Melbourne's early builders, such as John Rankin, J.J. Peers, William Jackson, George Smith and David Best, were overwhelmingly from Van Diemen's Land, with a few others from Sydney or direct from Britain. Although there was no transportation direct to Melbourne, much government work was done by local prisoners or Sydney convicts under military or government supervisors. The conditions applied to the first two land sales in Melbourne in 1837, which required each allotment to be substantially built on within two years, greatly accelerated the development of the town. On the other hand an Act of the (Sydney) Legislative Council in 1838 imposed a £10 annual licence fee on brick-makers and sawyers, after which a tithe was imposed on lime-burners, causing a temporary crisis as tradesmen emigrated to Adelaide and Valparaiso.
The arrival of assisted immigrants aboard the David Clark in 1839 transformed the industry, but the pastoral recession, which developed from 1840 into a crash by 1842, saw artisans emigrating once more to Valparaiso, leaving only 14 commercial builders active in the town. Although there was still evidence of distress among bricklayers and stonemasons in 1843-44, the building industry was recovering and would remain prosperous until the onset of the gold rushes. Artisans mostly worked four 10-hour days, and two nine-hour days (Monday and Saturday), working as employer or employee as opportunities arose. They were under-capitalised by British standards: most, for example, did not keep a horse and cart, but hired them when necessary, although many reportedly held freehold land or house property.
Municipal statistics, available after the passage of the Melbourne Municipal Corporation Act 1842, show that the number of buildings was 1095 in 1843, increasing to 1146 in 1844. Their total value, however, fell from £66 847 to £64 373, reflecting the stagnation of the economy. In 1844 the number more than doubled, indicating that building had recommenced with vigour, but the average value per building dropped from £56 to £19, inexplicable unless that valuation system was radically revised. From this point there is a steady growth in both number and value until 1852, when the 4939 buildings had an average value of £35 each.
The Melbourne Building Act, passed in Sydney in 1849, took effect from the first day of 1850. It applied to Central Melbourne between the Yarra River and Victoria Street, and to what is now known as South Fitzroy, and required buildings to have a permit, to be made of non-combustible material (unless it was isolated by setbacks from the boundaries of the site), and to separate different occupancies by fire walls passing through the roof, markedly altering the appearance of terrace housing and shop rows.
This industry was completely disrupted by the gold rushes. Workers deserted for the goldfields and the cost of materials rose astronomically. Between 1852 and 1853 the number of buildings in Melbourne barely altered (from 4939 to 4980), but the value per building increased by more than 360%. This can be taken as an accurate reflection of the increase in property values, but not of the number of buildings, as jerry building was uncontrolled outside the area covered by the Building Act. Richmond and Collingwood suddenly expanded to house a population equal to that of Melbourne itself, giving rise to what would later be regarded as Melbourne's slums.
There was a massive increase in the importation of 'portable buildings', mostly of wood and iron. Although initially iron buildings were permitted in the central city, apparently in the mistaken belief that they were fireproof, ultimately both wood and iron structures were excluded (unless isolated from the boundaries). Portable buildings were therefore put up mainly in Collingwood, Richmond, Prahran, St Kilda, and on new land brought onto the market in 1852 in North Melbourne, South Carlton and South Melbourne.
Although the decline in prefabrication was not entirely due to local factors, since the price of iron had risen sharply after the Crimean War, it coincided with the normalisation of the building industry. After having almost doubled between 1853 and 1854, the number of buildings in Melbourne grew more steadily, although the severance of Emerald Hill and St Kilda makes it difficult to obtain comparative figures after 1855. The industry at first seemed insulated from the post-gold recession of 1854, but in the last quarter wages were almost halved, and they then continued to decline until 1861, from between 28 and 32 shillings a day, according to trade, down to 10-14 shillings.
Despite these inauspicious conditions the stonemasons resolved on 11 April 1856 to adopt the eight-hour day, as their Sydney colleagues had done the previous September. W.C. Cornish & Co., contractors for Parliament House, countered by advertising for 300 stonecutters on piecework, but the eight-hour principle was finally adopted and the masons resisted piecework as best they could. The building trades also campaigned against subcontracting, as a system which secured profits to both the principal and the subcontractor, at the expense of the operatives. Their concern gave rise to an ingenious innovation, which was ultimately to backfire on the workers.
In March 1859 tenders were called for the gate buildings of Pentridge Prison, and the lowest tender of £19 480 7s 7d was received from a co-operative body called Thomas Glaister & Co, Associated Masons. The 40 shareholders, pledged to divide the profit or loss equally among themselves, could not maintain their stand against subcontracting because they called tenders for the excavation work and subcontracted other trades whose prices had been previously submitted and incorporated in the original tender. When three co-operative bodies tendered for the General Post Office contract later in the year, Glaister's group was again successful. Now, however, it emerged that the members were accepting an amount that fell well below standard wages, so that the activities of these bodies were undermining rather than supporting the rates of pay for masons generally. A motion to expel their members from the trade union was only narrowly lost.
In the meantime Cornish & Bruce, who had the contract for the Mount Alexander and Murray Valley railway, moved to import German masons who would work longer hours for less money than the locals. But the Operative Masons' Society succeeded in getting to the Germans before they disembarked and persuaded them not to ratify their contracts on Victorian soil. In retaliation, Cornish & Bruce confined the Germans to the ship and cut off their provisions, but the Operative Masons were able to smuggle them off, take them to the Trades Hall for a meal, and issue them with £1 a head to help them get to the goldfields and find their own living. Subsequently, however, Cornish & Bruce successfully brought in a second party of Germans, and were also able to re-engage many of the first group.
The battle for the eight-hour day had been won in part by the support of enlightened employers such as the iron-founders Langlands & Fulton, who themselves had Chartist sympathies. They paid their own employees up to double what could have been required of them in the open market. Ironfounding enjoyed a degree of natural protection, since the costs and delays involved in sending orders to England, especially for mining equipment and spare parts, enabled the local founders to charge very highly. But when goldmining activity cooled and ironfounders increased in number and competitiveness, this trade advantage declined. Henceforward normalcy supervened, and the building industry shared the fortunes of the secondary sector generally. The next major change in conditions came with the depression of the 1890s, when the building industry - as always - suffered first and most. In this case it was so serious that many building workers emigrated, as did architects and others, the industry contributing disproportionately to Victoria's net emigration over the period.
By the 1870s the Melbourne Building Act had been extended to other areas of the municipality such as Carlton, and, mainly in the 1880s, equivalent controls were introduced by other urban municipalities. These by-laws were concerned with the prevention or containment of fire, and to some extent with standards of construction, but not with room sizes, lighting, minimum allotments or street widths, considerations that were only gradually brought into play by the Public Health Acts. The movement for minimum allotment sizes began in the 1890s but, in tandem with the anti-slum movement, reached its peak only towards World War I. In the City of Melbourne nine or 10 new buildings a week were put up in the period 1885-90, many of six to 12 storeys, and according to the report of Dr D.A. Gresswell in 1890, inadequately provided with light and ventilation.
Building control in the City of Melbourne was conservative. Wall thicknesses were prescribed on the basis that they were load-bearing, and when reinforced concrete frames were introduced, the building surveyor insisted on maintaining these now superfluous thicknesses and thus negating the advantages of the new technology. David Mitchell succeeded in slipping under the council's guard with the first Monier concrete-framed building in Oliver Lane in 1905, but at Bank Place Chambers in 1905-06 the surveyor insisted on a load-bearing brick wall. In about 1907-08 the regulations were revised to allow buildings of steel or reinforced concrete frames to have non-load-bearing walls (referred to as 'curtain walls' though not conforming to the modern definition of the term). In central Sydney, by contrast, reinforced concrete frames were not permitted until 1916.
At the same time as the load-bearing wall requirement was abandoned, height limits, based on the width of the street, were introduced. Faced with the option of proceeding under the old regulations, and hence building unnecessarily thick walls, or having the height of his building reduced under the new, H.R. Crawford, engineer of the reinforced concrete-framed Sniders & Abrahams cigarette factory in Drewery Lane in 1908-09, opted for the former. Height had become an issue in the 1880s when the advent of passenger lifts took office blocks to heights of nine to 12 storeys, beyond the reach either of fire brigade ladders or the available water pressure. Some relief came to hand with the introduction of a reticulated hydraulic pressure system to service Central Melbourne lifts, also providing a source of pressurised water for firefighting.
At 132 feet (40 m), the height of Australia's tallest building, the Australian Building in Elizabeth Street (1888-89), set the mandatory limit in Melbourne until the 1950s. Only flagstaffs, plant rooms and some other architectural features could go higher. The regular character which this gave to the streets was a source of pride in the city planning reports of 1929 and 1954-55, but it was waived for the ICI Building on Eastern Hill (1953-58), and then for the CRA Building in Collins Street in 1959. After that, though exemptions remained a matter of discretion, the control was effectively dead.