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Character Housing and the New Brisbane City Plan

You've probably heard that a new Brisbane City Plan is underway, which includes some changes to the protection of character neighborhoods in and around our growing metropolis. The BCC brochures were short on detail so I decided to join one of the "meet a planner" sessions currently underway as part of the consultation process. After a pleasant and informative exchange I came away with a reasonable view, and here's the Executive Summary.

But first - a recap of the current framework. The 2000 city plan protects neighborhoods with pre-1946 houses through Demolition Control Precincts (DCPs), where the removal or significant alterations to a house is assessed according to several criteria, including age and contribution to the streetscape. In other words - some of the houses in these precincts have a limited level of protection, depending on circumstances. New development in these areas is further governed by the Residential Character Code,  requiring new designs to be compatible with surrounding buildings.

To illustrate the application of these codes, let's look at some examples. The two houses below are within the DCP but only the cottage to the right is protected, based on a pre-1946 construction date. The house to the left, a typical post-war conventional, may be removed by the owner. The Council refers mainly to the comprehensive set of 1946 aerial photos to identify buildings that existed as of that year.

However, pre-1946 houses within the DCP can be demolished or substantially modified under certain circumstances. In the below pictures, the fabulous little 1800's worker's cottage to the left has been deemed structurally unsound and irreparable, and therefore approved for demolition. This was many months ago and the house still stands - thankfully, but its fate may be sealed. The tragedy/travesty to the right is from Windsor, and illustrates a case where distinguishing features of the original building have been ordered to be preserved. And there it is - a single gable facade, high in the air, waiting for a new box to be tucked to the back. A complete demolition by any reasonable definition but apparently still compliant with code.

New construction in DCPs is assessed under the Residential Character Code to ensure that designs are compatibile with the surrounding streetscape. In the below examples, the house to the left has obvious similarities to the original bungalows of the area, with an iron roof, open verandas and a protruding gable. External joinery details are heritage-style reproductions. The house to the right has few traditional features - notably weatherboard cladding - but is otherwise contemporary. As for the aesthetic merits of each design, well that's a matter of taste, but both were approved under the code.

So what's changing with the proposed new city plan? The unforunate news is that there will be no expansion of the DCPs zones - this can be done only through the local neighborhood planning process. The planner I talked to was quite frank about the reason why - any dabbling in protected zones is politically sensitive. Heaven knows,  the "wreck & flip", mum & dad developers and real estate agents out there may take offense and vote for another, less heritage oriented government.

The former DCPs will be re-named "Neighborhood Character (Demolition)" areas in the new plan, and supplemented with Neighborhood Character (Design) overlays.

Demolition Control Zones around Kedron Brook on Brisbane's North Side. The older suburbs of Windsor, Wilston and Grange (to the right) have a higher proportion of pre-1946 houses than Enoggera (to the left). Click to enlarge.

The new plan makes it easier for owners to move existing character houses within their current plots, allegedly to promote sub-division of land in inner suburbs, increase dwelling density and alleviate fringe sprawl. Good luck on that one, with the current rate of population growth. There are also changes to the protection of some commercial character buildings, specifically the little "corner shops" with awnings across adjacent sidewalks, that are dotted across our suburbs.

A major improvement is the increased level of protection offered to houses built before 1911, where the current plan protects only houses built before 1900. Interim regulations have been pushed through and the protection is already in effect, covering about 400 buildings in the Council area.

I was skeptical to the arbitrary pre-1911 cutoff, knowing well the difficulties in pinning down a precise construction date of a century old house. But the BCC heritage unit has done a thorough job using same methods as outlined elsewhere in this website, using aerial photographs, land and council records, post office directories etc. An impressive undertaking, and highly commended. No doubt there are houses out there that have fallen through the net and should be listed in the pre-1911 register - if you know of any such buildings please contact the heritage unit (current owners of the houses retain the right to opt out).

The highest level of protection is afforded to buildings included in the Queensland and Brisbane City Heritage Registers, for buildings of particular significance or local importance. The heritage register and assessment criteria will not be changed.

So - there it is. Some good news, but still not enough. My personal view is that much of our housing stock from the 1910's and 20's represents a high point of Queensland vernacular architecture, and its cultural (and monetary) value will only increase as the years go by. From the 1930's we have inherited a collection of  very distinct styles - Spanish Californian, Functionalist, Art Deco, Old English etc. All of these buildings are irreplaceable and add great character to our suburban landscape. At some point whatever remains of them will be given an appropriate level of protection, and future generations will lament that they weren't protected sooner.

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