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What makes Lawrie Forbes tick?

Boilermaker-welder turned heritage building restorer, Lawrie Forbes
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The Dunedinite is a boilermaker-welder by trade and managing director of the Zeal Steel company which, among other things, carries out metal fabrication, architectural metalwork and earthquake strengthening. 

He’s responsible for beautifully restoring several dilapidated historic buildings and has been a huge part of revitalising the city’s warehouse precinct.

Lawrie also sculpts steel, such as his latest 610 kg piece about whales and the whaling industry. Toru is created from three ship parts sculpted into a Southern right whale tail.

Stopping to talk in his office in the busy industrial area behind the Dunedin Railway Station, Lawrie says what inspires him is daily reading a list of things he’s thankful for.

This includes his wife Sarndra, AJ and other family, his lawyers, staff, clients, the Dunedin Heritage Fund, good health and slow ageing, the leadership of the Government and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the highly-skilled people who help maintain and restore his buildings and the tenants who work in them.

Reading through this list helps him focus, be grateful and notice progress. In the past, good things happened and he wasn’t thankful. Now he is.

“I’m thankful for the things I’ve got.”

He says if people are religious, they might thank God or Allah; however, he isn’t religious and believes people don’t need to be of a religious disposition to be thankful.

“That makes me tick, and it gets you fired [up] every day.”

Seeing opportunities where others don’t…Lawrie Forbes with his 1910 Lyttelton dredge, Te Whaka, which he wants to use for an interactive sculpture

A humble upbringing 

Lawrie’s dad was a watersider and plasterer by trade and his mum was a typist. He didn’t have a business or moneyed background. However, his mother worked at the Department of Justice’s commercial affairs division and so, early on, he learned why people go bankrupt.

After completing his apprenticeship at the Hillside Railway Workshops, the young Lawrie got a job at Millers Mechanical, which he describes as a positive, results-oriented environment.

He worked hard, made money and bought four “reasonably humble” residential houses, which he enjoyed refurbishing. One at 94 Elm Row he restored back to the Victorian house it was designed to be.

In 1996, he bought his first commercial building on the corner of Anzac Ave and Castle St. Lawrie bought this without a cent: he persuaded the vendor to lend him the deposit and financed the purchase by putting a second mortgage on his houses.

With the Elm Row house, the tradie-turned-property owner realised he enjoyed working together with tenants, a collaborative strength he is praised for locally.

The commercial property showed him the value of tenants providing income. Over the succeeding years he’s bought six more heritage buildings. First, he finds a tenant, then develops and restores the building using the rent to borrow to fund the work.

He works with creativity and imagination, combining an interest in history with a desire to retain authenticity and as much of the original structure as possible.

He also reuses materials wherever possible; for instance, instead of throwing out borer-ridden timber beams, he uses them for furniture, to repair roof trusses, and so on.

“I always reuse lots and lots of the building – very little goes to landfill.”

Reusing and repurposing

At his recent refurbishment of Zeallandia at 43 Crawford St, the workers stripped back the building to reveal anything of historic relevance. The old lift shaft timbers of virgin American Oregon couldn’t remain as a lift but they were able to be used as windowsills on two floors.

He points out that he already owns the timber and can’t source wood like this elsewhere.

“My big secret has always been, reuse as much of the original structure as I can.”

The restored 1882 building, now renamed Zeallandia, at 43 Crawford St in Dunedin’s warehouse precinct. Photo: Nick Beadle, stw studio

When wood is too borer-filled, his mum benefits – she has a fire but hasn’t bought firewood for decades!

Lawrie describes what he does as heritage reuse, with the emphasis on reusing and repurposing materials perhaps stretching back to his grandfather, who would roll bits of string into a ball and reuse them.

I was green long before green was trendy – and the green came from need.”

 

Lawrie enjoys helping younger tradies increase their skills, as long as they have the right attitude and want to learn. Talented older builders also show the junior tradesmen what to do.

“I want people that have got passion and pride in what they do.”

This man with zeal has an ability to see what others may not, such as a filthy segmented brass door frame rescued from the former Chief Post Office, which he envisaged as a celluloid film strip. The brass was cleaned, photos were commissioned and the resulting elegant picture frame now graces Zeallandia.

“It’s a matter of seeing things what others don’t.”

So, when he looks at an old building, Lawrie glimpses opportunities. He’s also thankful for the blessing of having skills, and a skill base around him.

“I’ve got the best team.”

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