Character Houses versus Urban Consolidation

Balancing the protection of a city’s architectural heritage with the need to create new dwellings – who wins?

The Queenslander is the embodiment of Queensland traditional architecture. It evolved over time but these homes are generally made of timber, have large encircling verandas and tin roofs. This unique style was responsive to Queensland’s subtropical climate and were built from the 1850s until the Second World War.

Source: Brisbane City Council

Brisbane’s architectural history is protected through a few mechanisms at a state and local level, but here I’m focusing on Brisbane City Council’s protections.

‘Character house’ is the planning term for a house built before 1946. Brisbane City Council’s City Plan 2014 protects these houses from removal and requires extensions or alterations to complement the traditional building style. Any new houses must be designed at a similar scale to the character of the street.

The Character House overlay effects a substantial amount of Brisbane’s land mass.

Character House Overlay. Source: Brisbane City Council’s City Plan 2014.

But are these protections actually serving their aims?

I’ll use one example – 28 Whynot Street, West End. It’s zoned Character Residential (Infill Housing), which basically means that densification through additional dwellings construction is allowed but it must retain the original pre-1946 house and be of a compatible scale to the street.

The usual result of this is backyard subdivisions, which is kind of what happened here except the original house was demolished too.

Property Report for 28 Whynot Street West End. Source: Brisbane City Council.

Helpfully, in its interactive mapping Brisbane City Council provides an aerial image taken in 1946 as an overlay. It shows that this property had a pre-existing house but that the lot was subdivided and the house was demolished to make way for two new, contemporary houses.

Aerial images of 28 Whynot Street in 1946 and 2020. Source: Brisbane City Council.

Google Streetview confirms this. It also confirms that the Character House was demolished sometime between 2009 and 2013. So what happened here?

28 Whynot Street in 2009 and 2020. Source: Google StreetView

Again, helpfully, Brisbane City Council publishes development application documents online. The documents tell us that an application was lodged in 2007 to remove the Character House at 28 Whynot Street. They stated that the existing house had been “substantially altered and does not have the appearance of being constructed in or prior to 1946.”

Council wrote to the owners in December 2007 saying that the application was refused as, among other things, “it has not been demonstrated that the building does not represent traditional building character.”

This decision was appealed in the Planning and Environment Court, where the appeal was allowed and the application to remove the house was approved. There were no reasons attached to Judge Robin’s decision and while usually you can access complete court files of Planning and Environment Court matters online – unfortunately there were no documents attached to this file. So the mystery remains.

I can only assume the Court agreed with the owner that this wasn’t a Character House due to the modifications to the building. Whether or not this individual decision was correct or not is beyond the scope of this, but even Brisbane City Council agrees that the ‘character’ of the city extends beyond architecture.

The City Plan specifically states that “leafy suburbs with big backyards will remain…[and] new buildings will be designed to reflect Brisbane’s subtropical climate, and the City’s heritage and character housing will be protected.” (City Plan 2014).

It wasn’t just the pre-1946 house that was lost at 28 Whynot Street. It was the green space that Brisbane City Council purports to protect.

The conflict between the aspirations of the planning instrument and their practical implementation are an example of the difficulty of balancing the need to create new dwellings with the political realities of densification.

Published by RachelGallagher

Geographer, urban researcher

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