The Tasmanian Aborigines used rock shelters from the earliest times, but left little trace of their structures; only on the inclement southern and south-western coasts were semi­permanent buildings erected, with a framework of hoops, an insulation of rushes and grass, an outer covering of bark, and a small door. Elsewhere, shelters were erected as needed, often simply made of sheets of bark resting on a framework of saplings or branches, but sometimes elaborated into a cupola of bark interwoven with sticks.1

When examining early Tasmanian buildings by Europeans, it is important to realise that more primitive does not necessarily mean earlier. In 1814, when much of the population still sheltered in huts under a leaky roof of bark or thatch, Ingle Hall in Macquarie Street, Hobart Town was built, one of an elegant pair of brick houses with stone dressings. Simple wooden buildings of a type familiar to the earliest settlers continued to be built in more remote areas up to and beyond the First World War, with subtle changes in proportion and detail to betray their date.2

The bush hut had a parallel history from the beginning of settlement until its recreation in our own times. A few were of stone, but most were of local timber; the three main structural types used slabs, logs, or frames. Slab buildings used heavy split timbers placed vertically in the ground for walls. Log buildings used tree trunks laid horizontally and mouthed to interlock at the corners. Framed buildings were clad with split weatherboards applied horizontally, or vertically as shingles, which were also the universal roof covering. Chimneys, sometimes built of stone, were often made of wood.3

The difficulty of transporting heavy materials produced a reliance on what was available locally, and this led to regional variation in style. Most strikingly, southern Tasmania has a prevalence of sandstone buildings, while northern Tasmania displays a preponderance of brick, although often covered with stucco engraved to simulate ashlar stonework. The main dividing line approximates the 42nd parallel, the boundary between the two original jurisdictions in the island. Just to the south of it is Ross, a town of sandstone with very little brick, and a similar distance to the north is Campbell Town, a town of brick with relatively little stone. Minor regional variations are due to local geology, such as the rubble dolerite of the Great Swanport area, or to ethnic tradition, such as the Scotticisms of the Bothwell district.

During the early colonial period, local stone was used as random rubble for outbuildings and foundations. The rough variegated surfaces were unfashionable for formal building; the elegance of ashlar, red brick, or stucco was preferred. Throughout the colonial period, and indeed into the second half of the twentieth century, the ready availability of timber made this a common building material in all parts of the island. Balloon-framed buildings predominated, but many early examples are brick-nogged (half-timbered with weatherboarding or occasionally stucco to protect the soft brick infilling). Early buildings were clad with split timber, planed and often beaded on the outer surface where respectability demanded this.

Visitors from Britain have recognised major differences from contemporaneous buildings familiar to them. Many of our buildings have steep exposed roofs, and overhanging eaves, where their British equivalents often have low-pitched roofs concealed behind parapet walls. In the colony, the ubiquitous roof-covering was shingles split from peppermint gum; these leak profusely if too low-pitched, and the expense of importing lead for guttering and flashing behind a concealing wall was prohibitive. Shingles were light in weight and did not require massive roof structure. Their replacement with tiles or slates would necessitate substantial rebuilding, so corrugated iron has become characteristic of the Tasmanian vernacular, since reshingling was rarely undertaken after 1900. Some slate was imported from Britain ; local slate was not exploited until late in the nineteenth century, and then mostly for export to Victoria.

Another characteristic that has been noted is that our humbler early buildings are reduced versions of their betters, not in a different style as was characteristic of their rural British counterparts.4 This lack of class-consciousness in vernacular style probably results from shared builders, the convergent simplification of all but the most costly buildings, and the aspirations of free settlers and emancipists.

Generally, the form of Tasmanian settlements was determined not by grand plans but by expansion along main roads. However, rectilinear grids tempered by topography were imposed in the main towns. Meehan's 1811 plan, imposed on an unruly Hobart Town by order of Lachlan Macquarie, presumed a future provincial town rather than a capital city, and set up an open grid capable of extension. There were some grand plans, and a number of country towns, notably Hamilton, Longford and Westbury, have phantom streets and blocks extending far into the countryside.

For most of the nineteenth-century population, shelter was a small rented cottage of doubtful quality. In 1847, only about 22 percent of residents were home-owners.5 Even the small middle class did not necessarily control their housing destiny, often purchasing from small speculative projects. A feature of the larger centres, Hobart and Launceston, was the comparative proximity of socio-economic groups, the rich typically occupying mansions on the high ground, with poorer families close by, often supplying daytime domestic labour. Davey Street in Hobart, one of the early prestige locations, follows a ridge that parallels the slopes occupied by working class cottages down to the rivulet in South Hobart with its industrial establishments. Terrace or row housing, typical of Sydney and Melbourne, was relatively uncommon in Tasmania, as were semi-detached dwellings. Research has yet to reveal whether this was due to ready availability and low cost of land, the lack of large developers in a slow-growing economy, or to a tradition already entrenched by 1850.

A now largely-forgotten housing form was the lodging or boarding house, widely used by unmarried men and women but also by families. In the 1850s, Hobart had about 300 such establishments, accommodating 3000 people.6 They remained important until after the Second World War, and had all but vanished by the 1970s with the coming of greater affluence and more independent lifestyles, although shared rental accommodation and the division of houses into flats remain common.

Although fewer stone residences were built as the nineteenth century unfolded, even in Hobart, stone foundations remained widely used, even supporting the better class of weatherboard cottages in the expanding suburbs made possible by railways (Hobart) and tramways (Hobart and Launceston). The layering of materials in the Federation era, influenced by the fashion for things Japanese, and by the structural polychrome of the later Gothic revival, often produced a stone base, brick walls with stucco bands and friezes, and shingled or half-timbered gables. Grander versions had roofs of orange terra-cotta tiles, as can be seen in Tasmania's finest collection of Federation houses on Elphin Road and High Street in Launceston, but for most, corrugated iron painted oxide red prevailed. Shingled roofs were occasionally to be seen, but were disallowed as a fire hazard by later regulations, and were either removed or disappeared under metal sheeting.

Plain cement rendering over brickwork with false jointing in imitation of stonework and extensive mouldings was characteristic of the late Victorian era, even in large mansions. It was left unpainted, as Portland cement was supposed to simulate Portland stone, admired in London. Other ersatz materials such as pressed metal imitating decorative plaster appeared as ceilings and upper walls within and gable ends without.

By the close of the nineteenth century, new public health requirements and building regulations had begun to improve housing quality, and social reformers advocated 'slum clearance' of older stock. The wider provision of water-borne sewerage systems did much to improve health standards. Much of Hobart was drained by 1913, Launceston substantially earlier, but as late as 1920, many houses (up to half of five-roomed dwellings) in Hobart lacked bathrooms.7 Attempts to provide public funding for housing of the poor had little success, and despite these and the efforts of successive Labor governments, no effective housing programme was achieved until the 1930s. As new regulations and sanitation improved housing conditions, increasing affluence increased the incidence of home ownership from 34 percent in 1911 to 50 percent by the 1930s.8 The economic boom after the Second World War raised this to about two thirds, and the current 71 percent is among the highest rates of home ownership in the world.9

Reformers in the years before the First World War were concerned not only with sanitation, building regulations and slum clearance, but also with town planning, influenced by City Beautiful ideas from the United States, and the Town and Country Planning and Garden City Movements in Britain. Visitors from British bodies in 1915 aroused enthusiasm, and citizen and professional bodies were formed. They came close to achieving state-wide planning legislation in 1916, but conservative interests prevailed and the passage of the necessary act had to await another reformist era, in 1944.10

There had been state government initiatives to build 'Garden Cities'. Charles Reade, the visiting English town planner, designed a scheme for Lutana, but it was abandoned by a new conservative administration which negotiated the establishment of the Electrolytic Zinc Company on the site.11 The Company planned a 'garden suburb' complete with community and health services for its workers, but economic difficulties resulted in only a small section being completed.12 A similar plan for a community of 350 houses associated with the Cadbury13 factory at Claremont, also designed by the redoubtable Reade, was only partly realised. Following the Quaker tradition of the company, it was named Bourneville after the famous Cadbury model village of 1879 in England. The fashion for Garden City ideas led to numerous private developments and subdivisions with 'gardens' in their title: Springfield Gardens in Hobart began as a private scheme; its failure took years to resolve.14

The lasting legacy of these ideals is the low density suburb with individual houses on lots large enough for a garden setting, but without the associated overall planning. Widespread motor vehicle ownership made low densities possible, but led to the decline in public transport. The trend accelerated in the latter part of the twentieth century with an explosion of even lower density rural residential living around the major urban centres. In Greater Hobart, this form of development had by 2003 covered an area twice that of the built-up city and suburbs, an area comparable to the built-up areas of Sydney, London, or New York.15

The early twentieth-century housing projects built by charitable bodies and local government were very modest, often consisting of only a few homes. The 1930s Depression further limited such efforts. AG Ogilvie's administration produced some improvement before the war, but only after 1945, with funding under commonwealth-state Housing Agreements, were extensive schemes begun. These had not only to meet the long-standing needs of the poor, but also the pent-up demand resulting from almost no war-time construction, and the anticipated 'baby boom'.16 Large estates were economical, and were planned on the 'neighbourhood unit' concept and Garden City principles. Unfortunately, the schools and shopping provided for in the plans were not within the control of the new state Housing Department, and as a consequence there were delays in providing such facilities in such neighbourhoods as Goodwood and Warrane in Hobart, and Mayfield in Launceston.

The severe post-war housing shortage and the rationing of building materials resulted in great difficulties for the home-seeker. Speculative builders, who had provided much housing earlier in the century, were equally constrained. In this period of austerity and of aspiration towards a better life, many young couples purchased their new block, often without water or drainage connections in the outer suburbs, and built a garage to live in while waiting to build a house. The skilled labour shortage meant that they often had to be their own builders.

A major feature of post-war homes of all sizes, and one that continues, is their flexible and informal planning. Instead of a central passage from which various rooms opened to either side, living spaces flowed into each other, with the kitchen no longer isolated from the family's other activities. Two-storey solutions were rare as emphasis was placed on economy and ease of circulation. Maids, common in wealthier pre-war households, were a thing of the past. The almost universal building materials were horizontal weatherboards and corrugated iron roofing. Sometimes more modern vertical fluted boards with natural linseed oil finish were used, or due to cost or shortage, unseasoned rough-sawn vertical boarding finished with black sump oil. Timber had become the dominant material during the 1920s and 1930s in all but the most expensive homes or those in the 'brick areas' of the main cities. It suited the architecture of the Californian Bungalow style, sometimes combined with the new external asbestos-cement sheeting for panel effects. Lath and solid plaster internal lining had been replaced by fibrous plaster sheeting. These suited the earlier Arts and Crafts style as well as Bungalow designs, both featuring dark timber cover strips in decorative patterns over the necessary joints. In the post-war period, self-building was facilitated by cheaper and lighter internal lining materials such as 'Caneite', 'Masonite' and 'Burnie Board'. In 195455, 75 percent of all new houses commenced were of weatherboard construction. By 197475, this had fallen to 5 percent17 due to affluence, the higher relative cost of timber, carpentry and joinery, and a fashionable return to a veneer of brick or the new concrete block. At the end of the century, a wide range of construction methods were in use, including coverings of rendered fibro cement sheeting or corrugated metal; both would have been regarded as 'cheap and nasty' fifty years earlier.

Some trends counter to the spreading pattern of low density urban expansion have appeared. In a brief period of prosperity between the Depression and the Second World War, some blocks of private flats, typically of two storeys, were built in prime locations in Hobart and Launceston. Most were fine examples of Art Deco and Moderne. For the most part, rented flats were not popular, even for public housing. The housing needs of an aging population produced the first wave of 1960s two and three storey developments, but the trend did not continue, replaced by medium density projects of houses or 'units', mostly on one level to suit their older occupants. The 'retirement village', often with nursing home and other services, became increasingly important, and continues to do so.

Public housing was subject to demographic change in the latter years of the century. Where most post-war demand had been for family homes, the new demand was to house elderly singles and couples, other singles, and one-parent households.18 Broad-acre estates on the fringe were not the desirable location for many of these, so purchase of existing stock, urban infill and rental assistance largely replaced the building of extensive subdivisions. Infill redevelopment produced opposition from residents wishing to retain the existing character of their neighbourhoods.

The changing nature of households, with the increasing proportion of elderly, deferred childbearing by working women, and alternatives to the nuclear family, gave rise to inner-city apartment developments, often of very expensive quality. Another facet of a return to inner-city living was the growth over the last 35 years of the century in restoration of older dwellings, fostered by interest in historical conservation and environmentalist recycling of resources. New owners applied much love and 'elbow grease' to what had often been the 'hovels' of a previous generation. Heritage controls fostered this trend in such areas as Battery Point in Hobart and inner Launceston, leading to high property values in what had once been regarded as unsavoury locations.

However, infill, a return to inner-city living, and restoration of older housing did not halt the growth of low density development on the urban fringe. The City of Hobart 's housing stock increased between 1969 and 2001, but in the same period its population decreased by almost 7000 (or 15 percent), while that of the surrounding municipalities, Brighton, Clarence and Kingborough, increased by over 44,000.19 By the turn of the century, most Tasmanians were better housed than ever before. The average new house was in terms of space twice that of a hundred years before, with additional spaces for play, entertainment and outdoor living to serve a smaller family. Bathrooms were no longer a novelty; most new houses had two, or at least an additional en-suite. Internal environmental qualities and insulation had improved immeasurably. Air pollution by traditional wood-fired heating was being resolved in critical locations such as central Launceston. Broader environmental concerns encouraged passive solar design with living spaces oriented to gain maximum sunlight and solar hot water systems gaining popularity.

But not all Tasmanians were well housed. New forms of socially assisted shelter had to be developed for people with special needs, the disabled, the de-institutionalised mentally ill, unemployed youth and women and children in crisis. Whether the size and quality of private housing can continue to improve indefinitely is debatable. A nation with a low domestic savings rate and one of the highest living standards in the world has probably over-invested in private housing, and the exemption of the family home from capital gains tax does little to discourage this.

Eric Ratcliff and Barry McNeill

1. NJB Plomley, The Tasmanian Aborigines, Launceston: the Plomley Foundation, 1993, pp 3235.
2. F Bolt, Vanishing Tasmania, Kingston: Waratah Publications, 1992.
3. See especially S Cubit and D Murray, A High Country heritage, Launceston: Regal Press, 1988; also T Jetson, The roof of Tasmania: a history of the Central Plateau, Launceston: Regal Press, 1989.
4. For example, R Brunskill, author of Traditional buildings of Britain, Traditional farm buildings of Britain and Illustrated handbook of vernacular architecture, in conversation with Eric Ratcliff.
5. RJ Solomon, Urbanisation: the evolution of an Australian capital, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1976, pp 15457.
6. S Petrow, 'Hovels in Hobart ', THRAPP 39/4, 1992, p 164.
7. Petrow, 'Hovels', p 172.
8. Petrow, 'Hovels', p 164, quoting 1911 and 1933 Census data.
9. ABS Year Book Australia, 2004, p 224.
10. S Petrow, 'Making the city beautiful: Town Planning in Hobart c. 1915 to 1926', THRAPP 36/3, 1989, p 102.
11. Petrow, 'Making the city beautiful', p 102.
12. A Alexander, A heritage of welfare and caring, Risdon: Pasminco Metals-EZ, 1991, pp 2327.
13. B Shelton, R Giblin and B Pierce, 'An industrial Garden City at Claremont: Tasmania', Archetype 3/4,1973, pp 2729.
14. R Freestone, Model communities: the Garden City movement in Australia, Melbourne: Nelson, 1989, pp 19192.
15. B McNeill, 'Urban forms, landscape & forestry', unpublished talk delivered to Aspect (Australian Planning and Environment Courts and Tribunals) Conference, Hobart: February 2004.
16. Housing Department Tasmania, Annual report 1988, p 4.
17. ABS Tasmania Year Book 1988, p 195.
18. Housing Department Tasmania, p 5.
19. ABS Tasmanian Pocket Year Book 1970, pp 5758, and 2002, p 63.