on residential whereas in other places it’s influencing the design of other types of buildings such as hospitals.

The global tours help keep the firm abreast of shifts in the rapidly-evolving building and construction industry, Oxley says. He foresees “a lot of change in the industry coming up” and “energy efficiency will be a huge part of that”.

Business is booming

Oxley says the company has “a full book of projects” across all offices, including some big tertiary and educational projects such as the University of Tasmania’s Inveresk Campus Redevelopment as part of the Launceston Northern Expansion project and the University of Newcastle’s science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) precinct at its Callaghan campus.

Demand is still strong in the company’s traditional sectors such as educational, commercial, health, science, mixed use and high end residential. The company has also picked up work in the aviation and correctional facilities sectors, such as the Lara Maximum Security Prison.

Other emerging streams of work for the firm include technology and fire safety, Oxley says, with the current flammable cladding issues driving the need for a greater level of certainty in building regulations and design.

Oxley says that although the residential market has slowed down, especially in Melbourne, it hasn’t affected the firm because residential is not a big part of its market share.

Although it does some residential, the focus is on the luxury end of the market and it’s usually for “key clients who want to do something a bit different.”

Other notable projects include the Herston Quarter precinct, a health, aged care and mixed-use destination in Brisbane; 477 Pitt Street, a commercial tower in Sydney; and the transformation of the Victorian Police Mounted Branch stables into a teaching facility at The University of Melbourne.

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