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Tone on Tuesday 129: Australia’s Project Home Part 1

Tone on Tuesday 129: Australia’s Project Home Part 1

Home wasn’t built in a day.” – Jane Ace, American radio comedian, specialising in malapropisms, 1960s; now a song by Lucy Spraggan, 2019

Australia is the most suburbanised OECD country; and the detached house on its own plot, our favourite, is its ne plus ultra. Starting in the late 1890s, it has endured almost unchanged until today: the designs, planning, forms, construction, and materials.

Only the method of delivery has changed: most houses are now built by a ‘project builder’, a phenomenon we will explore over the next four weeks.

The suburban house

The pattern for single-family detached houses was established in the golden age of ‘Federation’. Most think it was a stylistic change: Australia threw away British rule, and its terrace house, and embraced the single-family home based on two styles:  British Queen Anne and the USA’s Californian Bungalow.

But two other factors played a significant role at the turn of the century: the banks wanted to lend directly to the emerging middles class for single houses, where previously they lent to developer-builders for a row of terraces; and the newly created local Councils eschewed subdivisions that led to narrow lots, which they regarded as slums, in favour of larger, preferably quarter acre, sites with individual titles, using a system developed by South Australian Sir Robert Richard Torrens (in the 1860s).

The unchanging plan

The basic plan of the suburban house has little changed down the decades.  In tech speak it is a ‘four-square plan, bifurcated, with a double-loaded corridor’.  Or, squarish plan, rooms in the corners, either side of a central corridor. Originally one side had living rooms, the other had bedrooms, both facing the street, usually stepped, sometimes ‘triple-fronted’. The rear had the service areas: kitchen, laundry and bathroom. 

The rise of cars meant one side was replaced by a double garage, and the street presence declined. In the 1990s double-storey homes proliferated, without creativity; the double-loaded corridor plan was repeated upstairs as a suite of three or four bedrooms in the corners, in a box-like form. Nevertheless, the last fifteen years has seen a proliferation of interesting variations in project homes which we will look at in a few weeks.

An obsession with materials

The pattern for our favourite house was established early: it would be ‘solid’, built with two leaves of bricks in the newly developed cavity construction (not weatherboards), crowned with a quality roof of terracotta tiles, not the reviled membrane of ‘corrugated iron’ or ‘tin’ (it was neither).

Every city’s nascent brickworks expanded rapidly to supply the high-quality ‘face bricks’ on the front facades, with ‘commons’ on the sides and rear, both better than the previous ‘stone-coursed’ render. Ships carrying wheat and wool to Europe now returned, not with ‘iron lace’ but full of orange-red ‘Marseille tiles’ (although that tile is rarely seen there). The pejorative endures:  it’s not a real house unless it’s ‘brick and tile’.

We still want the same, but now it is dumbed down: the bricks are only a veneer, and they look like they’ve got ‘monkeypox’; the roof tiles are made from dark concrete that overheats and goes brittle. The windows are single glazed aluminium with fake Georgian glazing bars. All surface, no substance. But again, many things have changed in project homes in the last fifteen years.

Project homes PH

Over 80% of new suburban homes are built by ‘project builders’, which we might more correctly call ‘volume standardised contract builders.’ They build large numbers of houses, to predetermined plans, which may be varied within limits. It might be on land they own (a house and land package – either speculative or to a consumer’s choice) or on land owned by the consumer (in a contract with a client).  Either way, the idea is to minimise costs by using materials and techniques that are repeated in every house, irrespective of the usually standardised design.

Project home construction

The essence of a PH is to build with the minimum amount of material and particularly labour. Designs are based on standardised dimensions to match framing and plasterboard; using factory-made windows, doors, joinery, frames, trusses, and other components; detailed with large skirtings or cornices to hide poor tolerances of unsupervised subcontractors; and rough finishes are disguised with highly patterned or textured materials to cover a multitude of sins.

The process is repetitive; each trade works independently, without overlap and without interaction, to minimise returns to make good defects. Crucially the whole can be completed with minimal supervision; it is not unusual for one PH supervisor to look after twenty or more homes at one time. Project Home builders have contracts for hundreds of houses per year; the largest, say Simonds in Victoria or Dale Alcock in Perth build upwards of 2,000 houses in a year.

Design

It’s a myth that project homes aren’t architect or professionally designed; they are commonly seen as the work of drafters. Major PH builders have an internal drawing office, headed by an architect, or someone architecturally trained. They’re not big-name architects, well known or whose work is often discussed in architectural forums, but they are usually very highly skilled.

It takes considerable ingenuity to take the strictures of standardisation and process outlined above, and create a variety of different ideas, themes, forms, plans and aesthetics that will appeal to a public faced with a wide range of choice. Despite the complexities of the design problems within those constraints there are now some remarkable solutions (as we shall see in a few weeks). 

It’s a pity the ‘high end’ architectural profession doesn’t recognise and encourage the design inventions and innovations in this form of construction.  I have designed several ‘ranges’ for three PH companies and can attest to the design complexities, but when I entered one in the architectural awards, the judges had to create a ‘special award’ to be able give me a prize.

The death and life of project homes

It is a curiosity that a housing style developed at the turn of the last century has lasted so long as the base house design in Australia.  It is further curious that its materiality has been dumbed down to the point where houses last barely fifty years before they need reconstruction.  But the greatest curiosity is how this one house type was so successful, given Australia’s climate and diverse population.

Most suburban project homes have been totally ill-suited to Australia’s climate; the orientation has traditionally been to the street, which is arbitrary and not related to the sun and wind patterns; they are poorly insulated, freezing cold in winter, boiling hot in summer, (they comprised many the 33% of un-insulated homes that led to the ‘Pink Batts’ issues in 2009). But things are changing as we shall see.

Project homes fail the demographic test. Whilst Australia is highly multicultural, the singular suburban solution seems constrained, and a poor response to that diversity. Households from many backgrounds have adapted to our single-family homes, but an increasing diversity of house forms, such as multi-family designs, duplexes and terraces might offer a better choice.

Many post war migrants took enthusiastically to home ownership, delighted in being able to build a ‘castle’, often adorning it with ersatz decoration taken from their culture, touted as ‘ABC (all balconies and columns)’; more recently, Asian cultures have sought a highly internalised arrangement, shunning the Australian ‘outdoor lifestyle’ in favour of formal air-conditioned space. Project homes well responded to the former, but only recently have attempted to address the latter.

It is ironic that Australia, that prides itself on individuality and diversity, has made a century of endless suburbia where so many of the houses are made from the same mould. Nevertheless, the zeitgeist is changing, which we shall explore, initially by going back to visit A. V. Jennings and brick veneer construction in the coming weeks, before turning our gaze to project homes of the future.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]