Melbourne’s Building Styles

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    The Secret Agent Report - Melbourne's Building Styles

    April 2013

    Melbourne's Building Styles

    Part one in our study of Melbourne’s Building Styles focuses on our earlier styles: Early Victorian, Late Victorian, Edwardian, Federation, Queen Anne and Bungalow. A case study on a classic Late Victorian configuration shows how to improve the style to meet today’s market, whilst also staying true to the original personality of the home.

    Melbourne’s Building Styles Part 1

    Melbourne’s diverse built environment is a reflection of our relatively brief and fast paced history. The city has grown from the banks of the Yarra since 1835 when John Batman and John Fawkner crossed Bass Strait to explore the shores of Port Phillip. The small village they founded was surveyed and sold at public auction shortly after. Hoddell’s grid that shaped the character of Melbourne’s CBD was born.


    This report into Melbourne’s housing styles from 1840 to 1930 provides a short overview of how the style and construction methods have changed over the years. Each building style brings with it distinct features that can present both opportunities and challenges when improving a property. Every property is different, however we have identified some common traits.

    Further into this report we look at a Victorian Terrace, and highlight it as a case study on how they can be renovated to improve their livability. In the next edition of The Secret Agent Report we will look at housing styles from 1930 onwards.


    Early Victorian Details

    After Melbourne’s land sales in 1837, the temporary public accommodation of canvas tents and wooden shacks began to give way to a more permanent Melbourne – one built of masonry.

    The private ownership of land reflected a new-found confidence in the colony. Buildings that were constructed in the Early Victorian era were simple and often rectangular forms built in rendered masonry or rough-cut bluestone.

    Small two-roomed cottages with hipped roofs made of slate and corrugated iron were constructed for the poor. At the time, both materials had to be imported from England.

    Outside, these early Victorian houses were epitomized by their simple picket fences and basic planting. External colours tended to be cream with Brunswick green or deep red highlights for the simple window frames.

    Walls of the houses were generally masonry and were hard plastered, whitewashed, and wallpapered. Even the hessian interiors of timber cottages were wallpapered.

    The 1849 establishment of the Melbourne Building Act quickly improved the standard of construction in the growing city. Many of the remaining timber cottages were proclaimed a fire risk by the authorities and subsequently pulled down.

    The discovery of gold in 1851 brought rapid progress to the state. Within two years the foundation stones were laid for both Melbourne University and the State Library. Melbourne’s population grew to 125 000 people by 1861 with the help of wealth made from the goldfields. This led to the creation of some of Melbourne’s earliest suburbs: Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond, and St Kilda. These were soon followed by newer suburbs: North Melbourne (Hotham), South Melbourne (Emerald Hill), Essendon, and Hawthorn.

    Why we like them:

    • They are often quite simple in plan
    • Located in sought after areas close to the city
    • They have character built into them

    Why we’re careful:

    • Some of these structures are rapidly approaching their two hundredth birthday and, although many were overbuilt at the time, the Australian climate and shifting soils can take their toll leading to costly rectification works.
    • They are often protected by heritage overlays. Both a blessing and a curse, this means that any works to the property will need a trip pass Heritage Victoria, the Council, and possibly the National Trust for approval.


    Terrace houses and attached cottages started to become the dominant housing types of the Late Victorian era. For the first time in the new colony buildings were becoming adorned. Cast Iron lacework and fine detailing to the masonry parapets are characteristic of the era. Italianate styling with it’s rhythms and repetition of decoration, began to rise in popularity. It was ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ at its finest as the population jumped to half a million people by 1880.

    The filigree and decoration of the exteriors were reflected on the inside as well. With interiors becoming more ornate and decorated as the spoils of Melbourne’s growth were spent on design and decoration. The stock market crash and depression of the 1890’s put a quick end to this and severely impacted the city’s building and construction industry.

    Fantastic examples of these ornate Victorian terraces can be found in South Yarra and Parkville.

    Late Victorian Terrace

    Why we like them:

    • Located in desirable areas close to the city
    • Well-proportioned and generous

    Why we’re careful:

    • Narrow width and deep blocks can make sunlight access a challenge
    • Wet areas are often located at the rear of the property
    • Many are the victims of older renovations and restorations


    The new century ushered in Federation of the states and a heroic outlook for Australia. This rising confidence was once again reflected in Melbourne with larger houses being built on larger allotments. The city was spreading past its inner-urban heartland with bigger blocks being sold in the next ring of suburbs: North Carlton, Brunswick, and Ascot Vale.

    Double brick was the dominant construction technique for Edwardian housing. Red bricks were used with flush struck joints finished in white mortar. The massing of Edwardian houses is dominated by the bold roof lines often quite ‘cut-up’ nature. Hipped roofs in Edwardian houses were punctured by bold gable ends. The gables were made a feature with timber fretwork and stucco finish in between. Dormer windows sometimes popped out of the large roof planes. The roofing was often finished in tiles, slate, and painted with a galvanized sheet.

    Internally, the Edwardian houses generally have high ceilings often near 3.6m (by way of comparison new residential construction is typically 2.7m). Timber panelling and built-in furniture were characteristic of the grander Edwardian residences. The typical plan for an Edwardian house is four to six large rooms each opening off a central corridor.

    Larger L-shaped verandahs wrapping around the entry appeared in response to the harsh Australian summer. Cast iron fenestration fell out of favour for more substantial timber fretwork.

    Why we like them:

    •  High ceilings
    • Generous setbacks and allotments (when they were built)
    • Large rooms
    • Perfect canvas to renovate for a large family home
    • Timber floorboards throughout
    • Strong double brick construction

    Why we’re careful:

    • Kitchens and bathrooms normally have to be moved
    • Double brick construction can make alterations difficult


    Queen Anne Melbourne

    The ‘Queen Anne’ style is a distinct subset of the Edwardian era. Queen Anne residences are typically larger buildings and are often built on prominent corner sites, with deep red brick being the building material of choice. Grand elements offset the bulk of the buildings; for example, large chimneys emerging from the hipped roofs. The tower elements also serve to break up the form. The roofs are often slate clad, but tended  to change to terracotta tiles later in the period.

    Inside generous ceiling heights and Baltic pine floorboards define the character of the spaces. The front rooms and entry often have stained glass features at a high level.

    Brick and iron palisade fences are typical original features externally, and some even retain the ordered original planting. Great examples can be found in well-established suburbs such as Carlton and Albert Park.

    Why we like them:

    • Large house with presence
    • Often well-positioned on larger blocks or elevated sites
    • High ceilings

    Why we’re careful:

    • Their size and complexity can lead to large maintenance costs


    The Californian Bungalows popularity in Melbourne followed the rise of American culture and style imported to the city via celluloid. The airiness and features of the Bungalows suited the Australian climate just as well as California.

    Postwar scarcity is evidenced by the lack of decoration of the bungalows compared to earlier building styles. Bungalows are constructed with timber and typically have large front verandahs topped with a tiled gable roof. Wide verandah piers in masonry visually anchor the lighter structures. One particular stylistic touch is the use of timber battening to the gable ends with roughcast render beyond, also seen in the Edwardian style.

    Californian bungalows are typically four rooms, arranged two by two alongside a central corridor. Bay windows were a feature of many of the front rooms. The rears of most bungalows have been subject to renovations in the past, with varying success.

    Good bungalows can be found in any number of Melbourne’s suburbs due to their popularity. Northcote in particular has some great examples.

    Why we like them:

    • Good blank canvases, easy to work with due to the all timber construction

    Why we’re careful:

    • Often un-insulated, leading to large heating and cooling cost
    • All timber construction, recommended building inspection to check for termite damage and dry rot, good sub floor ventilation is essential


    Amess Street in Carlton North has many classic examples of a Victorian terraces. The property pictured, with it’s deep but narrow (5.3 metre frontage) block presents challenges when looking to renovate and open up the living area towards the rear.

    As is typical to most terraces the original house had an external toilet but, over the years the built fabric has slowly crept up to it. The bathroom and laundry now have the aspect to the rear yard – not the ideal living arrangement!

    The site itself is East-West facing, with the light court oriented to the North. This is ideal to let natural light into the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms.

    Amess St Terrace

    To our eyes, it’s wise to retain as much of the existing built fabric as possible. Demolition and relocation of the existing wet areas would enable the addition of  a full width living room at the rear. This would then free the narrow centre of the house for a large galley kitchen with a bathroom beyond. With the exception of the living area, all would be accommodated within the existing built fabric. For those that need more than two bathrooms,  a master bedroom suite could follow the same footprint of the new build below. This change would reduce the size of the ground floor bathroom to fit the staircase near the proposed kitchen.

    The floorplans below illustrate the existing (left) and the proposed (right).

    1. Bedroom
    2. Bedroom
    3. Bathroom
    4. Kitchen
    5. Light Court
    6. Living
    7. Paved Area
    8. Landscaping
    9. Ensuite (with second storey)
    10. Master Bedroom (with second storey)

    Amess Street Floorplan