Melbourne’s Building Styles Part II

Subscribe to The Secret Agent Report

Enter your email address below to receive Secret Agent’s latest research on the Melbourne property market into your inbox.

    The Secret Agent Report - Melbourne's Building Styles Part II

    May 2013

    Melbourne's Building Styles Part II

    A follow on from April, Part Two of our special report on Melbourne’s Building Styles covers Art Deco, Brick Veneer, Modern, Post Modern and Contemporary architecture. Julian Faelli takes us through the pros and cons of the styles, as well as outlining how to improve a classic brick veneer floor plan to meet the needs of today’s family.

    Melbourne’s Building Styles Part 2

    In this months report we pick up where we left off – the start of the great war and the birth of Art Deco styling in Melbourne. It ushered in a change in the way houses were built, driven by new ideals and changing technology. Steel and masonry began to be seen in a domestic context. Technology kept on progressing and the project builders of the 50’s and 60’s embraced new building methods to help fulfill the ‘Australian dream’. The pent up demand for housing post war led to a dramatic rise in suburban subdivisions and began to create the urban fabric we have today.

    This was followed by the modernist movement of the 60’s and 70’s, where Melbourne’s architectural community matured. The legacy left by the architecture and activism of Robin Boyd at the time laid the groundwork for today’s vibrant design and architectural community.

    In the report we take a look at a typical brick veneer home in Thornbury, seeing how it can be altered to accommodate the needs of a modern family.


    Art Deco

    Interwar Architecture in Melbourne is characterised by its eclectic mix of styles and Art Deco is probably one of the most recognisable. It’s bold, streamlined forms were born out of the rapid industrialisation happening globally – particularly in England, France, and the USA.

    The public Art Deco buildings in Australia were perhaps less adorned than those built overseas; some notable examples include: the Former Russell Street Police Headquarters (built in the 1940’s and converted to apartments in 2005), the Manchester Unity building in the CBD and the Rivoli Theatres in Camberwell. The style was prominent in apartment buildings located in St Kilda and South Yarra (the Kia Ora building in St Kilda Road is a beautiful example).

    As a detached residential style Art Deco houses are found in Ivanhoe, Eaglemont, Balwyn, Hawthorn, and Sandringham.

    The houses are predominantly built in varying shades of cream brick, often with highlights or other compositional elements in white render. The houses started to enjoy steel windows with larger panes of glass (in some examples the glass is curved or faceted around a prominent corner). The detailing often occurs in the deco ‘rule of three’, with elements running vertically to reinforce the buildings scale. Many of the Art Deco properties are double brick in construction with a timber-framed roof.

    The detached deco houses are topped with a fairly ordinary tilled hipped roofs. Inside they are characterised by their polished timber floorboards, detailed cornice work and a fairly simple plan with small kitchens and bathrooms by today’s standards. Some examples still retain the colourful and detailed fixtures and fittings of the period.

    Why we like them:

    • Large windows
    • Fittings, fixtures and attention to detail

    Why we are careful:

    • Often living and dining spaces are smaller than we would like to see


    The post war suburbanisation of Melbourne was dominated by the newly established project builders, such as AV Jennings, who pioneered an assembly line method of building. Teams of specialised subcontractors would move from house to house in the greenfield estates. Production was much faster with this technique, bringing the cost of housing down to meet the pent up post-war demand. This phenomenon was mirroring what was happening on the West Coast of the USA at the time. Project building was, and still is, a large part of the Melbourne housing market.

    The other dominant driving force was the rise of the private car ownership: with no need to rely on public transport new suburbs rapidly filled the space left in between the lines of the train network. By the time 1960 rolled around the suburban fabric was complete.

    The brick veneers were simply built, dominated by their large expanses of brick and tiled roofs. Windows first in timber and later steel began to dominate the facades. The houses were simple in plan and light on ornamentation; cornices and ceiling roses reflected the austerity of the times. They were often planned with the living area at the front of the house and the kitchen and bathroom in the centre.

    The cream brick houses have a timber load-bearing frame with the single skin or ‘veneer’ of bricks to keep the weather out. The brick skin is less maintenance than a weatherboard house of the same vintage.

    Why we like them:

    • High ceiling and large well proportioned rooms

    Why we are careful:

    • Most are getting on in age and need restumping or underpinning if it hasn’t yet been done.


    Modern Melbourne

    Melbourne’s modernist heritage is characterised by the adaption of the ‘International Modern’ style into something that is quintessentially Australian. The key figure of this era was Robin Boyd through both his architecture and writing. The architecture was a reaction to what Boyd termed the ‘Australian Ugliness’ (the decoration prevalent in Australian suburbs and cities).

    The houses were initially simple in form, with low slung, flat, or lightly pitched gable roofs capping the linear forms. Wide eaves were supported by the exposed rafters. Walls were either light weight in construction and clad with timber, or in bagged or painted brickwork.

    Stegbar Window Walls

    These houses are defined thought their relationship to the outdoors, seen through large expanses of timber framed floor to ceiling glass (often on the North). The iconic Stegbar ‘window wall’ system was designed by Robin Boyd to carry the structure above. It allowed full walls of glass to be broken only by the thin mullions and transoms.

    The planning of these houses is quite simple with large living and dining areas. Bedrooms are small by modern standards, and the standard ceiling heights compare with today’s construction at 2590mm high. The linear plans tend to situate the bedrooms at one end of the house with the living and dining rooms at the other.

    Custom details in steel and integrated light fixtures were typical of the period. It’s rare to see these houses with their original kitchens and bathrooms, which were simple with timber cabinetry and stainless steel. A bright accent colour is often carried through the bathroom fittings, fixtures, and tiling. Slate flooring was popular towards the end of the period along with exposed brick in some of the more ‘nuts and berries’ construction found on the urban fringe.

    The modernist houses are rare in the inner suburbs; most examples have been built nestled in the fringes of suburbia among the gums, built in the then rapidly growing suburbs such as Warrandyte and Eltham.

    Why we like them:

    • Large expanses of glass and light filled. They provide a fantastic connection to the outdoors and a plan that is still up to date.

    Why we are careful:

    • Heating and cooling costs are quite high with this type of construction


    The post-modern movement in Melbourne was a reaction to the notion that modernism had failed to live up to its ideals. Elements of architectural history were re-contextualised to bring them into the urban fabric. The ideas of Robert Venturi and his seminal work Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) were imported from the USA with Edmond and Corrigan’s built works. The scene was vibrant here with many architects and academics engaging in the discourse (centred at RMIT University). RMIT itself was a prolific patron of the style with Building 8 by Peter Corrigan and Storey Hall by ARM in 1994.

    The buildings are typified by a pastiche of materials, styles, and colours often referencing nearby buildings, structures, or the past history of the site. Arches, columns and other stylistic touches are incorporated in the design – rendered in building materials of the time. The post modern movement effectively rejects the modern ‘less is more’ ethos, replacing it with ‘more is more’.

    The excesses of the 80’s perhaps went hand in hand with the Post-Modern style and approach. It’s difficult to find many detached houses that exemplify the aesthetic. Post modern projects where instead completed in former industrial areas such as South Melbourne, Richmond and North Melbourne as the first examples of ‘urban infill’ Melbourne.

    Why we like them:

    • Quirky and rare
    • Some of the better examples will go on to become icons of a era

    Why we are careful:

    • Can look quite dated


    A definite style for contemporary housing in Melbourne is difficult to pin down, there are many Architects working today each with very different ideas. Broadly the architecture falls into two different camps, the stripped back minimalism of practices such as Sean Godsell, Robert Simeoni and Kirsten Thompson and the more highly decorated projects by Six Degrees, Minifie van Schaik Architects and McBride Charles Ryan – typified by their complexities of form and decoration.


    The houses are characterised by being light filled, open plan living and dining areas addressing the rear yard. Often the master bedrooms are furnished with built in robes and ensuite bathrooms. The lack of vacant site in the inner city has lead to a fair bit of new construction being built as ‘townhouses’. Often quite similar in nature to the terraces that first provided accommodation in Melbourne the townhouses that we see now suffer from some of the same problems. The small parcels are forcing architects and developers to go upwards – splitting each townhouse over two and now commonly three levels.

    Neat contemporary projects can also often be found luring in the inner city behind old terrace housing facades and inside warehouse shells.


    Thornbury Brick Veneer

    Thornbury is one of the closest suburbs to the CBD with a significant stock of post war housing nestled amongst Californian bungalows. They are reasonably humble homes, most being around 90-120sqm in size with 2-3 bedrooms and a single kitchen  and bathroom. Many have been the victim of 70’s ‘sunroom’ extensions to the rear of the properties.

    The beauty of these residences is that, apart from the odd appendage, they are usually in their original condition. Some retain late 40’s cornicing and ceiling roses.

    This post-war brick veneer in Thornbury is typical in its square floor plan. The deep floor plate makes it a challenge to bring natural light into the middle of the building.

    With this build the best bet would be to retain the existing front of the house with any addition off to the rear of the property. This ‘clean break’ makes it easier to build the addition instead of tying into the existing roofline to extend the form. As happens with the typical design response – opening up the rear of the house. The addition of a separate wing allows for better planning and access to natural light from the north.

    As proposed, a new wing could be built running East-West to make use of the northern aspect. Floor to ceiling windows onto the north provide great aspect and access to the rear yard. Further down the addition, the laundry and master bedroom ensuite can be consolidated. At the western end of the addition a large master-bedroom suite provides a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of family life.

    Two generous bedrooms can be accommodated in the existing structure along with a powder room and main bathroom. A small study on the east takes up the rest of the area.

    Thornbury Brick Veneer RennoGround floor renovation:

    1. Master Bedroom
    2. Ensuite
    3. Laundry
    4. Kitchen / Dining
    5. Landscaping
    6. Living
    7. Bedroom
    8. Bathroom
    9. Powder Room
    10. Study
    11. Bedroom
    12. Entry