Our house: histories of Australian homes
3 - A fibro and weatherboard little house
27 Johnston Crescent, Lane Cove, New South Wales
Johnston Crescent house (from the south) in 1997.
Lane Cove is a Sydney suburb about 9 kilometres from the city centre. It is defined by ridges and valleys falling to the Lane Cove river from the high ridge running northward carrying the Pacific Highway. Like other areas accessible by water, it was an early source of timber, charcoal, and grasses for feed. By 1910 some of the higher ridges near the river had substantial gentlemen's villas, but subdivision did not occur until the 1920s, accelerated by the extension of the tramway in 1909 to what is now the shopping centre. The western part of Lane Cove remained less developed until after World War Two, except for some industry near the river, such as the cornflour mills established in 1894 and still operating.
Johnston Crescent is in the western part, and its first house was built in 1931 but most of the land was vacant, or occupied by 'sheds', 'shacks', or 'humpies', suggesting an intention to build sometime. The owners had occupations such as bricklayer, deckhand, tram conductor, and hairdresser. Mains water was laid on in 1937 and the sewer in 1936. The Crescent follows a contour, making it more or less level with a steep slope from the northern edge to Stringybark Creek. The blocks on the northern side are long and narrow, with most houses on a rock shelf with roofs at road level and leaving original bush down to the creek. A bush reserve slopes up on the other side of the creek. The reserve and undeveloped land form a long green corridor following the creek to the Lane Cove river.
I spent too many hours commuting from Padstow, 21 kms from the city centre, so when I returned from England in 1971 with a wife and son, we decided to live within a 9 km circle around the city centre, and our limited funds ensured that the house we bought is on the edge of that circle.
As I wrote to my in-laws at the time, 'It's about the simplest timber framed fibro and weatherboard clad, corrugated iron roofed little house you could find, very basic, but eminently alterable, mainly by me of course.'
As seen in my wife's sketch from the same letter, it consisted of two rooms each 12 feet by 12 feet on each side of a central corridor, with kitchen and bathroom in an enclosed 7 feet wide back verandah with the laundry, another toilet (the original), 'study', and tool shed underneath, accessible by external concrete stairs. But it did face north with a view of the reserve across the creek.
Johnston Crescent house from the south in 1971.
The house was built by its owner Vic Tyerman in 1939. About 1945 he built a driveway with massive stone walls to the level area at the back and built a garage. It was bought by Bruce and Elva Abrahams in 1962. They added the upper level bathroom and new kitchen cupboards. In 1971 with Keith Bayley of number 25, they subdivided their 76 metre long blocks into two, created a shared right of way and driveway to give access to the two newly created lower blocks.
We considered buying the lower block, but decided it was too expensive at $15,000 when the house and land we bought cost $17,350. We moved in in 1971, and the architect (me) immediately began designing the extensions. The design was straightforward, three of the 12 ft by 12 ft rooms would become bedrooms, one would be divided, with half becoming a bathroom and the other half the entry.
The kitchen would remain, and the new living area would extend to the north, the best aspect. But the view would change when a house was built on the lower block, so a screen of trees was planted on the northern boundary. By cutting into the site against the northern side of the house down to the lowest existing site level, two levels could just be squeezed in. The tightness of fit was also due to a wish to slope the roof following the existing roof form.
I would build it. How could I not do so? After all, my new research project was into owner-building in Sydney; my father had built his first house in 1914, and the second at Padstow in 1950; this house had been owner-built, and I always liked making things. It would also be much cheaper, a very winning argument. As an architect teaching construction at Sydney University I knew enough about building to be confident that I could do it. As Dad was 80 and my son Ian 7, they would not be able to help much, but my wife Christine was willing and able.
The area on the main level in front of the fireplace was extended to make a dining area. A small cast iron stove replaced the open fireplace. A large living area open to the main level and a deck were created about a metre lower than the main floor level, with a new timber stair to ground level. This was glazed to the north and west, with some high windows to the south for cross ventilation. There was just enough height below this floor level to make a room. New brick walls supported the excavated earth. The existing roof structure was strengthened to support the concrete tiles that replaced the corrugated iron. I like weatherboards, so the new walls were clad in Cypress pine boards (which gave a lovely smell when cut, as well as being unpalatable to termites), and they were put on top of the fibro above the existing weatherboards from window sill height to the eaves.
The house from the north in 1971.
To reduce costs, the bricks and most of the timber wall framing was second hand. This created some problems, as each stud was a slightly different size. Building began in January 1972, and took about a year. The bricklaying, roof tiling, plasterboard fixing, plumbing and electrical work was subcontracted, but all the rest of the work, which was carpentry, was done by me and Jack Cooney, a retired carpenter who wanted a bit of work, but not enough to interfere with his pension.
During the week, I would work with Jack for a couple of hours before my other job, but work on my own during the weekends. To reduce time and in recognition of my skills, my detailing became very simple. My in-laws arrived from Britain for a couple of months stay, and were pressed into service for the finishing touches. By the time the outside was ready to paint, I'd had enough, and it was subcontracted.
Twenty five years later, the house is much as it was then. It's pleasant to be in and works well. The large glass areas lose too much heat in winter, but weather stripping the windows and heavy curtains would fix that. I still like the weatherboards, but am beginning to resent the necessary repainting. Christine tended the garden so well that most of the native trees that were planted survived. They screen the summer sun but also too much of the winter sun.
We still enjoy the views of, and walking in the bush reserve, but had a scare in the 1994 bushfires when fires started in it. The car was packed and we were ready to leave. The subdivisions of adjoining properties have not enhanced our views. I would like a shed for a workshop and Christine would like a bigger studio, but they won't fit. Recent house rebuilds and extensions in the street are replacing the more modest houses like ours. I prefer ours.
Thanks are due to Christine Holland and Judy Washington, Lane Cove Local History Librarian, for researching the early years of Johnston Crescent. Photographs: Graham Holland.
Dr Graham Holland is an architect who taught construction in the Faculty of Architecture at Sydney University for many years. He has researched and published on Australian owner-building, including Emoh Ruo: owner-building in Sydney, Sydney 1988. He has also published (with Ian McGilvray) a construction book on the Internet: 'Polychromatic brickwork: a design and technical guide' (www.arch.usyd.edu.au/~graham/pcbw/index.htm).
He likes making things and just had to follow his father's example and owner-build the extension to his house. Fittingly, his chapter in Troy's A history of European housing in Australia, is titled, 'The comfortable house: responding to the Australian environment'.