Architecture and Renovation

Houses versus land: When do heritage protections go too far?

When are the old houses in Brisbane’s inner suburbs more important than the land they sit on? Always? Sometimes? Or never? As Council juggles the demands of a growing population and constraints on transport/infrastructure, more questions are being asked of the large back yards being “held captive on our CBD’s doorstep” (as one architect put it recently).

If it was built prior to 1900 there’s tight constraints and the heritage officers will get their say when you want to do any works to your house. You can forget about removing those ones. And one of the less talked about changes in Brisbane’s draft new City Plan is widening this rule to all houses built prior to 1911. This change will add another 495 houses to this ‘hands-off’ list. In a suburb like South Brisbane it’s an extra 19 houses (of 375 in total). If it’s built prior to 1946 there’s a good chance a house is protected by the Demolition Control rules – Council wants it retained and the streetscape preserved to match those pre-war years. There’s some flexibility but not much.

So where’s that architect’s concern coming from? Many of these houses straddle allotments of 600, 800 or even 1000m2 of land, that’s in many cases an easy walk from our CBD. In protecting the houses this land is off-limits, so a second dwelling usually can’t be added, nor more residents brought into these neighbourhoods. And even the most enthusiastic fan of old timber homes would agree that many of these houses are in poor repair and showing little of the character of their time. But they’re still protected.

And that’s okay if we value their contribution to the look of our city over the benefits of bringing more people into these areas. If you’re lucky enough to live there you’ll agree and want less neighbours – and if you spend 40 minutes commuting you might see it differently. The reasons to keep the old houses get plenty of media airtime, but we also hear lots of comments when we’re one on one with buyers and sellers as local real estate agents:

* many of these houses were built to very basic standards. They’re timber and are not like the old stone and brick houses of Europe and other continents. They weather badly and are expensive to maintain.

* their designs are not appropriate to today – open front verandahs are not secure and most now have downstairs enclosed anyway, changing that streetscape character significantly. Internally they’re difficult to plan for a modern lifestyle.

* does ‘natural selection’ have a part to play in housing? If homes in their current form and architecture are not appealing enough to their owners to warrant renovations, at what point should the community stay out of deciding how they use their land?

* why are 1911 and 1946 the chosen dates? As one agent asked the Lord Mayor recently – If you’ve just changed 1900 to 1911, can we expect this date to be moved again in another decade’s time? Will the key dates keep moving forward?

We’re all proud of the things that make Brisbane’s streets unique, but should there be more debate on this topic? It seems that if you question the rigorous protection of old houses, and the locking up of precious land, you’re held out for public ridicule. No-one wants a mass removal of character homes and as agents we know full well the wide appeal of a well-preserved and renovated Queenslander. Many of them are beautiful homes and a terrific example of early 1900’s housing. But we do wonder: Is older always better when it comes to architecture?

Feel free to howl us down with criticism for raising this topic – but please give us your opinion!

PS: For the record Bees Nees City Realty has its offices in an 1897 boot factory that we restored with care, patience and respect for a bygone era. We love the uniqueness of our heritage ‘home’.