Conservation of Queenslander houses

A vigorous, broad-based conservation movement emerged in Australia during the 1970s and with it came enthusiasm for the restoration of private houses. While this trend was replicated in Queensland, the reuse and recycling of Queenslander houses is a much older tradition. The construction of Queenslander houses on stumps made them highly adaptable. The same structural advantage that allows them to be constructed on uneven and very steep land, also meant that houses could be removed from the stumps in tact. Queenslanders can therefore be raised or lowered, reoriented or even completely relocated and reused.

This adaptive reuse of Queenslander houses is epitomised in historic towns that suffered cycles of economic prosperity and loss. As populations dwindled in one place and people moved to new sites of expansion, large numbers of houses were transported to the growing towns. This ability to reuse entire houses is unique to Queensland and is the ultimate example of sustainable and recyclable housing.

Renovation and Conservation

The full flavour of a worker's dwelling, Dittberners House, built 1911-12 The full flavour of a worker's dwelling, Dittberners House, built 1911-12 (Rod Fisher, 1982)

A major incentive for renovation is the premium value returned through the real estate market.

The process that is best applied to old Queenslanders is conservation in which deterioration is arrested but essential work is carried out gently and with sensitivity.

Ideally renovators should make additions or alterations with the materials of the original, without trying to hide the change. The incorporation of some new materials such as concrete blocks, modern roofing or paving tiles can be incongruous with existing materials and result in a poor quality renovation.

Historical sources can be checked to discover details of interior fittings and furnishings. But evidence can also be found by examining the house itself. First, try to understand the overall picture by looking at walls that may have been introduced or removed. Understand how the house has been extended or changed, including how some material might have been reused.

Sometimes archival sources and physical examination do not give enough information, so that a broader understanding of the general tradition of interiors should be developed. It is sometimes necessary to understand the four essentials in any house: 

  • the geographic location – the effect of climate on furniture and interiors; 
  • the period in which the house was constructed – detailing is often very different from one period to another; 
  • the scale of the house – large, expensive houses will be detailed differently from smaller, poorer ones; and 
  • the hierarchy of rooms – front rooms were detailed differently from service rooms.

As a general rule, before doing anything irreversible, ask yourself: is this the way it would have been done? When in doubt, seek advice from committed professionals, owners and publications.

Queensland Museum's Find out about... is proudly supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation and the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation.