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Building Technology

Building technology in Melbourne was similar to other parts of Australia, save for more innovative developments introduced in the later part of the 19th century. After the first primitive structures of sods and other locally available materials, the most striking characteristic was the use of imported timbers. Despite the availability of good eucalypts, Melbourne was built overwhelmingly of imported timber until at least the mid-1850s. The first sawmills were not in the bush but at the wharves, and their function was not to process native trees but to break down imported baulks and deals, mainly from Baltic ports.

Stone was a problem. It was always the most prestigious material, but there seemed to be no local sources. Limestone was available on the Mornington Peninsula, and was extensively burnt for building lime, but as a building stone it was suited only to coarse work and not durable at that. During the first 20 years sills, hearths, steps and other elements were imported from Sydney and even from New Zealand. In 1839 a coarse but sound ferruginous sandstone was found on the south side of the Yarra River (in the present Alexandra Gardens) and was used for the Customs House, the first stage of the Gaol, and St James' Church. Later J.P. Fawkner opened a freestone quarry on his estate Pascoeville, though it seems to have been little used. Granite was found at Mount Gellibrand and Mill Park.

Basalt - commonly called 'bluestone' - was at first disregarded except for crude rubblework. The west and north of Melbourne stand on a basalt flow which extends from the Western District, and the course of the Yarra has been formed by skirting the edge of the flow. Potential basalt quarries existed throughout the west and the north, whereas nearly all the freestone was to the south and east. Basalt was hard to work, and regarded as too sombre for serious architectural treatment. It was used in the late 1840s for footings, and immediately before the gold rushes for one or two churches and possibly some commercial buildings, but the gold discoveries brought it to the fore. Despite its hardness and intractability it split fairly readily, so for building that did not require pretentious dressing or carving it became increasingly attractive when the prices of other materials rose and their quality declined in the early 1850s. The bricks being produced in Melbourne often eroded rapidly, and timber was being brought on the market in a green state. Bluestone warehouses proliferated, and the stone was also used for mansions, though mostly with the intention that they would later be stuccoed (as at Bishopscourt, East Melbourne).

The construction of Parliament House brought the stone question to a head. Bluestone was not a serious option and patriotic considerations precluded the use of inter-colonial stone. Carrara marble was seriously proposed at one point. A competition for the discovery of a suitable local freestone achieved only partial success in 1858. The prize was given to a sandstone from Bacchus March, which was then used in the following year to face the Treasury and other government buildings. Another quarry opened 10 km away, at Darley, and was used for the east or Library front of the Parliament building. Both caused serious problems, and were therefore not used to complete the building. When the west front of Parliament was begun in 1882 it was in the more recently discovered 'stawell' stone from the Heatherlie Quarry in the Grampians. In the intervening period most freestone buildings in Melbourne were of imported materials such as New Zealand Oamaru limestone, and Tasmanian Kangaroo Point, Point Ventenat and Spring Bay stones. Lesser quantities were used of Sydney's Pyrmont freestone and of Barrabool sandstone from west of Geelong.

Technical advances in timber and brick building are Victorian rather than being specific to Melbourne. One development was the 'stud frame' in timber construction, lighter than traditional framing and with more uniformly sized members and much simpler joints, relying on machine-made nails. This was not so much an invention as an expedient adopted when labour was expensive and speed a concern. The first example is believed to be the extension of La Trobe's Cottage in 1839, although it was another 60 years before the stud frame became the dominant form. In brickwork, the cavity wall appeared in Melbourne during the 1870s, earlier in west central Victoria. Brick veneer construction made a tentative appearance before World War I and was accepted by leading builders before 1930. In brick manufacture the main development was the introduction of the Hoffman kiln, from 1870 onwards, which produced a much harder and more uniform (generally) red brick.

The ironfounders Langlands and Fulton had arrived in 1842, and by about 1860 a distinctive school of Victorian-style cast-iron decoration had begun to emerge in Melbourne. Sydney was still importing iron, making castings from imported iron or designing new local iron which imitated the English Regency characteristics of the imports - openwork pilasters, Greek Revival motifs, forms reminiscent of wrought iron, and patterns with a high preponderance of void. Structural castings were also more common in Melbourne than in Sydney, probably due to the influence of protection, but as the raw material was wholly imported the cost differences were marginal. The highest iron frames, and the first steel ones in Melbourne, are associated with the skyscraper boom in the 1880s, and that in turn depended on the introduction at that time of fast and reliable passenger lifts such as those of Otis of America and Waygood of Britain. With these came the establishment in 1889 of a reticulated hydraulic power system, one of very few in the world at that time. Steel was introduced in stages from 1888 onward. The first complete frames were those of the Myer Emporium and other buildings designed by H.W. & F.B. Tompkins in about 1913. They were bolted or riveted, for electric arc welding was only just being introduced at this stage for engineering rather than conventional building purposes.

A more remarkable technology of the early 20th century was that of reinforced concrete, in which Melbourne led the country. The conventional system was the Monier, controlled in Melbourne by John Monash. The first frame in the city was that of a building in Oliver Lane of 1905. Monash's effective monopoly could be avoided by using any other of the patent systems, however ill adapted they might be for the purpose at hand. After Monash had worked with the architects on the design of the domed reading room for the State Library (1908-13), pressure from the Master Builders Association forced the trustees to throw the job open to tender, and it was executed by Swanson Brothers using the Kahn bar and the Truscon system.

Not far away from the library the Sniders & Abrahams building (1908-09) was designed by the engineer H.R. Crawford, using the American flat plate system of C.A.P. Turner. Expanded metal was used in Scottish House, William Street, and more extensively in the raft slab of the South Melbourne brickworks, and in walls and other elements of Borthwick's Meat Works, Brooklyn. In the later 1920s the Innes-Bell system of flat plate and waffle slab was used in many Melbourne buildings. The heroic age of reinforced concrete in Melbourne closed with the dramatic collapse of the British Australasian Tobacco Building, Swanston Street, in 1925.

In few subsequent developments can Melbourne be said to be distinctive, but these included the introduction of electric lifts shortly after the turn of the century; escalators in the 1930s; air conditioning in the 1930s; ready-mixed concrete in the 1940s, the glass curtain wall in the 1950s; and the Favco tower crane in the 1960s.

Miles Lewis