The Not-So-Humble Fibro Cottage

Fibro Cottages Elderslie

Fibro Cottages Elderslie (I Willis)

The humble fibro cottage of the 1950s and 1960s in Camden is an important part of the town’s progress and development. The fibro house is representative of the baby-boomer era, when drive-ins, Holdens, Chiko rolls, black & white TV, rock & roll, vinyl LPs were the norm. Fibro is also evocative of long summer holidays by the beach, with adolescent love, boogie boards, zinc cream and paddle pops. Camden has a number of different types of fibro buildings dating from the 1940s and 1960s.

Fibro was invented in Austria by Ludwig Hatschek in 1900, and within three years was imported to Australia.Australia was making fibro by 1916 and was only one of the few countries to use it for housing. Fibro was made and distributed in Australian primarily by Wunderlich and James Hardie. Fibro was cheap and easy to use, and it was modern.

In the 1950s as the Camden coal industry expanded the town suffered a housing shortage and fibro cottages provided one solution. A number of fibro cottages were built by the NSW Housing Commission. These type of houses were recognized for features including hot-water systems, running water to the kitchen and bathroom and power-points throughout the house.

Camden’s simple fibro cottages provided affordable accommodation for the working man and his family. There are also many fibro houses on local farms as they were a cheap and fibro was an effective building material, that in some cases replaced iron cladding.

Many Camden families have memories of their summer holidays spent in a fibro beach shack on the South Coast as their getaway. They were loved for their low maintenance and easy repairs.

Charles Pickett’s The Fibro Frontier (1997) describes the 1950s fibro home style as austerity modernism. Pickett states that fibro houses combined economy, ease of construction and buyer engagement. Fibro was a mass-produced manufactured building material that made housing construction cheaper.  Fibro offered the working family the chance to become a home owner through a cost-effective form of modern domestic architecture. Camden’s fibro houses had proud owners who kept well maintained front gardens and mowed the grass with the Victa mowers around the Hills hoist.

The Powerhouse Museum has a collection of Wunderlich fibro catalogues that provides a valuable record of this style of architecture. Home owners and builders were offered lots of advice on the advantages of fibro in magazines like Australian Homemaker, Australian Home Beautiful and Australian House and Garden. Barry Humphries, the son of a builder, has stated that fibro houses were a little ‘declasse’ and sometimes they were not ‘nice’ homes, although some in the 1950s described them ‘as modern as tomorrow’. One characteristics of some Camden fibro cottages is the rounded corners and walls, with its streamlined and modern lines, which were first manufactured in 1937.

Fibro was also used in commercial architecture in Camden and has been used in a number of retail and commercial properties in central Camden. Pickett maintains that the peak of fibro’s acceptance was the 1960s, and from there its popularity declined and it was replaced by other building materials, like brick-veneer construction. Unfortunately fibro has poor insulation qualities and these cottages were cold in winter and hot in summer, and today there are the health risks of asbestos.

Fibro clad houses represent an important period in Camden’s historical development, and there are examples listed in Camden’s local heritage list. Interestingly filmmakers and artists have adopted the fibro house to signify as a form of ‘retro-dagginess’ and a re-evaluation of suburbia, according to Pickett. Compressed fibre board has been making a comeback in recent years as a successful building material.

Renovating a fibro cottage needs care with the dangerous asbetos fibres. For more information click here

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