HAVE you heard about our 60 year old straw houses here in Melbourne? came the talkback callers question through the radio headphones. I was at ABC Radio in Melbourne last November to talk about Earth Gardens new book, Strawbale Homebuilding.
The five workers cottages at Altona were built using thick panels of compressed straw board the original form of the modern straw panels that are sold today (and even advertised in Earth Garden) by the Melbourne-based company, Solomit. The building company, Strawbale Australia, regularly uses Solomit straw panels for its internal walls, and its ironic that in researching the history of the Altona straw houses, my efforts led me back to an advertisement in Earth Garden.
Compressed straw panels were invented in France around 1925. Parallel strands of straw are packed tightly and bound with wire into panels of varying sizes, then faced both sides with a cement plaster. In 1936 the first demonstration homes built of straw were constructed at Gepps Cross in Adelaide, using Solomit panels imported from Germany (houses pictured on page 11). Twelve Solomit houses were then built at Port Pirie using materials from the Solomit factory established at Freeling in South Australia. Several Solomit houses were built in New South Wales, including one at Granville in 1946 that was spray-rendered with a cement-mix called Gunite, and then the Altona houses were proposed in 1939, along with one in the northern Melbourne suburb of Coburg, one near Horsham, and one in western Victoria near Penshurst.
According to Bridget Jolly, who completed her PhD on Solomit panels, there are still 12 straw houses standing in South Australia. There are six at Port Pirie, which were built by the Commonwealth Housing Department around 1940, and which have now been brick-veneered, despite being in good condition before the re-cladding. Another two houses are in Snowtown, there are two at Freeling, and there is one at Victor Harbour, Robe, Blackwood, Lochiel, Blyth, Hawker, Loxton, Stirling North, Athelstone, Strathalbyn, and one at Pinaroo. All the houses appear to have steel frames to which the Solomit panels are fixed.
The Williamstown Advertiser was the weekly newspaper covering Altona when the straw homes were first proposed. The paper reported that the Shire Engineer suggested the builder erect a proposed show-purpose home at Seaholme with the preparation. Seaholme was the suburb adjoining Altona, and the first straw home was built there opposite the railway station so that the weekend daytrippers from Melbourne could easily be enticed to sign on the dotted line for a new house similar to the display home.
In the late 1920s another developer, John Wren, had built a series of weatherboard workers cottages in the same street in Altona for workers in the local coal mines that supplied Melbourne before the Yallourn Valley coal fields were developed. John Wren was the infamous Melbourne identity who was also the subject of Frank Hardys famous novel, Power Without Glory.
The sparkling new straw houses, built in a strip along Maidstone St, Altona, were designed by one of Melbournes leading architects, Marcus Barlow. It is a mystery to me why a society architect like Barlow, who was educated at Brighton Grammar School and lived in a mansion in Camberwell, concerned himself with straw workers cottages in outlying Altona. Barlow designed notable city buildings like the famous Manchester Unity Building on the corner of Swanston and Collins St, Melbourne, the Edments Building in Adelaide, the Victorian Insurance Building in Perth, and many other noteworthy structures.
Woolcott Forbes is the grand name of the builder of the Altona straw homes. Mrs Thelma Barlow, who has lived in Altona since 1940, and clearly remembers the half-built straw houses when she first arrived, recalls that Woolcott Forbes ran into financial difficulty when building the houses, and may even have ended up in jail for fraud. In any case, the houses were finished by the end of 1940, and today they endure the elements in good condition.
Apex Club demolition
Barry Hanson took me to visit the houses and told me that about ten years ago the local Apex Club agreed to demolish one of the straw houses, as a fundraiser, for a developer who wanted to replace it with units. The club members thought the demolition would be a pushover, but after much sweating and struggling, they eventually hired a front-end loader to demolish the house: it was too strong.
When I looked at the houses I was amazed to find that they had no eaves. Melbournes annual rainfall is around 700 mm and these houses have not only stood the test of time, theyve withstood harsh, wet winters and stinking hot summers. You cant really tell that the houses are made of straw: they look like any other cement-rendered house of their era.
Next issue: Inside the Altona straw houses.
The author would like to thank the following people for their generous assistance and information for this article: Dr Miles Lewis, Reader in Architecture at the University of Melbourne; Bridget Jolly PhD; Graeme Butler, Heritage Adviser, City of Hobsons Bay; staff of the La Trobe Collection at the State Library of Victoria; Barry Hanson, President of the Altona Historical Society; the staff of Solomit.
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