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The following is an overview to early building construction methods in Sydney, including heritage properties, and an insight to give a preliminary understanding of building methods and requirements of that period. Note this is not a historical document, nor one that covers all possible defects and problems, but is an overview to the types of buildings and their age. For further professional advice on your particular property or problem please contact our office by email on d.hall@buildreport.com.au or telephone 02 9418 7750.

Colonial Construction.

A few buildings constructed prior to 1840 still exist and are used for modern living. This earlier type construction is very plain when viewed against the later Victorian era style (left hand house).

The buildings were very small by the standard we expect today.

The construction was also very basic and followed typical English methods. Building materials were sourced locally to the property. Buildings of this age can be found in The Rocks area, Darlinghurst, workers cottages in Redfern and residences at Richmond as well as Windsor to mention a few.

The buildings were constructed virtually on the ground and now suffer from varying degrees of damp and termite problems. The external walls are solid brick to provide some structural strength from the soft original sandstock type brick. The external walls were usually rendered and painted to provide some protection from the rain and damp. In the workers cottages, the walls were not rendered to save costs, but painted.

The current trend to remove the paint and expose the feature bricks will result in dampness penetrating the walls.

When undertaking restoration or refurbishment works one has to understand the type of construction to reduce the risk of future problems. Typically these buildings did not have a brick parapet wall above roof level with the exception being in the Rocks Area. These brick parapet walls provide fire separation between the buildings and was not a requirement until around 1890. Some early cottages still retain the remnants of the original hardwood timber shake roof cover below the metal roofing. All the buildings of this age were provided with either corrugated iron or timber shake roofs.

Victorian era

Queen Victoria came to the throne in England in 1837.
No doubt the state of Victoria was named after her. The first Prime Minister in her early years was Lord Melbourne. Her influence was not readily evident in Australia as we were still the colonies and many of our early settlers, including builders and designers, had little choice in their career or place of work and little contact with improvements and changes that occurred in England.

Life changed in the 1850’s in Australia for 2 main reasons. Firstly, gold was discovered and brought wealth and free settlers particularly to Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria. Sydney was less prosperous, but was affected by an increase in population. The second impact was the industrial revolution which brought increased productivity, including to the construction of buildings.

Many houses and terraces of this period, and up to 1910, did not have a bathroom included in the original construction. The weekly bath was had in a neighbour’s house or in a metal tub in front of the fireplace. There was no hot water apart from water boiled in a pot and on the stove. The reminder can be found in some houses today where a small bathroom has been located outside and under the house.

The Victorian era can be categorised into 3 sections, but I personally feel that it should be 4. They are – early, mid and late. The late era started with a very prosperous time, called the Victorian boom era. This ended in 1893 when the shearers went on strike for long enough to cause a financial depression in the economy. The buildings after this period were much plainer in detail to keep costs down.

The suburb of Paddington was built during the Victorian era and contains examples of many and varied buildings of that period. The local Woollahra Council has a conservation order on all of the suburb and a heritage order on many grander buildings. This will affect anyone owning a building in that suburb as all works must take into consideration the impact and compliance with the Council requirements.

Early Period:- There was not much change at the beginning apart from the size of the buildings with more attached terraces showing early signs of the typical Victorian era floor plan and possible minor decoration to front wall.
Mid Period:- This period is starting to show the signs of prosperity with bigger houses and 2 story terraces being more common.
In this photo we see a corner store which was very common then, as there was no real transport to the shops and no refrigeration

This row of terraces comes under a conservation order, which means the front of the street cannot be altered. What is not so clear in the photo is that the end terrace has a dormer window at the front and is obvious from the street and changes the look of the front of the building. This obviously is work that has been not been approved as Council would not permit this type of construction unless it was prior to the conservation order.

The latter part of this period saw some changes where corner square towers were built over the entry doors and became the fashion for a while.

Few were to be better than this house (above) where the owner was also the owner of the local brick and pipe works and would come home from work for lunch and watch the workers from the tower to ensure that they kept working during his lunch hour. He built 3 matching adjoining terraces for his 3 daughters.

Some Victorian houses were fitted with “widows walks” where the ship captains wife would be able to view incoming ships to the harbour. If the ship was well overdue then the wife would have an early idea that she was a widow. The problem with these unique features is that they have gone through a period where they have not been appreciated and are now in disrepair, or have been removed. The waterproofing and repairs are the current problems facing owners of these houses. In some cases where prolonged damp has been evident we are now starting to see the bricks disintegrate.

Many changes started around 1890. This included the introduction of dry press bricks, which were first introduced in the late 1880’s. The big advantage of dry press bricks is that they are much stronger. Dry press bricks also allowed the introduction of cavity wall construction, which were much more common with ‘federation’ houses, but not a requirement until 1920. Here we see a 5 storey warehouse which is constructed with solid brick walls.

Prior to this construction buildings were confined to 2 storeys, except where walls were thickened to allow a third storey. This is a 3-storey terrace, but the top floor was for servants or maids.

This can be determined by the stairs to the upper level being steep and narrow, which was to remind the “employees” of their status. There are some 3-storey terraces where the 3rd level is below footpath level.

This area was for the washing and cleaning as well as food preparation. The ceiling height was less than 8’ (2.4 metres) and we look at these areas today and try and use them as family rooms when they do not comply with current standards. They never did and were a reminder to the servants that they were no extravagances being spent on them.

Late Period:- The era 1890 to 1893 was known as the “boom period” where extravagance was the order of the day. It is also known as the “Italianate” period where many decorations adorned the buildings.
New outer suburbs were opened, up such as Summer Hill, where one could catch the “iron horse” (steam train) to work.

Many houses were built with a view of the trains, but this is not so fashionable today. In some of the larger new suburbs there were “estates” where grander houses were built.

The internal furnishing of the rooms consisted of clutter and enough space for tables and chairs in the middle of the room.

This is why in places such as Summer Hill and Randwick there are some grand houses, but nearby small clusters of houses which were originally workers cottages for the people servicing the grand houses.

The workers cottages were usually 2 bedrooms and a bathroom, if you were lucky. There was never any provision for a car, garage, family room or ensuite, as we would expect in a new house today. So many of these smaller houses are limited in what can be added with common restriction being land size posing a floor space ratio problem, inadequate sized footings to carry the weight of an additional storey and insufficient rear yard for a large family room.

The Victorian house had a predictable floor plan. This plan was drawn up by Martin Bienkowski. Martins’s details can be obtained by phoning our office.

The front room was originally the “parlour” room or what we would call a lounge room. Guests would arrive for dinner and be taken to the front room. In grander houses there were 2 pairs of folding doors, which then opened onto the next room which was the largest room in the house, the dining room. The next room to the rear was the kitchen and the maids would bring the meals into the dining room. At the end of dinner the host and guests would “retire” to the parlour while the maids cleaned up the dining room. In larger houses the men would move to the smoking room for cigars and port. We find today that this history of lifestyle is gone and the use of the rooms changed. The dining room is now the lounge room, often the wall between the front 2 rooms is often removed. If the wall between the rooms is intact, then the folding doors are gone.

When altering on older house it is important to understand the reason why some things are different to what we would do today. For example all houses before 1930 had the doors hinged differently to the way that we do it now. The reason is that if the door was being opened and a person was inside the room, then they could say “excuse me, but I am in the room.”

This would allow them more privacy, which was an important thing during that time. But today we maximise the useable space and hinge the door on the opposite side. This is the reason we often see the light switches located behind a door as it has been re-hinged.

One of the changes around 1890 was the requirement of brick parapet walls above roof level to give fire separation between abutting terraces.

Many things changed during the depression of 1893. Many speculative people lost money. There was a change in lifestyle and building design became simpler to reduce costs.

Gone was the over the top decoration. Many houses have ornate front roof parapet wall, but a simple and cheaper low pitch skillion roof behind, often with little or no roof access.

Often these roof areas have undersized timbers by today’s standard, but at the time there was no building code or standard to adhere to. When renovating a Victorian era building one must understand the type of building materials and adequacy to carry different materials. Installing tiles on a roof can be a mistake as the structural timbers were not designed for that load and will either sag or collapse. The roof structure was designed for corrugated iron or slates, as they were the only materials available at the time.

Tiles can be fitted, but the roof must be re-strutted first. The above photograph shows typical roof construction of that period, but is not adequate for additional loads.

Changes started to appear in the late 1890’s where we start to see the introduction of red bricks, mainly at the front.

There are many buildings where the front of the building is 1900, but still the typical Victorian floor plan and single storey attached terraces. This is a cross over period where the land may have been zoned or laid out for terraces, but development had not begun. The Victorian style still was used and below we see a 3-storey hotel with a construction date of 1908.

It must be one of the last Victorian style buildings completed and would incorporate dry press bricks to allow for the height.

The common problems with all building of the Victorian era are termite damage and dampness from various sources.

When buying or restoring buildings of this age one must assess any concealed defects and include them as part of the building works. All repairs and alterations must be undertaken with an understanding of the impact on the building, as well as any heritage or conservation order.

The Victorian era came to an end in 1900 for several reasons including :

  • As part of The Federation of Australia, a minimum wage was introduced. This meant that real wages and benefits had to be paid to servants, maids and tradesmen to maintain labour intensive house. This is the reason that many grand Victorian residences fell into disrepair and were out of fashion and favour for a long time. Many became boarding houses or divided into units. Larger estates were sub-divided. Many houses lost their features, such as grained doors and joinery in the name of cost cutting in the form of a white paintbrush.
  • Queen Victoria died in 1901.
  • There was a desire for an easier to maintain house on a separate block of land and a garden. This included breaking free of the traditions of the Victorian attitudes and a more relaxed lifestyle. This lead to the introduction of the Federation freestanding house which contained smaller and more ornate furniture in smaller rooms.

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