Every day, publications like this one feature beautiful houses crafted for a client and site, but in the totality of suburban houses, these are the extreme exception to the rule. Almost all new houses in the suburbs are not one off in design and construction and the 150-year history of Australian suburban housing will show that it has always been thus.
In every era these houses are ‘pattern-based mass-made’; pattern-based as the house design uses a standardised plan, or pattern, with minor variations; and ‘mass-made’ because they are built in volume production. Currently they are called project homes, based on a just a few patterns, and built every year in the tens of thousands. But like every previous era they serve us very poorly.
The design of this row of houses from the middle 19th C was based on the knowledge of crofters’ cottages from the UK. They are ‘developer housing’, erected by a single owner and let out to tenants, most often workers with a family of six or more, squeezed into two rooms with an attic space. They have small windows and are dark inside and fitted out with fireplaces in every room, and gas lighting.
Built in solid stone (sand in Sydney, blue in Melbourne), with roofs, originally in shingles or slate, steeply pitched for snow that never came. They are called ‘bald-faced’ as they had a no set-back, veranda or front gardens. The workers have no need of provisions for horses, as in the large one-off Regency Villas on the high ground.
Later in the reign of Queen Victoria the houses are still in rows or ‘terraces’. They have a small front garden, more spacious rooms down and up, service rooms at the rear with a dunny on the rear lane. Again, built in rows by developers who give the row the name of their wife, mother or daughter, they continue the build-to-rent policy that endured in the 19th century,
The poor porous brickwork is rendered to improve its durability, sometimes scored to look like stone, the start of ersatz exteriors. Materials are standardised, including the cast iron ‘lace’, shipped from England in the holds of ships that had taken the wool and wheat to the mother country.
Verandas and balconies, added to the base UK pattern, were learnt from time spent in India by members of the NSW Corps. They provide a measure of environmental performance, even photographed and remarked upon by Reyner Banham in his book ‘The architecture of the Well Tempered Environment (second edition)’.
Federation brings radical changes: the land size leaps to 1000 sqm (the archetypal quarter acre in subdivisions mandated by local councils) and it is individually ‘Torrens’ titled; the larger houses are freestanding surrounded by space; houses are individually owned by the emerging middle class as banks now provide individual mortgages, rather loans to a developer for row housing.
The plan is a bifurcated double-loaded corridor, with an asymmetrical front featuring verandas, irrespective of orientation. Full of fancy details: finials, carved timber brackets, round or bay windows, terracotta tiles from the south of France. But it’s only skin deep: the pretentious tuck-pointed front bricks turn into commons at the first junction, big windows to small. A tradition of the 'dressed up' front in vogue to this day.
There are bigger front gardens and side setbacks, to allow the new-fangled car a home in a garage in the rear garden. Sewered, with electricity, they are more comfortable, but environmentally poor: cold with uninsulated roofs and walls, the double brick freezing in winter, hence the fireplaces.
Plans are originally drawn by architects, but once the pattern is set, it can be replicated. The prettiness of the ‘Federation’ or ‘Queen Anne’ style, harking back to the mother country’s revival of ‘Arts and Crafts’ sentimentality, creates the popular image of Australian housing over a hundred years later.
Freestanding houses continue but in a downsized version as a result of WW1 and the Depression. The joyfulness of the Federation period is stripped to a more austere structure, without the details, finials or fancy face brick work, but still commons down the side. A driveway leads to the rear for a car parking space.
The plan pattern continues on slightly smaller sites, continuing a tradition of putting its best face forward to the street, irrespective of the orientation, and a small well-groomed garden at the front.
The interiors are plainer, lower ceilings, but better for the use of electricity, gas and oil heaters.
The late thirties see AV Jennings establish the beginnings of what endures as the project home. His first two architects, Edgar Gurney and William Vine, establish patterns of plans and site layouts that endure to today. If they had better copyrighted the plans they would be regarded as the most prolific architects in Australian history.
Post WW2 the patterns remain the same, but modernist efficiency is harnessed, not in plan or aesthetics, but in construction techniques using concrete slabs, lighter colored extruded bricks (not solid), terracotta becoming grey concrete, and larger areas of glass featuring the aluminium ‘patio door’. The bricks are only a veneer (some think an Australian invention), with a stepped front (or two or triple).
The plans of the previous 50 years are expanded, and the ‘open plan’ has arrived with a kitchen in a family room. The houses are spacious and growing in size, with an average area of 125 sqm, on 800 sqm blocks of land with front gardens. The car is in a carport, or increasingly a garage built into the house, and some local authorities prefer no front fencing, as in this example from Canberra.
In the forty years leading up to the second change of century we may say there is a 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 revolution: houses double in area to 250 sqm, but sites shrink to half the area at 400 sqm; the houses are two storeys with two or more cars; the area of glazing doubles, the number of appliances doubles but the number of occupants is halved from over five to under 2.5.
The pattern for all these houses is the same: entry one side, garage the other, open plan kitchen, dining and living downstairs with a stair in the center. Upstairs, four bedrooms in the four corners, two bathrooms, and a ‘rumpus’ over the stair to defy any possibility of acoustic isolation. The three versions in this image are all essentially identical: just different colours of brick and tile.
To where we are now: even bigger on even smaller: these are not terraces, harking back 150 years, but individual houses on tiny blocks of land. Still patterned based with identical planning, with some cosmetic variations. Only different brick colors and the addition of a meagre porch or balcony differentiates one from another, trying to create identity in a sea of mediocrity.
The ‘demilitarized zone’ on the side contains aluminium windows opposite each other, water heaters, AC units and sometimes a rainwater tank. A garage door dominates the front of the house (never a carport) or sometimes rear lane access for the car. Sun protection is irrelevant in regard to orientation.
This history of a suburban housing was in part prompted by last week's discussion of the work of Derek Wrigley, in particular his quest to find sustainable solutions for the poor environmental qualities in pattern-based mass-made designs. For we have 150 years of badly designed and built houses.
The only upside is this creates lots of work for young architects, trying to improve the quality of these houses, until they become so large on such small blocks of land that no further alterations and additions can be made. Young architects need to study these pattern-based houses and how to improve them.
It is ironic that Australia, suburbia par excellence, puts such great store in its suburban housing that is so repetitive, badly designed, poorly planned and built. We now spend more money modifying and improving these houses than building new ones. Renovating and retrofitting (not including knock-down rebuild) is now the largest single construction activity, because we've got 150 years of bad pattern-based mass-made housing to improve.
Thank heavens we have so many young architecture graduates.
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]