Interview with Laurie Melis and Ryan Ward

Words by Michelle Heslop. Photo by Jody Beck.

How long have you two been in business together? Tell us about Upward Elements. We’ve both been swinging hammers since we were 16 years old. We started Upward Elements in 2006 when we were 22 and 23 years old. We apprenticed through the same company and almost immediately found our niche in high-end, complex builds — that’s what really gets us excited. We were trusted with some big jobs early on and have done a broad range of projects since. We’ve had our heads down for over a decade, quietly building some of Victoria’s highest-end homes. Now we’re coming up for air and ready to share our brand.

Upward Elements has secured a spot at the forefront of the high-end building community. Why is now the right time to push your brand into the spotlight? We built our brand the hard way — from the bottom up, on the tools. Building these highly detailed homes takes years of experience. We didn’t lean on branding or marketing over the years but we’ve always been in demand for some of the most successful architects and designers. We’ve never really had to look for work — our projects and work ethic speak for themselves. We’ve just been too busy to put the time into marketing, but now we’re ready to make our mark on the industry.

What sets UE apart from other builders? Quality control is number one for us. We’re on-site every single day with our tool-belts on. We’re still the project managers and coordinators, but we like to get our hands on all the details. This is the only way to be able to speak to the project. If specifications go unchecked, they can compound and will always present themselves later in the build. We are client-driven and work closely with homeowners to give them more than they expect.

We’re only as strong as our team so we do a lot of educating and continuous learning to stay on top of the evolving industry. We have built a talented crew and are always bouncing ideas around to keep consistently ahead of the curve. It’s important for us to be able to stand back from a completed project and feel gratification and pride in our work.

What have you learned about this range of buildings that are different from average home construction? Timing, pricing, and coordinating is an art that requires experience. High-end homes are just a different level of how people do business. We are proud to say we can deliver what we promise. Managing budgets can be a significant part of the business, and pricing is a challenge for every project given all the variations. However, with experience and the solid working relationships we’ve built in the community, with some of the best sub-trades, designers and manufacturers, we are confident in this area.

Do you work closely with designers? The key to our success is always being on site. We’re currently on a project with Sandy Nygaard and speak to her almost every day. We work with Sandy frequently; she’s truly a professional. High-end projects have many intricacies, so we are often working closely with designers to stay on top of the details. We like to see the design plan from day one because, from a construction standpoint, we can see potential problems before they happen and plan for the best outcome.

What is the key to a successful client/builder relationship? There are a lot of emotions involved in construction. Collaborating with sub-trades, designers, and clients can be challenging — especially with first-time builds. A significant part of what we do is continuous communication and education with clients. Construction language is complex and clients want and need to understand why we execute the way we do. A lack of communication can result in technicalities getting missed and the client can feel lost and out of control.

Tell us about one of your favourite projects and why it was significant to you. We recently did a West Coast contemporary build that had some beautiful features like a hand-cut roof, dramatic pitch changes, and an indoor sports court. When other builders say no to things like custom timber frame homes because of their complexity, we are the ones to say a great big yes because we thrive on that level of execution. We specialize in intricate rooflines. Mathematically, it’s complicated and we get a rush out of the challenge.

What have you noted as being some of the current trends in the high-end home construction market? With age-in-place features a popular request, we’ve become very experienced with incorporating elevators. We’ve also done a lot of pools, and recently did an award-winning installation that won ‘best outdoor living over one million.’ We’ve built an indoor ball hockey gym in the basement, accessed by an elevator as well as outdoor hockey rinks. We also see extensive glazing packages in designs that require significant structural steel that is often left exposed in interiors to act as an architectural element.

With such a high-pressure job, how do you maintain such a positive working relationship? We’ve grown together professionally and continue to support one another. We have the same level of drive and that keeps us pushing each other, learning, and evolving. As teenagers, we were both high-level athletes so we are very competitive and have channeled that mentality into our business, becoming co-captains of our team.

Any final words? A good carpenter can always see his mistakes before they happen. We are confident in our work and have a deep level of integrity. We take our work seriously; it’s more than just building to us.