The 1940’s Housing Boom

Sometimes described in the post WWII years as `the shortage’, the nationwide effort to address a very serious issue has in time come to be called `the housing ’. Without a doubt it was a boom in demand and building. There was also a notable increase in ownership, achieved in many cases through heroic individual effort and years of sacrifice.

Changing social attitudes offered new opportunities, but also narrowed the options. Emphasis in state housing schemes was at first on rental dwellings; later there was a swing toward the sale of affordable houses. At a time when various factors had cut the amount of rental , governments, banks, finance companies, building societies and housing co-operatives were offering greater opportunities for home ownership. Ironically this was at a time of a jump in constuction input costs.

Top on the list of factors linked to rising construction costs were the introduction in 1948 of the 40-hour week, and marked increases in the cost of building materials. By 1948 an employer had to pay an unqualified building labourer a higher salary than a tradesperson had received in early 1946.

To keep both labourer and tradie productively employed the builder needed a continuous flow of materials which was a rare thing in those times. Lack of skilled workers also meant poor quality work and further loss of time.

Contract prices were loaded with an increasing profit margin as an insurance against unseen contingencies. Under commonwealth price control, builders were entitled to a 10 per cent `profit’ on the contract price. Above award payments were not recognised in price control and yet builders often found a need to pay above award salaries to ensure house completion.

Unexpected costs could happen when, for example, timber flooring was suddenly unprocurable, and a higher price would then have to be paid for imported Baltic timber for flooring.

With locally made cement taking forever to turn up, a truckload from interstate was sometimes bought at nearly three times the price. When compared to 1939 prices timber flooring material had, by 1948, doubled in price. Cement had risen by almost 20 per cent and terracotta roofing tiles by more than 25 per cent. A gallon of quality paint costing around 30s ($3) in 1939 had risen some 40 per cent by 1948.

When added to rising costs and shortages of materials the government restrictions, limiting the area of a new home to 12 squares (111.48 square metres) for a timber house and 1250 square feet (116.12 square metres) for one in brick, completed the recipe for an imposed cost-cutting.

The economical floor plan was essential; cost-saving and limitations on area made large single-purpose rooms a luxury. Verandahs and wide open porches were deleted, reducing the shade at the front of the house to a minimum area. Ceiling heights had been gradually reduced from the turn of the century and were now typically nine feet (2745 mm). Until the government construction restrictions were lifted in 1952 the acceptance of no-nonsense functionalism was as much an imposed state as it was a fashionable philosophy. This was the era of the great Australian Dream.

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