Our house: histories of Australian homes

Cathie May
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

36 - The self-built home

Sudlow Street, Embleton, Western Australia

The Fairs in 1997 at the back of their Embleton house.

The Fairs in 1997 at the back of their Embleton house. This was the original front with leadlight windows and a small porch.

... hand saws, hand drills and, when I think of how many nails are in the house - well, I don't know how I did it. (Eric Fairs)

Eric and Doris Fairs' house stands 10 kilometres north east of the Perth city centre in the suburb of Embleton. Formerly North Bayswater or simply 'out Beechboro Road' it was once a small rural community settled from the time of the First World War, when the land was subdivided into five acre lots. Being isolated and without facilities, land was cheap and a number of British people took up rural spreads and built their own houses.

The forebears of Fairs migrated from England before the war. George Fairs wanted to give his family 'room to breathe'. Many found the going too hard and permanently half-built houses were a feature of the landscape. But the Fairs succeeded and became a prominent part of the community. Eric Fairs, a grandson, was born in the area. The house he built was the final stage in a family tradition and also a product of conditions in the post-war age which resulted in a resurgence of self-help home-building.

Eric and Doris married in 1949 when owning a home seemed an unattainable dream for young couples due to building shortages after the Second World War. Eric had bought a one and a half acre block for £27/10 in the vicinity of the family's first generation of houses and near to a neighbour with whom he and Doris boarded. Being close to the building site, they did not have to live in a tent or shed as self-help builders often did.

A loan of £2,000 was floated with the Friendly Societies Lodge and a further £1,000 was advanced as materials were required. In 1950, building commenced and for the next three years it was their life. There were no holidays or weekends off and much work was also done at night. It was an experience widely shared at the time. Self-help building was a learning experience. 'You can do it, Eric. You're young and silly', a friend advised him. Fortuitously, Eric's background fitted him for the task - woodwork at school, a recent military background with instruction in mechanics and a tendency to being 'handy'. His father was a tinsmith and his mother was a handywoman in her own right. Eric's father later installed the plumbing in their house.

The house was timber-framed, with asbestos sheeting and cement-tiled roof and, because of shortages, the initial floor space was limited to 9.5 squares. This meant that only the most urgent rooms could be built: two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, hall and porch. A lounge and dining room were part of the plan, but added in 1952, after shortages ended. In accord with local by-laws, the ceiling was 10 feet. Ceiling heights had not yet been lowered in response to the desperate need for housing. A plan of a recently-built house was used, changed to become a mirror image.

The first task after obtaining approval from the State Housing Commission and the Bayswater Road Board, was to discover the survey pegs in vacant scrub. 'You didn't know where you were!' Eric recalled. A well was dug, as water was necessary for doing the brick work. Water was 30 feet down and only short-handled shovels could be used for well-digging due to lack of space. Water was to be lifted by an electric pump so electricity had to be got onto the block. The water came from the well via a tank on a 15 feet high tankstand. In Eric's words, 'We had to stand the damn thing up. I can tell you, it was pretty hairy'.

Timber was obtained from a local builder, RH Kelly, whose pre-fabricated houses were a feature of Bayswater. A Fargo truck was bought to carry in the timber and loads of sawdust so that the truck could be driven across the sandy soil. Foundations consisted of jarrah stumps, bearers and joists. Asbestos sheeting took seven weeks to procure and once the framework was up, it was in danger from the elements. The solution was to erect the roof before the walls. The house with a roof and no walls posed a strange spectacle but the self-help builders had to find novel ways of dealing with the unforeseen.

Unlike tradesmen who specialise in one type of task, the self-help builders had to do everything. One way of achieving a workmanlike standard was to hire a workman for a part of the work and then copy what he had done on the rest of the house. Eric made one mistake which resulted in a particularly strong structure, by supporting each corner of the house with twice the normal amount of timber. Eric made the kitchen cupboards, but concedes that cabinet making was not his forte. Nevertheless, they have performed their function for nearly fifty years.

The early fifties were a transition time in domestic fixtures. There was no gas and electric stoves were a luxury. A wood stove was used for baking and a primus for other cooking. An electric stove was installed in 1970 but the wood stove is still used during winter as it provides a special dimension to a kitchen. The stove could be operated for no cost using local banksia which burns cleanly. 'Wonder Heat' in the lounge was modern for its time. Perth winters are cold enough to need one warm room. Despite the built-up district, Eric still provides much of the fuel through collecting banksia, by arrangement with schools or others with remaining banksia trees.

Soon after completing their house, the Fairs were overtaken by events when a large area of land, including their own, was resumed by the State Housing Commission. The event devastated many of the remaining small farmers in outlying areas of Perth. Doris recalls that the first news of the resumptions made her physically ill. Existing houses could remain but the re-survey resulted in the disappearance of the rural layout and the appearance of Sudlow Street fifty metres from the Fairs' back door.

The front yard became building blocks, one of which the Fairs still own, as part of the resumption arrangement. The house had to be re-oriented so that the back became the front and visitors entered through the kitchen. The outside toilet was hastily shifted to the laundry, now also one of the front rooms. It was not quite what the family had in mind but they accepted the changes with humour.

Houses mushroomed from 1959 and soon the house was in the midst of the new suburb of Embleton. The Fairs were of an age with the newcomers and joined in the rapidly growing community. What had been a small rural spread in splendid isolation was surrounded by some of the most spectacular growth in Perth.

Eric and Doris Fair in 1997 at the front (once the back) of their Embleton house.

Eric and Doris Fair in 1997 at the front (once the back) of their Embleton house.

By 1958 there were four children who needed more sleeping accommodation. The solution was a large sleepout for the boys, Stephen, Trevor and Neil, while Cindy had the second bedroom. To afford each boy some privacy, wardrobes were placed as partitions. While the children grew up the house was humming with activity and no further major changes were made, except for a garage. Having spent so much time on construction, it is second nature for Eric to maintain it himself. 'Being a Jack of all trades, time never hangs on your hands', he comments.

Like many houses inhabited by baby boomers, the Fairs' house now has room to spare. Embleton is now convenient to Perth and may become an area of upmarket medium density housing. The family's adjoining block would provide room for strata titled units, if the house were demolished. On the other hand, there seems no reason to make a change when the self-built house is in good condition and has been such an important part of life.

Driving down Sudlow Street, the passer-by would notice this house as distinctive. It is set further back from the road than the others and is not one of several State Housing Commission designs which characterise Embleton. It is asbestos not brick. The long verandah was designed for the back. The fig tree, Japanese pepper and grape vines were backyard plants and not a decorative front garden. Its aspect is secluded and slightly rural. Every house has its story to tell, but a house of individual appearance in a suburban street often has a different story from its neighbours

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

It is a pleasure to tell the story of a home belonging to a Bayswater family whose members have already been very helpful with the previous project and whose self-help building activities reinforce the impression that ordinary people did extraordinary things. Photographs: Cathie May.

May, CR, Changes they've seen: the city and people of Bayswater 1827-1997, Bayswater 1997.

Fairs, N, 'Two fronts, no back', Typescript in the possession of Eric Fairs.

Interviews with Eric and Doris Fairs, March 1994, June 1997.

Public Records Office Acc 1709, AN 150/54, Item 7300/54, State Housing Commission: Morley Park Progress Association: Correspondence.

May family reminiscences and family photographs, and the plans are based on those in the National Trust 'Conservation Management Plan'