Craig Johnson Expert View: Extinguishing history

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After some years living in Melbourne, I have come to adjust to, and in some cases even understand, some of our city’s more baffling idiosyncrasies. From why people are happy to queue for 90 minutes to eat avocado toast on a Saturday morning, to the reason that – within five minutes of meeting someone – they will be trying to convert me to follow their AFL team, I think I now have a reasonable handle on Melbourne living.

But I have to confess, one aspect of Melbourne’s culture continues to baffle me.

For a city that boasts such a short history (Melbourne was founded in 1835) Melbournians have an incredible passion, and thirst, for history, but are equally passionate about demolishing the small amount of history that they have.

I’m talking about the propensity in this city for people to knock down quality-built Melbourne homes, and replace them with properties that are little more than badly constructed MDF sheds!

It’s been a while (quite a while) since I was going door to door introducing Ecostar Double Glazing to Melbourne home owners, but back when I did my biggest bugbear was people who chose not to improve their double brick-built homes double glazed windows and doors because they didn’t know what was going to happen to their house in the future. “When we pass it on to our kids they are going to sell to developers who are just going to knock it down,” was the depressing refrain I heard all too often, and my team continues to hear to this day.

We’re talking about meticulously built double brick homes! I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.

It’s important to understand what makes a good building in this country. Double brick has a higher thermal mass than timber or brick veneer, offering far superior insulation which keeps your house cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Construction is solid so they require little maintenance over time, the inorganic materials in bricks don’t attract termites, and brick construction is more fire-resistant than timber.

I can just about understand if you buy a piece of land with a property on it and it’s not exactly what you want so you demolish and start again. But to knock down a home just because you’ve outgrown the existing floorplan baffles me. Why not simply build on an extension and marry up the double brick, or remodel the internal walls without touching the double brick shell, or replace drafty old timber framed windows and doors with thermo-efficient uPVC double glazed windows and doors?

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Instead it’s all too common to knock down and subdivide, living in one property and renting the other one out. “Aren’t I clever,” these Mum and Dad builders tell themselves. But that depends on how you look at it…

It’s greed really. I have a friend who owned a demolition company a few years ago. I remember asking him how much it costs to knock down a house, level the land, clear the materials away, and make the land safe. His answer was $20k. A small price to pay you might think, but remember, it’s more than likely all those materials are going straight to landfill.

If you look at the aluminium framed windows in new-build Australian properties, they are significantly poorer quality than those in properties built in the ‘70s. Horizontally sliding aluminium windows are a security and energy efficiency nightmare, and any construction savings are a false economy on a potentially catastrophic scale for the environment, if not for the security of your home contents!

Which brings me back to my original conundrum. On one hand you have Melbournians green with envy over Europe’s beautiful historic homes and buildings, and on the other hand we’re never going to enjoy that depth of provenance here because people just keep knocking down buildings and replacing them with badly built, disposable developments.

Preserving Melbourne’s quality-built homes is something I’m passionate about, and their loss in favour of cheaply built MacMansions makes me genuinely sad.

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