The Queenslander House

Anyone who has lived in a Queenslander house will tell you they have character and each one is an individual.

Each has its own variation – a window sill that’s not quite straight; the enchanting shadow cast by sunlight streaming through timber fretwork; a little slit at the bottom of a skirting board that lets in a bracing winter wind; a wide veranda that shades your family from the summer blaze and welcomes the warming winter sun. The Queenslander house is unique, a design icon, a building that says much about its origins.

Associate Professor Peter Skinner, Queensland President of the Australian Institute of Architects, points out that the Queenslander was designed to work within its unique environment.

“The lifestyle in the Queenslander house was different to that of Britain, Europe and southern Australian states,” he says. “We lived with the doors and windows open. We relaxed, entertained and chatted to the neighbours on the street from the veranda.”

When one hears the word Queenslander, in relation to a building, a clear vision usually emerges: a timber house with a steep-pitched tin roof, surrounded or at the very least punctuated by a wide verandah, high-set on stumps with decorative timber work.

“Although the original structural framing systems and plan-form variations were limited for economy, there was ample scope for each home to express individuality through the choices of veranda battening balusters, brackets and pediments, fretwork fanlights and ceiling roses, lead-light windows and bespoke joinery,” says Skinner.

The overall design and look of the Queenslander house has changed much over the years, however there are basic design principles that remain the same as they are still dictated by the very reason for the Queenslander’s initial design – climate.

Queensland’s sub-tropical climate, dominated by long, hot summers and tropical rain, provided the inspiration for two of the Queenslander’s most enduring design aspects: the wide veranda and the high-set stumps.

Verandas provide much needed shade respite from the hot Queensland sun and even in the early 1900s influenced a move toward a more outdoor lifestyle. What is interesting is that Queenslander verandas have, over the years, undergone an evolution all of their own. What began life in the early 1900s as a cool space to escape the heat of indoors, soon became part of the indoors in the post-war years as verandas were closed in to make more room in a depressed economy.

As the years have progressed the original verandas have now made way for decks that are often larger than indoor living spaces saying much about the way we Queenslanders now live.

Ever the practical design, the traditional Queenslander was built on stumps for a number of no-nonsense reasons. The vertical stumps, first made of timber and later to be replaced by concrete or steel, allowed the Queenslander to ‘hover’ above the ground on which it was built. This high-set design allowed airflow under the house providing ventilation and also protected the main structure from direct contact with termites and other pests due to the ‘caps’ or ‘plates’ atop the stumps. Building on stumps also alleviated the need for costly earthmoving works on uneven or sloping ground.

The traditional materials used in Queenslanders made the design democratic and viable as materials were chosen for their availability and affordability. With saw-milling taking off in Queensland in the 1850s, timber was in great supply and readily available. Iron and tin used on the roofs was durable and transportable and an obvious choice for Queenslanders.

“Environmentally, the Queenslander house used available renewable resources very sensibly and carefully – strong and durable Eucalypt hardwoods for stumps and frames, straight and clear Hoop Pine for walls and floors and beautiful Silky Oak for fine joinery,” Skinner explains.

The Queenslander’s functional design is evidenced by the great many houses of this type that are still around today despite being built so long ago. The practical and flexible nature of its design can be seen in the number of Queenslanders that have undergone multiple renovations from the closed-in verandas allowing the ‘sleep-out’ addition in the post-war years to the extensive renovations seen in more recent years.

Queenslanders can be raised or lowered, re-orientated or even relocated entirely. “The elevated floor and possibilities of verandas on any or all sides, enabled the house to be easily adjusted to fit any site conditions to be adjusted for slopes, floods, breezes and solar orientation,” Skinner says.

This flexibility of design could very easily have been the Queenslanders undoing with many houses demolished or relocated in the mid-late 1900s to make way for modern buildings. Thankfully a growing awareness of the importance of urban heritage saw many local governments implement conservation legislation for ‘timber and tin’ character homes.

Although our lifestyles have changed over the years, many of the Queenslander’s design basics are still employed today by architects designing homes for Queensland’s sub-tropical climate.

“The Queenslander was developed to meet the challenges of its time, which looking back, are very similar to today’s issues,” Skinner points out.

“There is no subterfuge, no fat, no waste in a Queenslander, just an incredibly clever demonstration of how to do the most with the very least. With this achievement at its core, the successive adoption and rejection of passing fashions that passes for design sensibility in some other cities seems superficial.”

Skinner believes the best of contemporary Queensland design can be seen as “a direct evolution from the clever, frugal and functional roots of the 19th century Queenslander house.”

Just as the aesthetic design of the Queenslander has changed over time from basic colonial and federation style in the 1800s and early 1900s to the post-war timber and tin homes, the current Queenslander style continues to evolve.

And so what does the new Queenslander look like? Skinner says developments in building materials have had one of the greatest impacts on new design.

“We now have structural materials that can span further, more economically, allowing the design of houses that are even more open, even lighter, with operable walls that enable the inside-outside relationship to be even bolder. The range of materials is greater and the nature of the suburban landscape and urban street has changed, but the direct, frugal and no-nonsense aesthetic remains.”

And so, Skinner sums up, today there is no single ‘new Queenslander’ that can be described by form, material or style.

“The best Queensland architects are working in their own way with their own development of the evolution of Queensland design. However the earlier ‘Queenslander’ lives on in their work as a simple measure of sophisticated design excellence, authentic design values and elegant frugality,” he says.

References:

1. http://www.qm.qld.gov.au/Find+out+about/Histories+of+Queensland/Queensland+families/Queensland+house, retrieved 12 July, 2011

Notes:

1. Associate Professor Peter Skinner is Queensland President of the Australian Institute of Architects, and Director of the Master of Architecture Program at the University of Queensland.

Image credits:

1. Lonsdale, Boundary Street, Spring Hill. Built about 1878, this ‘dolls house’ has its gable end and verandahs facing the street. Photographed 1994

© Queensland Museum, Bruce Cowell

2. Ermabrae, Brunswick Street, New Farm. Built about 1902, photographed 1994.

© Queensland Museum, Bruce Cowell

3. Kameruka, Roderick Street, Ipswich. Built in 1917 and later modified, this is a gracious bungalow-roofed timber-and-tin dwelling of the Federation era. Photographed 1994

© Queensland Museum, Jeff Wright

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