ACT News


The monuments that Dave built

The fruits of the steel fixer's labour over many years loom large on the Canberra landscape, David Ellery writes

When Dave Cavill and his bride, Joy, moved to Canberra from Victoria in 1971, they settled down in a very different city to the one that exists today. Cavill, a ''steel fixer'' since the early 1960s, has spent the past 41 years helping transform the face of the national capital.

The affable 67-year-old takes a lot of pride in having worked on some of Australia's most iconic and challenging buildings - monuments, he calls them - along the way. ''When we came to Canberra, Tuggeranong didn't exist, Belconnen was only partly developed and, of course, there was no Gungahlin or Crace.''

Among the national icons waiting to be born were the National Art Gallery, the MLC Tower in Woden where, he says, a floor was poured every week, Black Mountain Tower, the High Court building and new Parliament House. Cavill laboured on them all, carrying out the painstaking work of weaving together the steel frames that formed the cores for reinforced concrete floors, pillars, roofs and ceilings.

His skills were also brought into play at the Calvary Hospital, the Holder High School, where a worker was decapitated by an excavator, the School of Music, Belconnen Mall, the Canberra Centre and the Tuggeranong Hyperdome, to name just a few. The Belconnen Mall project was ''historically significant'' because it was the first building site where workers were officially reprimanded for wolf-whistling at passing women.

Cavill, who has been following The Canberra Times's coverage of building site safety with interest, says little if anything has improved and today's less-militant and self-aware workforce is more vulnerable to stupid decisions by inexperienced managers than in the past. For him, being willing and able to stand up for yourself and your mates was always a big part of going home safely at the end of the shift.

''Safety has gone backwards; it is pretty scary now,'' he says. ''We have had some very big accidents. The hangar collapse [at the airport] shouldn't have happened and neither should the Barton Bridge collapse.'' The conditions responsible for the Holder fatality still exist today, he says. ''He [the man who lost his life] was working down the trench 'boogling' - cleaning up the trench behind the big excavator that was above him. The driver couldn't see him and the head came up in the bucket.''


Cavill says he experienced a near miss on a site in central Canberra in quite recent times. ''I won't name names because they [those responsible] are still around,'' he says. ''They had a machine working above us [while workers were setting steel]. He [the operator] started swinging his bucket around over our heads. I said to the foreman, 'Get the machine out of here or we're going; we're not going to work under a bucket'. The foreman said 'No, no, he won't be long'.

''We got out of the trench and had smoko. The foreman was a bit upset because the concrete [for the pour] was on the way. When we got back, the machine had gone and all the footings cages we had put in were smashed. I thought 'What's going on here?' and asked the foreman. 'Oh the bucket fell,' he said.''

The boy from Yarrawonga, who signed onto his first job as a builders' labourer working on a concrete tank at the Mulwala Munitions Factory in 1962, spent much of the '60s working his way around Australia. He had a great time and has fond recollections of building sites in Perth, cattle stations in Western Australia and the Northern Territory and mining sites in the north-west long before the days of fly-in-fly-out workers and the latest commodities boom.

Cavill, who had married Joy shortly after returning to Melbourne from his working adventure, says it had been a time of great industrial turmoil. ''There were a lot of strikes so we went to Yarrawonga [his boyhood home] where I built the stage for the Yarrawonga and Mulwala Pop Festival. Acts included Canned Heat and Crosby, Stills and Nash, but everyone just wanted to see Billy Thorpe.''

Cavill, who had worked briefly in Canberra in the early '60s, takes great pride in having participated in the most significant period of building activity in the history of the ACT - the 1970s and 1980s. ''The steel fixer is the hardest working tradie on any job; it is physically demanding and we place all the reinforcement before the form work is erected and the concrete is poured,'' he says.

Concrete construction is an art in itself and extreme care has to be taken to ensure pours go to plan. ''You need to know what you are doing,'' he says. ''It was mainly the Finns who built Canberra and they were the best.'' The quality of the High Court, a building with a design life of 400 years but which has the potential to last much longer, is a testament to their skills.

Cavill says the High Court and the National Gallery were the last hand-built and hand-finished concrete monuments that will be built in Canberra. By the time work started on new Parliament House prefabricated concrete panels had largely taken the place of concrete poured on site.

Few people appreciate the time and effort that went into the remarkable ''bush-hammered'' textured finish on the court and the gallery, Cavill says. Workers had laboured for months with hand-held ''bush hammers'' to create the effect square centimetre by square centimetre. ''When they came to design [the building] the first thing they [the experts] said was 'We're not going to do what we did at the gallery and the court'. Too long, too expensive,'' he says.

Canberra was a building design and construction laboratory in the '70s and '80s with the unique demands of many of the buildings - and the requirement for them to last for centuries - pushing the envelope on many levels. ''The reo [reinforcement] used on the external walls of the High Court is all galvanised,'' Cavill says. ''That is to protect against concrete cancer.''

His favourite job of all, and certainly one of the most complex and challenging, remains Black Mountain Tower, Canberra's iconic 195-metre-high landmark and monument that was opened in May 1980 by then prime minister Malcolm Fraser. A sister to Sydney's 320-metre Centrepoint Tower, also built by Concrete Constructions Group and opened in 1981, Black Mountain was a ''crazy'' job, with shifts sometimes running from 6am one day until 4am the next day.

Cavill says that, as was often the case on major projects, the supervisors were more than happy to flog willing horses. On one occasion the foreman became convinced Cavill and his mate, big blokes whose job was to push in the largest and heaviest steel bars, were on a go-slow. They were on wages and he reckoned they were trying to spin the work out. He brought in a mate to show them how it should be done only to have the tactic blow up in the worst possible way.

''His mate, Boris, was a nice bloke - don't get me wrong,'' Cavill says. ''He was huge; he wouldn't have fitted through an ordinary door. Anyway we [Cavill and Boris]) went up in the lift to the 120-foot [37-metre] level. By the time we got there he was already white. There was still another 100 feet on ladders he had to climb.

''He got stuck halfway. He was welded to this wooden ladder and I reckon his imprints are still there. We had to get the ambulance and rescue people who had us lower the hook of the crane down through the centre of the tower, put him on a stretcher and lift him out of the way.''

Black Mountain was no place for a builder with a fear of heights. Cavill, who never had a problem himself, is surprised there's never been a reunion for those who built the tower. ''Some have already passed on; you wouldn't want to leave it too late,'' he says

Cavill signed off on his career by returning to new Parliament House, where he worked for five years from 1982 to 1987, to help construct the recently completed security wall between the underground car park and the basement.

He and Joy plan to return to Victoria just as soon as they sell their home in Gilmore.