“Fibro” – ‘Fibrous–Cement’

A short introduction to local ‘Fibrous–Cement’ and concrete building.(part 1)
Known by a variety of names including “Super-Six”, “Pollite” and “FibroLite,” asbestos based cement products have a long history in the building industry, not only in this country but right around the globe. Originally patented in 1900, the asbestos and cement sheet devised by Ludwig Hatschek in Belgium was being manufactured in ten other countries by 1910.

Asbestos fibres were mixed in a ratio of 15% to 85% Portland cement and cooked until hardened. This basic mixture was first used as a replacement roof shingle, called ‘slates’. Several new products were then developed almost simultaneously throughout Europe over the next few years, including flat ‘Uralite Kent Board’ panels, seen at the ‘Cheap Cottages Exhibition’ at Letchworth in 1905.

Some two years earlier in Britain while on a buying trip for his tanning supplies business, James Hardie of Melbourne was given a French product, ‘fibro-ciment’ slate for roof lining. Hardie, previously of Scotland before starting up business in Australia, began marketing the product in 1906. By 1907 he was selling ‘patent’ asbestos cement slates in different thicknesses and colours including red, blue, grey and purple at 2s.6d (50c) a square yard. By 1908 other Australian companies were selling a variety of asbestos cement products under a number of trade names, such as “Pollite” and “Titanic”. New Zealand architects and builders were quick to see the possibilities available with the new product. By transposing the ideas seen in the ‘Cheap Cottages Exhibition’ with the rising popularity of the Californian Bungalow, a hybrid was conceived which would offer a new variation on the’ Arts and Crafts’ style being built across the nation.

Architects such as Basil Hooper, Gerald Jones, Noel Bamford and Roy Binney had absorbed the stylistic references and ideas of C F Voysey and Edwin Lutyen’s  producing distinctly Anglo-influenced buildings, often given the name Arts and Crafts -though perhaps this term should be conferred more directly to the works of James Walter Chapman-Taylor.  A recipient of an International Correspondence School architecture qualification, he built his first house in 1905 (Wellington) before leaving for England, and is said to have met Voysey and other practitioners of arts and crafts design. His hand built houses are the antithesis of the ‘spec built’ bungalows which were to proliferate throughout the early 1900’s. Indeed, such was the rapid growth in building that villa and bungalow styles seemed to blend for some years with ‘transitional’ villas and ‘bungled’ villas appearing from the builders books.

This ferment would also produce the ‘stucco’ or concrete bungalow – promoted as a low maintenance alternative to the wooden. Cheaper to construct than masonry but with the presence and solidity that brick proffered, these stripped-down hybrids of Arts and Crafts (or ‘Craftsman’ in America) meets Californian began to appear with the arrival of fibro-cement products, somewhere between 1909-1911.

The construction of concrete buildings within New Zealand is generally believed to have begun around Dunedin, with John Gow’s farmhouse of 1862 in Mosgiel being the oldest surviving example (now owned by the University of Otago.) ‘Cast in Concrete’ (Thornton, 1996) describes in detail many early constructions throughout the country including a bridge and abutments outside New Plymouth, from 1859. In the late 1870’s near Warkworth on the Marhurangi River, Nathanial Wilson began burning lime and producing cement which he marketed as complying with English specifications. Wilson’s product was highly successful and by 1880 the company set about building a number of concrete dwellings, some of which are still visible around Surrey Crescent and Richmond Rd in Grey Lynn. Construction and labour costs eventually rendered this not a viable operation, which he and his brothers ceased. His son W J Wilson later went on to form the Dominion Portland Cement Company in partnership with George Winstone in 1912.

Concrete was in many ways the perfect material, and could be moulded and formed to meet a multiplicity of needs. Dick Seddon’s Liberal Government had introduced the first state house building scheme with the Workers Dwelling Act of 1905 which saw several different settlements erected throughout the country. Under the Government Architect’s direction, Patrick Street in Petone contained two experimental dwellings of concrete, and a further 6 were built in Riccarton, Christchurch by 1909, with another 10 added in 1912.

Wanganui was (without an H) by 1910, a prosperous growing city, a centre for farming, trade and shipping – with its baroque fronted opera house and museum in the prescribed English style. As commerce and trade expanded the city, new buildings/housing were required, and Christchurch architect Samuel Hurst Seager designed ‘a Garden Suburb’. Durie Hill as drawn was a model of egalitarian ideals, originally conceived in line with other post industrial age ideas evolving in Europe (such as Letchworth outside London) before the First World War -but this ‘garden suburb’ was not implemented until the early 1920’s and was by then seen as a ideal site for placement of returning soldiers and their families, with its curving street layouts and tranquil park-like setting above the river city.

The concrete bungalow had become well established within the city by this time. It seems to have made its first appearance in Wanganui across the river in the working class suburb of Gonville from shortly after 1911. The early buildings were often smallish and plain but soon evolved, with a variety of additions and construction methods being utilised depending on the budget. Some had partial brick walls with stonework pillars supporting the arched porch entrance, curved bay windows with shingle window hoods and low pitched Marseilles tile roofs (imported by Briscoes). Bassett & Co builder’s ‘Konka Board’ product was used on the hundreds of buildings they went on to construct as ‘Kosy Konka Homes’, from around 1914 onwards.

‘Konka Board’ was a flat fibre-cement sheeting (approx 900mm x 900mm x 50mm) nailed to the buildings studs underneath a mesh ‘lath’ to which concrete render (or ‘stucco’) was then applied, unlike the Arts and Crafts buildings of Chapman-Taylor, which were usually solid timber, brick and reinforced concrete, the products often locally sourced and made by the teams of masons, joiners employed. Hurst Seager’s earlier (1902 -1914) housing development on ‘the Spur’ in Christchurch also had ties to Arts and Crafts, with each of the eight bungalows being designed by the architect and built with quality  products, predominately wood. The move to using fibre-cement products was a mixture of availability and pricing over traditional wood or masonry.

Auckland’s concrete bungalows and houses are generally pepper-potted throughout the developing suburbs, with the availability of Kauri forests on its doorsteps and local companies like Cashmore’s and Lamb’s Timber merchants still moving huge amounts of lumber into the city. James Hardie had begun importing ‘fibre-ciment’ into New Zealand as early as 1906 according to the companies own records and local builders were attempting to keep up with the acute housing shortage due to improved prosperity. Even during the First World War years housing construction continued, as did exports and shipping. It was not until the advent of the world-wide Great Depression in the late twenties that building and commerce faltered.

Major contracts such as Wellington’s Pipitea wharf buildings in 1925 had gained Hardies a sizeable foothold in the New Zealand market and as the first Labour Government of 1935 sought to stimulate the economy through initiating a program of State House building and large infrastructure projects, Hardies began looking for a factory site in New Zealand. A local rival, Fletchers already had an asbestos cement production facility in Riccarton by the early 1920’s.

During this period the bungalow had also grown, with double story versions appearing in streets throughout the country. ‘Spanish Mission’ also became popular, post the 1931 Napier earthquake, along with the arrival of Art Deco and Moderne.  Initially austere due to the effects of the Depression, the 1930’s were often seen as artistically and socially conservative, what Frank Sargeson was to describe as the ‘The Grey Death’ when relating his feelings about life in home town Hamilton of the time. Obviously pockets of change and aspiration survived. Winstone’s, previously a transport and building supply company entered the housing market in 1931 with a variety of compact English styled ‘cottages’ designed by local architects such as Basil Hooper, hoping to capitalise on traditional buyers  preferences, but this scheme failed to ignite partially due to the effects of the depression and possibly a change in attitude even though Auckland was more buoyant than other areas of the country.

Edmund Anscombe, Horace Massey and a number of other architects managed to judge the prevailing influences, designing buildings that mixed Art Deco and Moderne, and even ‘modern’, successfully. The ‘spec’ builder versions, though visually similar often lacked the weight; stucco and fibre-cement board replacing bricks and mortar. “Pollite” and “FibroLite” became shorthand amongst the building fraternity for asbestos fibre-cement products, though interestingly these seemed to be regional afflictions.

In 1938 James Hardie Ltd opened its new factory in Penrose, collecting a contract to sheet the exterior walls and many parts of the buildings involved with the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition site, designed by Edmund Anscombe in Rongatai, Wellington. Though promoted as a brilliant technical spectacle and centrepiece of a progressive Modern New Zealand culture, with its murals and vivid floodlit  avenues and Pavilions,’ Anscombe’s design was essentially an Art Deco extravaganza (the Australian pavililion by Stephenson and Turner with its expansive curved glass encased stairwell and lack of ornament providing the real modern cutting edge.) The architecture of Moderne and Art Deco favoured curved and flat surfaces over the weatherboard and ‘tongue and groove’ of previous eras. The streamlined and smooth epitomised progress for many, though much of the fibre-cement sold in this country was still in the form of roof ‘slates’.

The ‘bach’ (or ‘crib’ in the South Island) was usually a building without a permit or any official licence, designed for shelter from the elements and a basic style of living away from the constraints of domestic society. It is here perhaps that ‘fibro’ invalidates all of its potential negative qualities (its health damaging properties had started to be known before the 1920’s). The 8’ x 4’ module (sheet) attached to a 4”x2” stud with clouts or a galvanised flathead nail resists most of what nature can throw at it if rudimentary skills in carpentry are employed. The war years of 1939 -1945 saw a new ‘style’ of building and construction evolve within New Zealand, partially influenced by what would be called the ‘tenets of modernism’ – truth to materials, recognition of site and honesty of form. These were combined with a ‘search for the vernacular’ delivering up the impressive and articulate Liverpudlian born Vernon Akitt Brown to the Auckland University College’s School of Architecture.

A visually striking combination of black Stockholm tar and creosote, white window framing and bargeboards, Vernon Browns houses were considered by some to resemble a bach – on occasion being described as creosoted “chicken coops”! Famous for aphorisms such as “there is no snow in Arney Road” in relation to the minimal pitch roofs of houses like the Tidmarsh’s and his own in Remuera, he further confounded expectations by ‘facing’ the house away from the road, commenting that it was nonsensical for houses to have backs and fronts – as Maurice Duggan wrote of his own house in Forrest Hill Rd, “We put up a Vernon Brown nucleus, leanto roof, arse to Rangi and the road…”

With the wartime restrictions on building size and use of materials still in force until the early 1950’s, Brown’s methods and teaching influenced many of the next wave of architects. The new generation (Group Architects, Rigby Mullan, John Scott, etc) would engage in the pursuit of a New Zealand architecture, taking their lead from the woolsheds and buildings of our past.

The designs in many cases were open plan and materially simpler with exposed beams and wood panels rather than plaster ceilings and wallpaper. Fibre cement panels in a number of varieties for wall cladding, wet areas, and fencing could all be bought by the homemaker or professional at the building supply merchants. ‘Super Six’ the large size corrugated fibro roofing sheets is probably the most noticeable fibre-cement product of the post war era. Houses which still retain Super Six as a roofing material are in many cases a product of an architects input from the modern era, a similar signifier to full length glass windows and plywood interior panelling.

As the era of DIY (‘Do It Yourself’ magazine, British – Readership 3,750,000 by 1960) took hold, stirrings about the ill-effects of asbestos production were surfacing in various media. James Hardie’s literature of the early 1960’s endeavours to promote a ‘hip’ and altogether easygoing functional attitude, the products are rot-proof, light, strong and practical, requiring minimum upkeep and easily blend with most outdoor ‘settings’. Australia, home of the asbestos giant was feverent in its products promotion, but like the platypus, beneath the surface there was hurried paddling and weaving in search of a safe house- by the late 60’s the tide was beginning to turn and new additives were being investigated.

As the same time as the Hardie’s factory had opened in Penrose, competition for ‘fibro’ had arrived in the form of the concrete block – a quick and easy to use alternative which required no timber framework and was also suitable for commercial and home handyman applications. The Firth’s product (introduced to the trade after earlier manufacturer’s attempts) had by the end of the war begun to challenge fibro’s place in the market.

Geoffrey Thornton’s authoritive book  ‘Cast in Concrete – Concrete construction in New Zealand 1850-1939’  details the making of various blocks in the years before the Firth product, such as the Invercargill Prison where inmates made the blocks and built the prison, then going on to supply the product for local house construction. The blocks had a ‘rusticated’ or rock-face to give the impression of stone. A very similar product ‘Petrous’ Rock Face blocks were promoted in ‘Home and Building’ from the 1940’s on. ‘Vibrapac’, the Winstone companies’ concrete block was also heavily promoted through the media, appearing in numerous issues of the Home and Building, including the cover issue (H&B Sept, 1959) showing Miles Warren’s iconic Dorset Street flats constructed two years earlier.

The late 1950’s and early 60’s in Australia and New Zealand were a time of unparalleled home ownership and growth, possibly the heyday of bach construction in this country. Hardie’s were constantly seeking new markets for their product and introduced ‘the planter’ and garden ponds into a country with zero unemployment and annual increase of its GDP. Domestic concrete construction or hybrids like the ‘Kosy Konka Homes’ had in some cases been replaced by a house which had references to the open plan buildings of early Group houses, but were bereft of the material quality and sometimes little more than shelter at a price. The ‘econo house’ was but one option; building companies including Fletchers, Keith Hay and Neil Homes developed subdivisions throughout the country with government financial assistance, seemingly populated by featureless boxes of concrete block, weatherboard, fibrolite and corrugated iron. Without the direct input of the Government and its ‘housing and planning’, some of the new developments contained multiple versions of something akin to ‘Fibrolite Compact’ houses, which without the sheltering plant growth or landscaping bought to life the Ticky Tacky “Little Boxes” of popular song. These certainly weren’t the quality houses of the ‘garden suburbs’ the modern age had promised.


(part 2)
Asbestos based fibre cement products were being produced well into the late 1980’s when public pressure finally forced companies including James Hardie to find alternatives. Construction of concrete houses (and masonry) had always been slightly more expensive than timber framed dwellings and concrete block systems had predictably taken the place of in-situ or cast concrete domestic structures since the 1950’s.

Architect Rudolf Schindler, an early friend and collaborator of Neutra’s in America had designed and built his own house in West Hollywood using tilt-up concrete slabs in 1922. The ‘Kings Road’ or ‘Schindler /Chace’ house is now considered to be one of the first modernist houses in the States, but wasn’t initially well received or documented. The tilt up slab system as pioneered in this country by Dick Hobin in 1952, like Schindler’s, didn’t flourish as a domestic alternative until many years later but was used in commercial building by the mid 1950’s – and is still only selectively used in house construction here.

To be continued… photo’s and further text being loaded(Ed).