Tone on Tuesday 129: Project Home Part 1 from Australia

The house was not built in a day.“- Jane Ace, American radio actress, specializing in malapropisms, 1960s; now a song by Lucy Spraggan, 2019

Australia is the most underurbanized OECD country; and the detached house on its own land, our favorite, is its not ultra. From the late 1890s it has remained almost unchanged until today: designs, planning, forms, construction and materials.

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

The suburban house

The model of single-family detached houses was established in the golden age of the “Federation”. Most believe it was a change in style: Australia abandoned British rule and its terraced house and adopted the single-family home based on two styles: the British Queen Anne and the California bungalow of the United States. United.

But two other factors played an important role at the turn of the century: banks wanted to lend directly to the emerging middle class for single-family homes, where previously they had lent to developer-builders for a row of terraces; and newly created local councils avoided subdivisions that led to narrow lots, which they considered slums, in favor of larger sites, preferably a quarter acre, with individual titles, using a system developed by South Australian Sir Robert Richard Torrens (in the 1860s).

The Immutable Plan

The basic plan of the suburban home has changed little over the decades. In technical parlance, it is a “square, bifurcated plan with a double-loading hallway”. Either, square plan, bedrooms in the corners, on either side of a central corridor. Originally, one side had drawing rooms, the other 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 that one side was replaced by a double garage and the street presence diminished. In the 1990s, two-storey houses multiplied, without creativity; the double-loaded hallway plan was repeated upstairs as a three- or four-bedroom suite at the corners, in a box-like form. Nevertheless, the last fifteen years have seen a proliferation of interesting variants of house projects, which we will come back to in a few weeks.

An obsession with materials

The model for our favorite house was established early on: it would be ‘solid’, built with two sheets of brick in the newly developed cavity construction (no siding), topped off with a quality terracotta tile roof , and not the reviled “corrugated iron” membrane. iron’ or ‘tin’ (it was neither).

The fledgling brickyards in each city quickly grew to provide the high quality “face bricks” on the front facades, with “commons” on the sides and rear, both better than the earlier “seated” plaster Stone”. Ships carrying wheat and wool to Europe now returned, not with “iron laces”, but full of orange-red “Marseille tiles” (although this tile was rarely seen there). The pejorative persists: it’s not a real house unless it’s “brick and tile”.

We still want the same thing, but now it’s dumb: the bricks are just a veneer, and they look like they have “monkey pox”; the roof tiles are dark concrete which overheats and becomes brittle. Windows are single glazed aluminum with Georgian faux glazing bars. All superficial, without substance. But again, a lot has changed in project houses over the last fifteen years.

PH project houses

More than 80% of new suburban homes are built by “project builders”, which we might more properly call “volume standard contract builders”. They build a large number of houses, according to predetermined plans, which can vary within certain limits. This can be land that they own (a house and land combination – speculative or consumer choice) or land owned by the consumer (under a contract with a customer). Either way, the idea is to minimize costs by using materials and techniques that are repeated in every home, regardless of the usually standardized design.

House construction project

The essence of a PH is to build with the minimum of material and especially of manpower. Designs are based on standardized dimensions to match framing and plasterboard; use factory-made windows, doors, millwork, frames, trusses and other components; detailed with large plinths or cornices to hide poor tolerances from unsupervised contractors; and rough finishes are disguised with patterned or textured materials to cover a multitude of sins.

The process is repetitive; each trade works independently, without overlap and without interaction, to minimize returns to repair defects. Basically, the set can be completed with minimal supervision; it is not uncommon for a PH supervisor to care for twenty or more houses at a time. Project Home builders have contracts for hundreds of homes a year; the biggest, say Simonds in Victoria or Dale Alcock in Perth, build over 2,000 houses a year.


It is a myth that project houses are not designed by an architect or by a professional; they are generally considered the work of editors. The main builders of PH have an in-house drawing office, headed by an architect or someone trained in architecture. They are not renowned architects, known or whose work is often discussed in architecture forums, but they are generally very qualified.

It takes considerable ingenuity to take the constraints of standardization and process outlined above and create a variety of different ideas, themes, shapes, layouts and aesthetics that will appeal to an audience facing a wide range of choice. Despite the complexity of the design problems within these constraints, there are now some remarkable solutions (as we will see in a few weeks).

Too bad the ‘high end’ architectural profession does not recognize and encourage design inventions and innovations in this form of construction. I have designed several ‘ranges’ for three PH companies and I can vouch for the complexity of the design, but when I submitted one to the architecture awards the judges had to create a ‘special award’ to be able to give a price.

The Death and Life of Project Houses

It is a curiosity that a style of housing developed at the turn of the last century lasted as long as basic house design in Australia. It is even more curious that its materiality has been reduced to the point where the houses barely last fifty years before having to be rebuilt. But the greatest curiosity is how this type of house has done so well, given Australia’s climate and diverse population.

Most suburban project houses have been totally ill-suited to the Australian climate; the orientation has traditionally been towards the street, which is arbitrary and unrelated to sun and wind patterns; they are poorly insulated, freezing in the winter, hot in the summer (they accounted for most of the 33% of uninsulated homes that led to “Pink Batts” problems in 2009). But things change as we shall see.

The houses in the project fail the demographic test. While Australia is strongly multicultural, the singular suburban solution seems constrained, and a poor response to this diversity. Households from a variety of backgrounds have adapted to our single-family homes, but an increasing diversity of home shapes, such as multi-family designs, duplexes, and patios, may offer better choice.

Many post-war migrants enthusiastically became homeowners, delighted to be able to build a “castle”, often decorating it with an ersatz decoration taken from their culture, billed as “ABC (all balconies and columns)”; more recently, Asian cultures have sought a highly internalized arrangement, eschewing the Australian “outdoor way of life” in favor of an air-conditioned formal space. The houses in the project have responded well to the first, but only recently have attempted to respond to the second.

It’s ironic that Australia, which prides itself on individuality and diversity, has created a century of endless suburbia where so many homes are made from the same mould. Nevertheless, the zeitgeist is changing, which we will explore, first by returning to visit AV Jennings and brick veneer construction in the coming weeks, before turning our gaze to home projects. from the future.

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

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