Architects defend the majesty of unwanted '50s fibros

Fibro is asbestos cement sheeting, once very widely used in building construction but now banned because of its asbestos content, even though no harm from using the product has ever been shown

Just as the suburban quarter-acre block is becoming a thing of the past, so too it seems is the house that used to sit on it. Across Sydney, homes from the 1950s and '60s are being bulldozed at such a rate that architects and heritage experts worry these "fibro majestics" and other examples of the era will disappear, and so are pushing for them to be saved.

Bill Randolph, the director of the City Futures research centre at the University of NSW, who has studied this "knock down, rebuild" phenomenon, said it occurred mostly to houses from between the '40s and '60s, and was widespread in most of the 29 areas in Sydney he studied.

The reason was generational, he said. Younger families wanted larger houses closer to the city and it was cheaper to knock down existing ones than renovate them. "The issue is spread right across the middle suburbs and it's in the high-end market as well as the rest," Professor Randolph said. "In Ku-ring-gai they are knocking them down as quickly as in Bankstown."

A spokeswoman for the state government's Heritage Branch said architects had lobbied for the preservation of these mid-century dwellings, and over the next two years it would begin identifying those worth keeping.

Professor Randolph said many of these houses were owner-built and of poor quality, but the good ones should be saved. "Even the 'fibro majestic', there's some pretty interesting fibro houses about and that's a real part of our city's history," he said. "As long as the good stuff is kept and the not-so-good stuff is replaced … that's the way to go."

Caroline Butler-Bowdon, an assistant director at the Historic Houses Trust, which held a seminar on '50s and '60s houses in October, said they were more in need of protection than others.

"It's like the argument has been won in favour of terrace houses," she said. "They don't get demolished, do they? "There is an appreciation for our Federation architecture and Arts and Crafts, but really some of the houses most at risk are those from the '50s and '60s."

She said they were unpopular as they were small by today's "bloated" standards. But the appeal lay in the flexibility, open-plan design, easy flow between rooms and connection with the outside through large windows.

In the '50s, these houses were mostly made of fibro and timber; by the mid-'60s it was usually cream- or red-brick veneer, often with double and triple-fronts with hipped tiled roofs, she said.


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