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The Not-So-Humble Fibro Cottage

Modern fibro cottages in Burrawong Crescent Elderslie built around the 1960s. (I Willis, 2005)

The Camden Fibro Cottage

The humble fibro cottage of the 1950s and 1960s in Camden is an important part of the town’s 20th century history. 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 evocative of long summer holidays by the beach, with adolescent love, boogie boards, zinc cream and paddle pops.  

Fibro was invented in Austria by Ludwig Hatschek in 1900, and within three years was imported to Australia. Fibro was made in Australia by 1916 and was only one of a 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 Burragorang coal fields expanded the town suffered a housing shortage and fibro cottages provided one solution. A number of fibro cottages were built by the New South Wales Housing Commission. These housing types 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. Local farms have a host of fibro houses as they were a cheap to build, and fibro was an effective building material that in some cases replaced iron cladding.

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

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 their Victa mowers around the Hills hoist in the backyard.

The Powerhouse Museum and Sydney Living Museum have Wunderlich fibro catalogues that provide 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 characteristic of 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, for example 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 asbestos fibres. For more information click here

Updated 18 March 2021. Originally posted 29 June 2014.