Equanimity

Local sustainability

History of the ‘Dutch’ Houses of Coopers Plains

A story of wasteful development

This story is about the land bounded by the railway line between Coopers Plains and Banoon stations, Boundary Road and Troughton Road, Coopers Plains. It is now known as the Cornerstone Living project. It appears on Mapping Brisbane History.


Figure 1: Rough, not-to-scale sketch of land ownership along Boundary Rd prior to 1950

The area is part of a wide plain criss-crossed by small creeks and waterholes feeding into Oxley Creek and the Brisbane River. Fauna once proliferated here and the clans of the Jukambe tribe, the Yeerongpan and Yeeroompan, would have lived well as they passed through (Kerkhove 2015: 139). They camped at the south side of Toohey Forest. An ancient Aboriginal burial site is said to be “towards the end of McCullough” Street, possibly where Staple Swamp Creek runs through a tiny remnant of bushland on the intersection of Boundary and Troughton Roads.

There were four homes built there before World War II, belonging to the Rebeck, Hyde, McDonald and Comer families. In the early 1950s, the area was further subdivided into ten-acre blocks and the Comer home had to be moved to make way for Bland Street, which stood, though much altered, at #10 Bland Street until it was demolished in 2021.

Figure 2: Typical Dutch house [CPLHG]

After the Second World War, it was believed “there were severe shortages of housing, building materials and skilled tradesmen [sic]. One of the Queensland Government’s plans to alleviate the housing shortage was initiated when the Queensland Housing Commission purchased much of the land between Boundary Road and Breton Street, Coopers Plains, through to Eddington Street in Sunnybank.” (p. 132, CPLHG, 2005) The intention was to build homes near the railway stations. A Dutch-Australian partnership, Concrete Development Pty Ltd., won a tender to provide workforce and materials and an Australian company provided financial input.

The houses were designed in Holland with apparently little knowledge of the land or climate they were intended for. They were not typical of Dutch domestic architecture. “A broadly consistent floor plan with variations of 2 or 3 bedrooms was followed. All building materials, except masonry, mortar and equipment, including cranes, were imported from Holland on a special ship.”

Figure 3: Dutch Houses beyond Bannon Shops site, 1951

The foundations walls were of solid concrete construction with a damp-proof course. The large concrete blocks that make up the external walls are clear to see. The internal walls were formed of poured concrete and a compressed board of cement and timber shavings called Heraklit. The roofing timber came from Scandinavia and the sinks and baths from Holland.

“The first one hundred houses constructed had septic installed. However, because of the underground springs, many house sites were unsuitable for this system. Many of the housing allotments were not built on because of the natural seepage. It took three and a half years to construct 300 houses. As the houses were completed, they were rented to the workers who had worked on them. In 1985, many of the ‘Dutch houses’ were found to contain infestations of wood borers.” A further 700 homes were to be built but this did not eventuate due to the risk of becoming a financial disaster for the companies. No more than 300 houses were built due to too much seepage for the construction style. Where seepage was obvious, the Queensland Housing Commission reverted to the earlier practice of building wooden homes on stumps.

Figure 1: Moorooka homes [https://savemoorooka.org/]

Australians had been building homes with local materials for generations. After the war, many returned servicemen were looking for employment. The materials, skills and workers were not in short supply for the existing populace. However, the nationalistic concept of ‘Populate or Perish’ in a White Australia greatly influenced the infrastructure decisions of the day. As well as a baby boom, many British and European immigrants were expected to provide for the suburban sprawl, clearly designed as mass planning by municipal councils, ignoring the advice on urban controls from the forward-thinking planners of the day. In 1945 the Federal and State Governments agreed to a new public housing scheme called the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement (CSHA). National and state commissions negotiated contracts with European construction companies to export pre-fabricated housing materials and workforces and construct small public housing estates. The Queensland Housing Commission was created, and its roles were to provide finance, supply rental accommodation and construct dwellings. Its experiment in foreign-built public housing included:

  • A French project of 1,000 houses in Zillmere and Chermside
  • A Swedish project of 700 houses in Acacia Ridge and Ipswich
  • An Italian project of 1,000 houses in Carina and Toowoomba
More than 300 houses were built by about 100 Dutch migrant workers in a bid to ease Brisbane’s post-war housing shortage and lack of materials and labour. Source: SBS

The foreign construction projects were plagued by inadequate inspections, corruption, large restoration work and financial mismanagement. The whole project became a political football between Liberal Party politicians, the Housing Commission, and the Unions. The building unions were not particularly happy with foreign corporations taking money out of the country and a foreign workforce which required unionization.

Alfons Vernooy Jnr. (2004), whose father was a manager on the project, concluded that the Coopers Plains Dutch Houses was a commercial debacle. By 1952 loses were estimated at between £237,706 and £317, 706.

Although the houses were a solid build and had none of the problems seen in the Zillmere French project, the initial design resulted in:

  • A build-up of moist conditions from the heavy concrete foundations and walls
  • Lack of windows and other ventilation opening
  • Tightly confined bathroom and laundry space
  • Lack of a suitable dining area

“Dutch houses were not fit for Brisbane’s climate. A Courier Mail newspaper review in the 1953 said they were too “compact”, lacked “imaginative design” and “natural light”. Many also suffered from concrete cracking and rising damp.”

SBS

This early example of globalized housing construction has lessons for us to learn about disconnection; disconnection between designers, site, decision-makers, builders, financiers, renters and owner-occupiers.

Has anything been learned from these experiences? Unless we preserve some of this history and learn from it, mistakes are likely to be repeated.

Local history groups recorded some of the information which has informed this story, but there was no official initiative to preserve any of the ‘Dutch’ houses. I worked with a staffer at the local state representative’s office, the Hon. Peter Russo MP, to identify which of the Dutch houses were the best candidates for an application for Heritage listing with the Brisbane City Council in 2019. The criterion was that they be owned by the state government (as the owner is expected to lodge the application) and be in ‘unadapted’ or in as original condition as possible (original wooden window frames, original roofing and an outhouse). Three contenders emerged:

  1. 15 Valencia Street, Sunnybank (tenanted)
  2. 9 Macdevitt Street, Coopers Plains (Oxley Creek Catchment Association office)
  3. 84 Troughton Road, Sunnybank (less original, but in a prime position and part of the ‘community centre’ set aside in the lease agreement between the Department of Housing and Consolidate Property Group).

Six months after submitting my findings to Mr Russo’s office no action had been taken. Upon inquiry, the reason was that there had been a change of staff and files had not been passed on, so we had to ‘start from scratch’ again. Frustrated, I lodged an application nominating the three properties myself on 17th of December, 2019. On 18th of May, 2021, I received a response to inquiries as to the progress of the application via Cr Kim Marx of Runcorn Ward whose jurisdiction covers the nominated properties from Cr Krista Adams indicating that the first two properties were being assessed by the the Chief Historian in Council’s Heritage department.

None of the Dutch houses are heritage listed. Some in private hands will survive, like the van Breemen house. “They want us to sell it, they want us to move out, they want to pull it down, we just don’t want to leave,” Fred said. “We’re happy here,” adds Marijke.

DACC 2021

Let us take a look at the next incarnation of development at the same Coopers Plains site.

Sources:

Alfons Vernooy. The Dutch Houses of Coopers Plains. A Postwar Housing Debacle at Brisbane. Brisbane History Group Studies No. 4. 2004.

Buch, N., ((2015) Briefing Notes on the Coopers Plains Dutch Houses 1950-1955, Dr Neville Buch ABN 86703686642.

Coopers Plains Local History Group, (2005) A Closer Look at Coopers Plains.

Kerkhove, R., (2015) Aboriginal Camp Sites of Greater Brisbane, Brisbane City Council.

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