The race to save Australia’s first flatpack homes

Surrounded by the surviving 23 of the 50 cabins built in Belmont North in the early 1950s, SLM’s Innes hopes it will inspire prospective buyers and owners across Australia to convert the cabins into comfortable homes without losing their architectural features. losing integrity or history.

“That was the original motivation… for saying, ‘You don’t have to tear them down. You can do it in an empathetic way, and end up with a beautiful modern home that maintains its integrity,” said Innes.

Sonia Roberts with cousin Paul in 1968 at the Nissen huts in Belmont North near Newcastle.Credit:Robert’s family

Formerly known as an outdoor migrant hostel, Pommy Town in Belmont North was built to accommodate migrants and social housing for families. They were later sold to the families who lived there.

When it was built, the house was a step up from the tent the Roberts family had previously lived in when the post-war housing shortage was at its worst.

Designed by British engineer Peter Nissen in 1916 to house troops, the huts also use pegs and wire to anchor the structure into the ground and hold it up.

Because the Nissen huts were designed to be movable, they used the minimum amount of material needed to support the structure, including the roof, which held the building together, Innes said.

Once widespread throughout Australia and common as tool sheds and reconnaissance halls, these industrial relics, which look like a can of Campbell’s soup cut in half, are now disappearing or altered beyond recognition.

SLM’s Endangered Houses Fund bought the house in 2008 for the land value of $140,000.

“Nobody appreciated them,” Innes said.

Because they had no state or federal protection, they can easily be destroyed. After the trust bought the house, residents protested against the listed building.

A Nissen cabin under restoration.

A Nissen cabin under restoration. Credit:

A local told the Herald in 2009 that the cabins had served their purpose and were past their sell-by date: “Keep one for heritage reasons and let the others go”,

Charlie Leggat, then 84, a Scottish migrant who traded rented cabins twice before buying his home in 1967 for $2800, wrote to the council that conservation plans “could turn Pommy Town into a slum” dotted with crumbling Nissen huts. with reduced trade-in value.

“It’s been a good place to live, but only because I’ve made it right. Left alone it would fall apart.”

Surrounded by the suburbs of today, there was nothing but forest when Roberts was a girl.

But it was a good life, she said, where everyone knew each other. “We were just pommy city kids, just average kids,” she said.

Her family was second generation in Australia. “Everyone’s pay was about the same,” Roberts said.

Innes wonders what it must have been like for new migrants. “It must have been terribly isolated if you were a migrant to Australia who had recently arrived and fled north, you’d be like, ‘What the hell am I?’,” he said.

While many residents didn’t appreciate the Nissen huts nearly 20 years ago, Innes said the way people value heritage changes over time.

“Things previously overlooked or not considered heritage at all are changing meaning. The imminent threat of demolition often draws attention to whether something is important or not.”

A migrant family enters their new home with hopeful faces in Maribyrnong, Victoria, 1965. Nissen huts were a normal feature of “silver city” life.

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The Endangered Houses Fund is intended to preserve existing homes without turning them into museums.

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