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The housing boom

Following the end of WWII, Australia experienced a major housing boom. It was fuelled by a marked population increase and the pursuit of a new Aussie dream: to own a home in the suburbs. The rate of home ownership increased from around 40 percent in 1947 to over 70 percent in 1960 and sparked a massive phase of building and construction in Australia.

The baby boom

Thousands of servicemen and women returned home after the war to resume their lives and start families. Following a rush of marriages and babies after 1945, Australia's birth rate increased rapidly. More than four million Australians were born between 1946 and 1961 - people born during these years are now called 'baby boomers'. Whole new suburbs were built to accommodate these new families and Australia's major cities quickly expanded.

Immigration influx

Following the war, Australia was in short supply of skilled workers to help with reconstruction efforts. The government established a migration programme to boost the country's population.

The programme was a huge success and by 1955 over one million new migrants had settled in Australia. Many came from the United Kingdom and Ireland, but for the first time, thousands poured in from other European countries like Greece, Italy Hungary and Yugoslavia.

Too many families, not enough homes

The baby boom, coupled with the huge influx of new immigrants, meant that housing supply could not keep up with demand. In 1946, it was estimated that 200 000 Australian families required homes and many existing homes needed rebuilding.

City life after World War II was a dreary existence: conditions were dirty and pollution was high. Most people wanted to buy their own block of land in the suburbs, build a new home and start afresh. The government offered cheap, low-interest home loans to returned military staff and others saved feverishly to buy their own home.

A new building style

The huge demand for housing and a shortage of building materials and labour prompted the development of different methods of construction. Many houses were built from new, cheaper materials like concrete, fibro and corrugated iron roofing and prefabricated homes were imported from overseas. 'Prefabrication' means that the components of a house are built in a factory, and then moved to another location to be assembled.

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The houses built in the decade or so after WWII were small compared to today's standards. The average house consisted of two or three bedrooms, one living area, kitchen and small bathroom and the toilet and laundry were sometimes located outside. The design was simple and economical - most homes were built without features like verandahs and fireplaces and two-storey houses were very rare.

For several years after the war, roads remained unsealed or even non-existent and sewerage services were not always available.

Many families tried to cut the cost of their home by building it themselves. In the 1950s, over one-third of all new houses were owner-built. Families often lived in a small shed while building their new home and later converted this shed into a garage.

Brick veneer

As the supply of building materials gradually improved throughout the 1950s, brick homes and red tile roofs began to appear.

While many people wanted to own a solid brick home, brick was relatively expensive. This led to the development of brick veneer houses, where a single layer of brick is attached to an internal timber frame. Previously, brick homes had been constructed using a solid double brick method. Brick veneer looked like double brick from the outside, but was much cheaper to construct and provided better insulation. Today, brick veneer is still a very common building method in Australia.

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Cars and the Australian suburb

In the early 1950s, cars were too expensive for many families. The most popular-selling Holden car cost the equivalent of 86 weeks of the average wage. Most people used public transport like buses, trains and trams to travel between home and work.

The introduction of hire purchase and the rising number of second-hand cars on the market, however, put cars within the financial reach of many households. Increased car ownership changed the location of Australian suburbs - families were now able to build their homes away from rail and tram links. Urban sprawl had begun, as the suburbs of Australian cities spread further outward.

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Home expansion

In the 1960s, continuing affluence and cheaper building technology meant that Australians could afford to pay for bigger homes. The addition of second bathrooms and extra bedrooms became common. Many families built a 'family' or 'rumpus' room, providing two living areas and some homes were air-conditioned. As car ownership increased, many new houses were built with a garage or carport. New building materials like plastic paints, linoleum floor coverings and laminex kitchen benches made household cleaning even easier.

A more modern approach to architecture emerged in the 1960s, calling for homes that were more suited to the Australian climate and blended into the local environment. Home design entered a new phase of 'bringing the outdoors indoors', with a new emphasis on using natural light and a proliferation of patios and other outdoor living areas.

Technological advancements also led to the growth of inner-city high-rise apartments and skyscrapers. These transformed Australia's city skylines, giving them a more American-style appearance.

1970s - Environmental housing

In 1974, the global oil crisis prompted public concern about energy consumption and environmentally-conscious housing options became more common throughout the decade. A house in the suburbs was no longer the automatic choice for some Australians. Many people moved to the bush and experimented with natural materials like mud brick, straw bales and raw timber and there was a focus on materials and architecture that blended into the surrounding landscape. New, energy efficient housing was being developed, which included features such as better site positioning and solar power for heating and electricity generation.

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Escaping to the bush and building a mud brick hut, however, remained nothing more than a fantasy to the majority of Australians during the 1970s. Most people remained in cities and towns and sought urban success and prosperity. Thus, mainstream housing generally remained conservative and traditional by design.

1980s - Renovation and revitalisation

The 1980s saw a revitalisation of Australian cities, as many people moved to restore old, worn-out houses in areas previously regarded as slums.

In the years immediately following WWII, many European migrants had settled in what were then cheap, dilapidated inner city houses. The subsequent establishment of European cafés, delicatessens and other forms of street life gave inner city suburbs a new vibrancy and city areas eventually became more attractive places to live.

By the 1980s, urban sprawl and the subsequent strain on roads and public transport was also beginning to be felt. As a result, the central location of inner-city housing appealed to city workers who had grown tired of traffic jams and long commuting times.

The 1990s

Urban sprawl

The 'great Australian dream' of owning a house in the suburbs was still alive and well in the final decade of the 20th century. As a result, urban sprawl continued unabated throughout the 1990s, as hundreds of thousands of new homes were built at the edge of Australia's major cities. The proportion of people living in Australian capital cities had increased from 40 percent in 1910, to 65 percent in 1999.

Australian architecture today does not really have a distinctive style and overseas trends often dominate large projects. In many cases, interesting 'modern' buildings are, in fact, recycled Victorian or other era buildings.

While providing much-needed homes for many people, urban sprawl increases car dependence and has been associated with causing many other problems in our communities. These include:

  • social problems like isolation, especially for people who do not own cars and cannot access jobs, or educational and social facilities. It can also lead to traffic congestion and longer commute times, resulting in people becoming time-poor.
  • environmental problems, such as climate change caused by increased numbers of cars emitting greenhouse gases. Urban sprawl also leads to loss of natural habitats and open spaces.
  • public health problems, such as decreased levels of physical activity arising from car dependency and respiratory problems resulting from air pollution
  • economic problems, such as an increased strain on infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals; and
  • a lack of aesthetic diversity. Many new urban developments are similarly designed and some suburbs can look uniform and repetitive.

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Urban sprawl solutions

Urban sprawl is not unique to Australia - it has long posed a problem to every country in the developed world and is even becoming an issue in developing nations.

Governments and communities are working to find viable solutions to urban sprawl. These include:

  • developing 'green' public transport systems that are more fuel efficient and less polluting
  • decreasing car dependence by offering better walking and cycling facilities
  • building more affordable housing close to transport and employment
  • urban consolidation, which involves rebuilding and reinvigorating inner city areas; and
  • building developments that use space more efficiently.

House design

Suburban houses in the 1990s tended to become larger, with fewer people living in them. In the mid-1990s the average home was estimated to hold 2.5 more rooms per resident than was the case in the year 1900. Front and backyards decreased in size as houses took up more room on the block and living areas were extended.

There was a considerable push throughout the 1990s to create environmentally friendly homes - incorporating appropriate insulation, using building materials with low environmental impacts and alternative home energy sources, like solar power.

Generally, however, the basic materials used to construct a house have not changed a great deal since the 1950s. The average Australian house still basically consists of timber, nails, bricks and mortar.


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