Scott Burchell says the conception of his firm COMB Construction in Melbourne was “as chaotic and unplanned” as the diverse mix of professions and places he found himself in beforehand. This colourful description could not be further from the precision of the high-end residential projects COMB is responsible for bringing to fruition today, where an affinity for fine details and divergent yet well planned ideas prevail.
Scott’s eye for the smaller details of a project is remarkable. It is an attribute he prides himself on, noting a client once dubbed him “trilingual” for his ability to speak “client, architect and builder” in equal fluency. With a background spanning architecture, furniture design, mechanics and construction, he explores every outcome, questions every joint and, as an innately curious person, sees the value in learning from others, taking on all ideas with an open and adventurous mind.
Often, those who harness these characteristics have an intriguing story to tell. For Scott, his path to construction began with two years of an architecture degree at Sydney University, after which he headed to England, spending a month in Rome in-between. “I ended up in London, penniless and sleeping on a friend’s floor,” he recalls. He took a job as a motorcycle courier, which he admits was perhaps a bold move in a new and unfamiliar city, however, his positive and nonchalant attitude did
away with any self-doubt. The following years involved setting up a motorcycle hire company, teaching himself to weld and opening a metal fabrication workshop.
While satisfied, the pull towards construction and design proved too great a force, and Scott dipped his toe into the London property market with various small-scale residential developments. It was while working on a three-storey office building in London’s Southbank that everything fell into place professionally. “I worked out that I enjoyed multiple things, and doing construction meant I could use them all at once,” Scott says. “For me, it was all my happy places coalescing into one thing. It was a liberating moment.”
Despite this clarity, COMB was still a way off. As Scott says, “the beginning of COMB was in keeping with the slightly haphazard nature of my [career] paths.” Upon his return to Melbourne, a stint with a high-end residential builder left him disillusioned with the industry, and 18 months making his own furniture was fun but not financially viable, so he peeled it all back and started his own maintenance company. “I put an ad in the paper for a quality maintenance service and I couldn’t keep up. It was nuts.” COMB is the evolution of this endeavour; for the past 19 years, Scott has not only stayed the course but evolved and cemented the company as an industry bellwether.
Scott’s affinity for detail in design and construction is fed in part by a lifelong interest in the work of famed Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha. “I’ve always had a fascination with Brazil, thanks to my mother’s obsession with Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto – it was the soundtrack to my childhood in the 70s,” Scott reflects. Various trips to Brazil have allowed Scott to “connect with architecture lovers around the world” as well as spend time with Mendes da Rocha himself. “Meeting Paulo was a bit surreal because of that hero thing,” Scott says. “He was a larger-than-life character – the most extraordinarily generous man and so clearly loved by those around him.” This appreciation for Mendes da Rocha’s practice has had a profound effect on Scott’s work. Small and large details that speak back to the Brazilian architect’s brutalist masterpieces can be found in several of COMB’s projects, most notably Stockroom Cottage designed by Architects EAT, which explores “the fluid potential of concrete” through cantilevered concrete steps and rarely seen 40-millimetre loadbearing concrete walls.
COMB takes on only a handful of residential projects each year, and Scott is firm in his decision to maintain this pace. He enjoys being across all projects at a micro level and cites working with people who appreciate the same level of detail as immensely rewarding. “In the construction industry, it’s not encouraged to question the drawings,” Scott explains. “It’s expected that you just do it and get on with it.” This is not how Scott operates, rather, he relishes in collaborating with architects and designers in seeking out the extraordinary. Working with the likes of John Wardle Architects, Fiona Lynch, Flack Studio, Hecker Guthrie and Edition Office, among other leading architects and designers, has resulted in a portfolio of work built on solid relationships, spanning almost two decades.
Ultimately, Scott believes that in construction, “quality is the cumulative effect of a pile of considered junctions.” It is easy to find truth in this and to relate it back to COMB’s work, and Scott’s ability to identify and examine junctions through a critical lens is indisputable. Further, it is not forced; he does it because he loves it. “I reckon I’ve got about 30 houses left in me,” he shares. “I want them all to be really great, and I want to enjoy doing them.”