The life of a Welsh slater Down Under

The UK versus Australia according to Nigel Carter.

The re-roofing of a house in Perth, Western Australia, with natural slate may not seem significant at first.

After all, roofing slates were originally used just as ballast in the ships sailing the major trade routes of the 18th Century, complementing the import of wool from Australia and cotton from America.

And in Australia they were installed on roofs by convicts, as was the case with Government House, one of the grand dames of Perth architecture.

But crumbling clay tiles on the 154-year-old building are now being replaced by Welsh slates from Penrhyn Quarry at Bethesda in North Wales – the type that were on the roof when it was built.

Perth-based company Carter Roofing is replacing nearly 1,000m2 of roof with 18,000 Penrhyn Heather Blues, a project which is expected to take six months.

Owner Nigel Carter, who learned his trade in the UK before emigrating 13 years ago, told the West Australian newspaper that the slate had a guaranteed lifespan of 100 years “but would probably last many decades more”.

He said: “The slate from Wales is considered the best in the world. It looks great and is the best to work with.”

Slating is generally not taught in Australia so as well as the UK most of Nigel’s team are from Germany, Estonia, France, Hawaii and New Zealand, who learn the skill as part of their roof tiling apprenticeships.

The roof of Government House, which was built for £15,000, was replaced by the clay tiles in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

The slates have to be imported, along with shipping costs and import duty tax which inflate prices (and with fluctuating exchange rates in mind) because the market for reclaimed building materials is limited in Australia.

Nigel said: “In the UK I worked on many sites where Welsh Slate was readily available from reclaim yards or we claimed it ourselves so I did not build a direct relationship with Welsh Slate until I was in Australia. This came about for the first Welsh Slate job we won which was a house in a Perth suburb.”

This opened some pathways for the business which went onto winning more slate roofing tenders and projects including the city’s Como Hotel/Old Treasury Building that was officially opened by HRH the Prince of Wales in 2015. Nigel attended the opening event and talked to Prince Charles about the roof being Cwt-y-Bugail slates from Welsh Slate.

Nigel said: “Welsh slate have always been very supportive towards us and we have often recommended and referred enquiries directly from our clients and architects to them. We avoid using lower-quality slates so as not to damage the reputation of slate. Before I arrived in Perth there were lots of roofs with inferior slates that were breaking down and there is nothing more heart breaking than telling a person who has just purchased a new house less than 15 years old that their roof is beyond repair because inferior slate has been used.”

Shortly after leaving school at 16 Nigel learned his trade with the Syddalls Roofing Company and worked in the roofing industry for a total of 24 years before moving to Australia which he and his Finnish wife Maria had fallen in love with during a two-year travelling sabbatical in the mid 1990s.

“Trying to get established professionally in a new country means you start from scratch which really does mean the bottom of the ladder,” said Nigel.

He worked initially as a roofing labourer, on mostly corrugated tin roofs, for $25 an hour.

“I heard that Perth Cathedral was going to be re-slated via a donation from a wealthy businessman so I contacted him and had a couple of interviews with him and he awarded me the job on an hourly rate. From this job I then got a slate job from an architect who was passing by the cathedral daily and approached me. This was my start in Perth.”

Adjusting to the Australian lifestyle and ways of working has been entertaining at times.

“As you can imagine it gets very hot in the summer, with no rain for months and no shade when working on roofs. Dehydration can be a problem so it’s important to drink lots of water before, during and after work,” said Nigel.

“Some of the OHS legislation and safety regulations are pretty similar to the UK but the language and Ozzie slang can vary so understanding these differences can at times be challenging but also entertaining.”

Nigel found the regulations to employ people directly very different in Australia, having to comply with Federal Awards and National Employment Standards which dictate the terms and conditions, pay rates and entitlements. Carter Roofing uses an outsourced legal company to help them with employment matters.

He also found that many residential roofing projects in Australia use handrails instead of scaffolding, even at two storeys, and some do not use any at all! Also, most houses do not use felt, they are just battened, and flashings and valleys on roofs are generally tin although he always tries to use lead, zinc or copper on slate roofs.

“Many suppliers are in other states so we often have to allow lead times to get materials. For example, all our high-end metal comes from overseas or from eastern states within Australia. There are not many suppliers with large quantities of stock in Western Australia which can be frustrating sometimes when you need the materials quickly. Western Australia has a nickname – WA stands for ‘Wait-Awhile’ because everything comes from eastern states,” he said.

Sub-contractor payments are very similar to the UK. Most builders and construction companies in Australia use a monthly progress claim system where you wait 30+ days from the end of the month for payments.

“Some are better at paying than others so managing the cash flow within the business is more difficult in Australia,” said Nigel.

So would he come back to the UK?

“I don’t think I could say a definite no as we don’t know where our children will end up living. We have worked very hard to build up a reputable roofing business from scratch. This goes in hand with the lifestyle it provides us and the wonderful opportunities our children have for their futures.”