Our house: histories of Australian homes
27 - The project builder's house
Mt Waverley, Victoria
The owners and their Mt Waverley home in 1997.
The ideal of home ownership has for a long time been part of 'the Australian way'. By 1966 this ideal had become a reality for most with seventy per cent of Australians either owning or purchasing their home. Project builders played a significant role in helping them to realise the 'Great Australian Dream'. After the Second World War project house building companies grew in number, offering houses for sale as a commodity like cars or refrigerators. Unlike the traditional speculative, custom or order builder, project builders mass-produced houses, marketing them through models or displays as brand names.
Pettit and Sevitt were both typical and atypical of these companies. Founded in Sydney in 1962 the company, like others, applied factory ('Fordist') principles to house construction. By standardising designs they reduced waste; by assembling portions of the houses off-site they could build faster on-site and, because they purchased materials in bulk, they were able to construct cheaper houses. But Pettit and Sevitt were also different. They targeted a small niche market - home buyers who sought, but could not afford, an architect-designed house.
Typically draughtsmen designed project builders' houses, but Pettit and Sevitt employed architects. The company had been founded partly in response to criticisms of the unnecessary ornamentation which was 'applied at the expense of unified functional design', as Boyd had claimed in his 1960 book Australian Ugliness.
Pettit and Sevitt incorporated design principles in their houses through simple lines, 'natural' features and an emphasis on functionalism. Because mass-produced, they were also able to offer the middle-class house purchaser an architect-designed house at a lower price.
The 'Lowline' designed by Ken Woolley and Michael Dysart, the company's first house and one of the most popular, was displayed at Sydney's North Rocks in 1963. The company later extended its business to Canberra and then Melbourne in 1967 where they employed architect Neil Clerehan. Competition with local project building companies, high overheads and escalating costs in the housing industry forced Pettit and Sevitt into liquidation in 1978.
Megan and Simon Sevant were school teachers who would have liked to employ an architect to design their house but lacked, as Megan said, 'unlimited funds'. In 1966 they bought land in Mt Waverley, one of Melbourne's fastest growing suburbs, where the population increased twenty fold between 1945 and 1971. Mt Waverley, part of Melbourne's post-war suburban expansion, differed from earlier suburbs. Pre-war suburbs had developed around tram and train links, but increased post-war car ownership allowed people like the Sevants to build their home in areas previously considered inaccessible.
Pettit & Sevitt advertisement for their 'Lowline' house in c1965.
In 1967 Megan and Simon visited friends in Sydney, and on a Sunday drive they went to St Ives. Megan said, 'That's when we saw it - the Pettit and Sevitt Lowline display home'. The architect-designed house, with its 'exposed beams and bagged brick walls', appealed to them. It was not like the typical 1950s cream brick house with hipped tile roof which had been so popular. This house was low in profile; the bricks were rough in texture, their edges tumbled rather than sharply wire cut, and the woodwork was stained in earthy colours rather than painted bright and glossy. The 'natural' look was maintained inside with exposed, rough-sawn wooden beams, polished wood (oregon and cedar) and quarry tiled floors.
By 1968 the company had expanded to Melbourne, and the Sevants paid their $200 deposit on the 'Basic Lowline' 'A' + 9'. This 'economical Pettit and Sevitt variety' which cost $17,089, was a flat-roofed, single level house with three bedrooms, one of which could be used as a study. There was a spacious 12 ft x 12 ft family room, a 'gourmet kitchen … well planned to make fullest use of the new trend galley layout' and a main and ensuite bathrooms. The house was 14 squares in area plus carport and pergola. The house was 'all-electric' but with a Vulcan Oil Heating System.
Changes were made to the plan, and an entrance hall incorporated, which was easy because like other project builders Pettit and Sevitt designed their houses in modules and they could be extended in modules of nine feet. Work commenced in mid-October 1968. Pettit and Sevitt's crews and tradesmen moved from house to house completing projects in a 'critical path', using the same principles as factory production and aiming to complete each house in the minimum time, usually about ten weeks.
The Sevants' new home with the garden under construction in the late 1960s.
Megan and Simon moved into their house in February 1969 and 'it was a lovely house for the two of us'. But within six years their three boys were born; Leonard in 1972, Stephen and Trevor in 1973 and 1975. As the boys grew the house seemed to shrink. Initially one room was used as a study, two of the boys shared a room and the eldest had his own until they were all at school, then Megan and Simon 'reluctantly gave up their study and gave them a room each'.
Giving up their study was hard. Both were committed to further tertiary education so finding space was not easy. All documents kept in the study had to be stored in filing cabinets around the house. The computer was set up in the entrance hall and the dining room table doubled as a desk. The family room was the living area but the kids soon spilled over, and the lounge was used for Lego and cubby houses in the winter months.
The house was 'just not big enough' but like other 1960s families the Sevants discovered the recreational possibilities of their quarter-acre block. Earlier generations kept hens and vegetable patches but home refrigeration, supermarket shopping and higher incomes made these usages redundant. So the Sevants and their neighbours created back gardens with barbeques and swimming pools.
Patio and barbecue area on the south side of the Mt Waverley house, 1997.
Their house design complemented the new outdoor living style with full-length windows and glass doors, pergolas, patios and verandahs. Meals were cooked on the barbeque in summer and kids played cricket matches, basketball and football. In the front Brian established a native garden with large boulders as stepping stones, but with no lawns, reflecting the trend away from manicured lawns, azaleas and hydrangeas.
No major changes have been undertaken to the house since they moved in but Megan and Brian intend removing walls to create a large study and extend the family room after their boys leave home, to enjoy the space they had when the house was built. The Sevants were typical of young couples in building in one of the suburbs which sprang up after the Second World War. But now they are different in wanting to remain, instead of following their fellow baby boomers, now called 'empty nesters', who are 'downsizing' and moving to inner city areas.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
Thanks to the owners (who have requested the use of a pseudonym and that their address is not included). Photographs: the owners and Mary Sheehan.
Boyd, Robin, The Australian ugliness, Melbourne 1960.
Davison, G, T Dingle, T, S O'Hanlon, The cream brick frontier: histories of Australian suburbia, Monash, 1995.
Dingle, Tony, The Victorians: settling, Melbourne 1984.
Garden, Don, Builders to the nation: the AV Jennings story, Carlton, 1992.
Gartner, Anne 'Merchant builders: from reform to receivership', Master of Arts thesis, Monash University, 1994.
Grieg, Alistair, The stuff dreams are made of: housing provision in Australia 1945 - 1960, Melbourne, 1995.
Neutze, Max, Urban development in Australia: a descriptive analysis, Sydney 1981.
Pettit & Sevitt, 'The philosophy that built Pettit and Sevitt', advertising brochure, n.d.
Priestley, S, The Victorians: making their mark, Melbourne 1984.
RMIT Architecture Students' Association 'Project builders: a comparative analysis', Architecture Students' Association Journal, n.d.
Skinner, G, 'Project homes in New South Wales', Bachelor of Architecture thesis, University of New South Wales, 1981.
Whitwell, G, Making the market: the rise of consumer society, Melbourne, n.d.
Mary Sheehan, a practising professional historian, has worked as the Senior Historian with the Victorian Government's Heritage Victoria, and now manages her own heritage consultancy business. She currently lives in Carlton.