The building regulations as applied to domestic construction in Queensland occupy a massive volume. Even the type, size, gauge and metal of every screw, bolt, and nail is specified. However………….
There are no requirements whatsoever regarding the quality of repairs, alteration, or enlargement for the traditional Queensland house.
There are no standards whatsoever concerning trade work on historic housing.
There is no inspection process protecting indigenous Queensland housing, even for dwellings over 100 years old.
The protection of the historic domestic architecture is left entirely in the hands of the owners, who may commit any act of destruction by way of alteration on their property. Of the number of these owners, a great proportion have no idea, education or concern regarding the value of their houses.
A few famously historic residences are supposedly protected by a small band of dedicated Heritage custodians, which has little power in most cases, and none in others, where, for example, arson permanently erases all responsibility, with no redress.
Every year, for the last fifty years, traditional Queensland houses are legally demolished under zoning laws passed decades ago. These lost dwellings were in most cases among the very first houses ever built in this state. And the very first buildings ever to be built on the land they occupied. Any other country would treasure its pioneering architecture; in Queensland the householders alone are the only protectors of the state’s heritage. This heritage is being demolished for unit blocks, the slums of the future, a use-by date disaster.
The recognition of domestic architecture of a locality and era, as being valuable by its individuality of style and construction, is a matter of education and political consideration. In most countries traditional domestic buildings are strictly protected to preserve the character of those villages, suburbs and cities where they exist as a majority. In Queensland one would assume that the trashing of the wooden house is welcomed by authority, thus freeing land for development.
Even in a street of exquisitely-preserved housing, those owners have no recourse if one house has its facade obliterated by a rabid designer. The tales of desecration are endless, the numbers of fine houses diminishing every day, the nineteenth and early twentieth century inner suburbs of our towns and cities being moth-eaten by neglect and ‘development’.
Admittedly the policing of work on Queenslanders is problematic, but given the choice of decay or restore, most owners in this era of temporary affluence would choose restoration. Advice for extending old timber houses is simple: there should be no obvious sign of new work.
Political will is the priority; a most unlikely circumstance in this mining-mentality governance.
An endemic problem is amateur repair and maintenance seen in almost every case where work has been done. The current building ‘trade’ has no training for carpentry as applied to historic dwellings, consequently so-called tradesmen botch every attempt at repair or replacement of 100-year-old craftsmanship. The result of this inadequacy is the costly repetition of decayed work and the general defacement of the original structure.
Among the hundreds of carpentry and joinery details required in historic timber housing, (which need to be taught as an essential qualification before a license to work is granted), the most important is the eliminating of decay on external fixtures. With suitable maintenance a house built in the 1890′s survived intact for 50 to 70 years or longer, whereas ‘modern’ repairs often fail within five years.
Housing built today under the current building code is notoriously guaranteed a life-span of only twenty years; not even one generation. As the use-by date approaches, the ‘monocoque’ type of construction becomes impossible to repair, as there is no basic frame surviving to hang new work on. An analogy with cement-and-steel boat-hulls is apt; immensely strong and cheap initially, but to be scrapped after a decade or two.
There will be no protection of the remaining original housing in the state of Queensland unless there is a movement to educate owners of the value of maintaining and altering their properties to to a quality of tradesmanship equaling or bettering that of the original builders. Legislative interference by council and government are unlikely to occur until Australia catches up with the conservation measures taken by European countries to preserve their national domestic architecture. At present the opposite is happening: with cash to influence town-planning, any historic building may be razed, desecrated or surreptitiously burnt. Within the last month a magnificent building, supposedly under the care of a prominent Brisbane club, was burned ‘beyond repair’, clearing the way for the club’s tremendous vision: a car park.
Many, too many, owners of fine old Queensland homes fail to recognise the excellent quality of work, timber, design and construction of the very house they live in. Perhaps their years of occupation render them oblivious; familiarity certainly breeds contempt. It takes a young purchaser to actually recognise the style and value in an old, butchered home, and wish care and careful attention had replaced jerry-built alterations. Even now the vandalism continues; self-inflicted: owners ruining their own homes. The list of disasters is long, but here are a few……………..
- Decks arbitrarily tacked on.
- Skillion roofs ditto.
- Verandas enclosed.
- VJ partitions cut through or removed.
- Visible timber stumps replaced with 75mm SHS.
- Unconsidered raising.
- Unmatched cladding.
- Hoop pine floors sanded and polished; exposed to hard footwear.
- Water-based paints used on exposed timber.
- Unmatched joinery.
- Internal and external cladding covered over.
- Modern roof ventilators that pollute ceiling-space.
- Historically inaccurate, badly-made and fitted steps, balustrades, post-mouldings, brackets, capitals, veranda deck fascias.
The above may require explanation, but most points are obvious. Non would be pemitted in a Heritage-listed building. Here is an analogy. On the farm, in a shed, covered in a shit-shrouded tarp, is a dilapidated but valuable vintage motor car. It was made in 1923. The owner had long died, the farm changed hands. Kids got it running, cut off the saloon and turned it into a ute. Later replaced the engine with a Ford, which failed. The original engine and body mouldered in a paddock. A collector retrieved all the rusted parts, and the ute, and for $50 towed the lot away. Five years later, the restored car is immaculate. Expert and time-consuming labour has uncovered the treasure, which sells at auction for $150,000. Just a car. Too many owners of vintage houses are like the kids with the old car. They should learn, and to their benefit. Beautifully restored and enlarged Queensland houses sell to young people for lots of money; they can see the value, and will protect their investment.
The Burra Charter is a wish-list for the protection of iconic sites. Its definitions and principles are a mass of semantics and bureaucratese, most admirable and well-meaning, and very much at arm’s-length from the rot and maltreatment of the ubiquitous Queensland house. For the relevance of the Charter to the humble but also iconic wooden dwelling it may as well be written in hieroglyphics. Were a carpenter, looking for work, to quote from the Charter to the owner of a 1903 cottage in Buranda, he would be considered mad. Yet, one day, with luck, in a hundred years or so, the few remaining old cottages may shine like beautiful museum exhibits in a sea of ticky-tacky where once was a whole suburb of distinct domestic architecture. Too little, too late.
The protection of the old suburban heritage lies solely with the individual householders. This can be seen in streetscapes where a node of fine restoration has spread from neighbour to neighbour and wise influence and perhaps advice has passed from dwelling to dwelling. To buy into such a street and further the reclamation should be the aim of anyone who has realised how style and value go hand-in-hand. A cherished street may encourage a neighbourhood and perhaps a suburb. This is how heritage may be saved: without regulation but with example and education.