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Unless you’re in our industry, buildings aren’t probably something you think about much on a day-to-day basis. Yes we all live in one and most of us work in one all day but how much thought have you given to any particular building lately (other than where it is or how you get into it)?


When you start looking into it, buildings are as varied and different as the cultures around the world and building techniques change not only from country and culture  but over time as well. Whilst many building principles have remained the same for thousands of years (like the post-and-lintel system or the use of arches), we’ve also come a long way since the days of structures like that of Gobekli Tepe or the Baiame's Ngunnhu fish traps in Brewarrina NSW. But how have we gotten to the modern Australia we know and love today and what building and construction methods were used to help shape and produce our contemporary society? We hope to give you a deeper understanding of the history of building practices in Australia. 

First Nations people and their building practices

We wouldn’t be able to have an article about Australian building without mentioning possibly some of the most ancient and sustainable building practices on the planet. We have much to learn from the Aboriginal people of Australia in regards to being in equilibrium with nature and the land around us. 

Aboriginal architecture is a wide and varied topic. Because Aboriginal people lived across a wide range of areas with different materials available to them, their traditional construction methods were just as varied. Whilst many of the structures Aboriginal people created were somewhat temporary by today's standards, there are many bases of stone structures along with fish and eel traps that showed a sophisticated approach to building. Early settlers misinterpreted many Aboriginal tribes’ necessity to move regularly to find food as evidence Aboriginal people were purely nomadic. 

Evidence suggests that yes, whilst Aboriginal people did lead a semi-nomadic life (due to the fact Australia has almost no high yield native plants that can be cultivated or farmed to any reasonable degree, meaning stockpiles of excess food is nearly impossible to gather using ‘bush tucker’) they also had permanent camps they would come back to year in, year out. 

There’s even evidence that suggests stone buildings as old as 9000 years were constructed on Pilbara island. 

First Fleet brings new structures to an ancient land

With the arrival of the First Fleet and European settlers, we saw an influx of different building methods introduced into an ancient land that had only recently opened up to the rest of the world by explorers like Captain Cook and Matthew Flinders. The first building to be erected by European settlers was a symmetrical two-storey building built in a Georgian style with a hipped roof and building started just 4 months after the first fleet arrived. There are many events attached to this historic building. Governor William Bligh was arrested there during the Rum Rebellion in 1808 and Australia's first newspaper (The Sydney Gazette) was printed there in 1803 and many famous Australian Governors (the first nine in fact) and Aboriginal people lived there. 

Throughout the first few decades of Australia becoming a nation many of the Georgian influences of architecture from England and America were being used in the government and residential buildings of our quickly growing colony. Many colonial farm houses reveal the symmetry and influence of the Georgian style of architecture of the time with one distinguishing factor that is distinctly Australian (and remains so today) – the addition of a veranda. These buildings didn’t fall under any specific regulations other than general safety standards of the day to ensure buildings were stable and safe. If a building was to fall down, there was no regulatory body or building inspectors to determine the cause or how it could be avoided in the future (these types of legal and regulatory frameworks didn’t come until much later). 

From 1788 to around the 1860’s, most people that came to Australia were convicts, soldiers, government officials and free settlers looking for a new life. As more settlers arrived and the simple slab hut residential buildings gave way to Georgian style colonial homes we started to see more established towns, villages and outposts be established in further reaching areas of the Australian landscape. 

In the early 1800s as we started to see an established country with farmlands and industry making it possible for architects and builders to incorporate more decorative and elaborate building styles, we saw the emergence of the regency style of buildings that proved popular in Great Britain and Ireland in the early to mid 1800’s. 

Some great examples of this building style in Brisbane are the Brisbane Government House and the South Brisbane Town Hall. In Sydney you can make your way down to St James Church on King Street or the Tusculum in Potts Point. If you’re in Melbourne you can head on down to King Street to see the St James Old Cathedral as an excellent example of Regency style buildings. 

Jump ahead into the mid-to-late 1800s and Australia was starting to see the influence of the Victorian and Gothic Revival architecture in many official buildings in the now established cities and prefabricated weatherboard colonial-style homes were popping up in suburbs all across Australia. 

Another iconic style started to emerge at this time that many of us know as the ‘Queenslander’. Ornate and beautifully made these decorative, timber homes with high ceilings and large, airy verandas were perfect for the Brisbane hot, humid summers. 

As the world was rocked by two world wars in the early 1900s, many of Australia’s focus and manpower went into helping our allies in Europe and the Pacific. This didn’t mean that all construction stopped but the combination of war and a White Australia policy meant that overseas influence in architecture and construction methods were somewhat limited. 

This all changed after World War Two when Australia took to the catchphrase ‘Populate or perish!’ and an influx of immigrants from Europe and Britain (called Ten Pound Poms) flooded the country. With these new migrants came new skills and we started seeing styles like Filigree, Italianate, Californian Bungalow and Art Deco make their way into our construction methods giving our melting pot of culture and construction it’s very own regional flavour. 

A new way of building starts to emerge

As our country started to expand, the building and construction governance of many areas were regulated by municipal councils, which meant that Australia had many and varied regulations when it came to construction, safety and ongoing maintenance of buildings. At the time it was a legal and logistical nightmare for building and construction practitioners to work their way through the idiosyncrasies of each council's requirements so, after World War Two, the states started working towards a more centralised set of rules and regulations for the building industry. 

In 1965 Australia saw the establishment of the ISCUBR (Interstate Standing Committee on Uniform Building Regulations) that brought together the regulatory resources of all Australian states and territories to help draft a model technical code for building regulatory purposes that took several years to complete (it wasn’t released until the early 1970s). 

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the ISCUBR transformed into the Australian Building Regulations Coordinating Council (AUBRCC) which helped develop the very first edition of the Building Code of Australia (BCA) in 1988.  In 1990-1992 a purely descriptive Building code was adopted by most States, albeit with some local variations.

Fast forward to 1997 and the BCA that had been arduously updated and enhanced over the years with Performance Provisions was finally adopted by the Commonwealth and most states and territories of Australia. 

Since 1990 the BCA was updated every 6th months with variations and changes. In 2004 the Building Code of Australia was updated every year taking on a numerical aspect to its name each year (BCA 2004 in the year 2004, BCA 2012 in the year 2012 for example.) In 2016 the ABCB embarked on a change to further reduce change impact on the building industry and the BCA is now amended every 3 years. (IE. 2016, 2019 and the next scheduled change is 2022).In that time the building and regulation of construction in Australia has not only been centralised and streamlined, it’s also grown as an industry both in numbers of people it employs and knowledge and experience it injects into its regulatory duties. 

Today in Australia the construction industry is the third-largest employing industry in Australia (being beaten only by Healthcare and Retail trade) so we’ve come a long way since our humble beginnings as an ancient, then new, then modern nation to incorporate a wide range of styles and methods that have brought us iconic structures like the Budj Bim Eel and Fish Traps, The Sydney Opera House, Parliament House and the The Phoenix ‘skinny’ Tower.

Since Australia has such a rich and vibrant building industry, it’s important to use an experienced and personalised building surveyor that knows the law and its history. This will ensure the best potential outcomes for construction and regulatory compliance. Contact us today and one of our friendly representatives will be more than happy to speak with you.