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Research Guides

Land of Opportunity: Australia's post-war reconstruction

The building industry

From 1941 onwards the Reconstruction Division and later the Department of Post War Reconstsruction were subjected to a barrage of letters, articles, leaflets and brochures from architects, builders, manufacturers, importers and others on the merits of particular building materials and construction methods. The efficiency and productivity of the building industry were seen by many as providing the foundation for post-war reconstruction. Despite the creation of a Commonwealth housing authority in 1945, the Department of Post War Reconstruction continued to take a strong interest in the building industry right up to the last days of the Chifley government.

Not long after he joined the Reconstruction Division in 1942, Arthur Tange began to make a close study of the building industry in relation to post-war housing policy. He visited architects, master builders and trade unions in Sydney and Melbourne seeking information on labour and materials needed for various categories of housing, such as cheap workers' flats, weatherboard houses and brick houses. As well as housing, Tange took into account the likely demand for industrial, commercial and public buildings after the war. He attempted to provide an estimate of the total labour requirements of the building industry and the number of people who would need training. He also looked at the question of materials, especially the likely supplies of timber. In 1943–44 Tange's work was carried on by others, such as W Baker and AG Colley, who worked closely with the industry and the Manpower Directorate.

Building materials and labour shortages

In its final report in August 1944, the Commonwealth Housing Commission predicted a labour shortage in the building industry, as well as a shortfall of materials. It suggested a retraining program and improved employment conditions that might make the industry more attractive to demobilised servicemen. It recommended the establishment of a building research station to encourage innovation and carry out research on prefabrication and new building materials. The government accepted this recommendation and established a Commonwealth Experimental Building Station in Sydney in June 1944, with David Isaacs as the director. Initially under the control of the Department of Post War Reconstruction, it was transferred to the Department of Works and Housing in 1946. The station, which remained in operation until 1985, did important work on new methods of construction and prefabrication, and in developing national building standards.

With a permit system firmly in place, investment in civil building was negligible in 1942 and 1943. In July 1944 Cabinet considered a submission by JB Chifley on the building industry. He argued that the planned home-building program would only be achieved if the building industry was restored to its pre-war capacity. He recommended that the production of building materials be a high civilian priority, training of building labour be mobilised, and the support of trade unions be secured. Cabinet gave its approval and set up an inter-departmental committee to review the current building program and levels of employment, assist the Manpower Directorate in obtaining the release of building tradesmen, and identify factors likely to delay progress of the works program. Inter-departmental committees on the building industry were also formed in the states. Shortly afterwards, the War Cabinet approved the release of 45,000 men from the defence forces. In the subsequent workforce budget, it was envisaged that 20,700 men would be allocated to the building industry and a further 5200 men to building materials industries. By 1945, however, only 10,000 additional men had been absorbed into the industry.

In February 1945 Dedman told Cabinet that delays in the production of building materials were having a serious effect on the re-establishment of the civil economy. He attributed the delays to labour shortages, including difficulties in recruiting experienced workers, delays in introducing mechanisation, and in some states a critical shortage of coal. He himself contributed to the productivity difficulties when, to the dismay of his department, he rashly relinquished most of the Commonwealth's building controls at the premiers conference in August 1945. The result was a chaotic system in which the states were notionally responsible for bricks, cement, plaster and tiles, while the Commonwealth retained its controls for timber, sinks, pipes and other metal products.

The building labour question was discussed in 1946 at a series of conferences with the premiers, state officials, and trade union and employer representatives. The Department of Post War Reconstruction estimated that the current workforce was slightly under 100,000, compared with 90,000 in 1939. It concluded that, if housing shortages were to be overcome, at least 130,000 men should be continuously engaged in the industry. The gap would need to be filled by providing training in the building trades for 32,850 men, whereas at the time only 3248 were being trained under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. The figures were accepted by state officials, but the trade unions were not convinced that the industry could absorb such a large number. They agreed to an initial target of 16,600 trainees. In August 1946 Chifley issued a statement on behalf of the National Works Council referring to the need for a workforce of at least 130,000 in the next 10 years. A labour force of that order should be able to complete 60,000 houses per annum (compared with 40,000 in 1939), as well as other public and private building works. He called on employers and employees to unite in a campaign to attract new workers, raise productivity, cut down irregularity of employment and improve working conditions.

Chifley acknowledged that there were backlogs in the supply of building materials, but believed that the shortage of trained labour was the main limiting factor. Thomas Playford disagreed, claiming that materials shortages were more serious, and he could not accept responsibility for ensuring that 11,000 building tradesmen were kept employed in South Australia over the next 10 years. He was supported by most of the other premiers. In June 1947 Allen Brown came to a similar conclusion and pointed out to Dedman that, whereas employment in the industry was 15 per cent higher than in 1939, the production of building materials was 25 per cent lower. Unless there was a marked improvement in production, he predicted that there would be unemployment in the industry, the training program would collapse and there would be severe setbacks in housing and building.

In the next two years Dedman presented a series of sombre Cabinet papers on the production of building materials. He reported that production of cement, roofing tiles and timber was reaching record levels, but brick production in 1949 was still below the 1939 figure. Lack of direction by state governments, labour shortages, excessive caution on the part of manufacturers, transport problems and crises in the coal industry affected materials production in various ways. The steel, asbestos and glass industries, for instance, suffered from coal shortages and consequently production was lower in 1949 than in 1948. The fluctuating fortunes of the various building industries were reflected in the appearance of post-war housing in Australia. There was a sharp fall in the proportion of brick houses built after 1945 and a significant increase in weatherboard and fibro-cement houses.

Migrant labour

In New South Wales conflict between the Building Workers Industrial Union and the Master Builders' Association created chaos in the training program, but committees of unions and employers in other states were relatively effective. Nevertheless unions remained nervous about a possible glut of trained building workers and training targets were only raised marginally. By July 1948, 18,000 men had been trained or were being trained in the building trades. A deputation from the RSL, critical of the progress in training, told Dedman that vacancies in the building material industries should be filled by displaced persons. The use of migrant labour had been discussed for some time and Department of Immigration officers in Britain and Europe had been directed to select immigrants with experience in the building trades.

In January 1947 the Prime Minister welcomed 200 British building tradesmen who had arrived in Canberra to work on a 15-year building program for the Department of the Interior. In December 1948 Nelson Lemmon reported that many migrants were augmenting the labour force in the timber, brick, tile and cement industries. By that time, displaced persons were beginning to arrive in large numbers and they had an enormous effect on the building industry. In May 1949 Arthur Calwell said a large proportion of 13,000 displaced persons had gone into essential industries, chiefly production of building materials. By June 1950 the influx of trainees and migrants had resulted in a labour force of more than 113,000 engaged on new building works, compared with about 65,000 in June 1946. In the period 1945–50, housing construction accounted for 84 per cent of all new building activity, with the construction of commercial and public buildings remaining well below the pre-war level.

Series: A2700
Experimental Building Station, 14 March 1944 565B
Restoration of the building industry, 14 July 1944 683
Sponsorship of building, 17 July 1945 888
Timber for housing and essential industries, 27 August 1945 899
Production of materials for building and construction, 7 February 1946 1074
Production of materials for building and construction, 26 March 1946 1074A
Hand tools for the building industry, 26 May 1947 1342
The building industry and the Reconstruction Training Program, 3 June 1947 1345
The building industry and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, 5 May 1948 1345A
The building industry and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme: production of building materials, 2 June 1948 1345B
The building industry and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme: production of building materials, 3 August 1948 1345C
The building industry and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme: production of materials, 28 September 1948 1345D
The building industry and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme: production of materials, 6 December 1948 1345E
The building industry and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme: production of materials, 7 April 1949 1345F
The building industry and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme: production of materials, 19 August 1949 1345G
Production Executive
Series: A2866
JJ Dedman. Building industries, 13 April 1943
JJ Dedman. Control of building operations, 16 March 1944
JJ Dedman. Production of building materials, 29 June 1945
Department of Post War Reconstruction
Series: A9790
Building industry: general, 1945–50
Includes a report (August 1947) by the National Works Council on the production of building materials and a memorandum (18 January 1950) by the Economic Policy Division on proposals for Commonwealth action to expand building output.
Building industry: Cabinet submissions, 1945–49
Cabinet submissions by JJ Dedman on the building industry and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme and notes and drafts by TW Swan.
Conference on building industry: agenda and decisions, 1947–48 (2 parts)
Minutes of the Building Industry Conference (13 February 1948), chaired by N Lemmon, minutes of a conference (27–28 January 1948) of Commonwealth and state materials control officers, chaired by CH McFadyen, and related correspondence. The correspondents include JB Chifley, AS Brown and PJ Lawler.
Building Advisory Council, 1948–49
Correspondence of JJ Dedman, HC Coombs, AS Brown and N Lemmon concerning the possible formation of a Building Advisory Council.
Labour and training in the building industry, 1942–49 (2 parts)
Correspondence and memoranda on the building trades, training of building labour, labour requirements for the housing program, training under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, and vacancies for building tradesmen. The correspondents include AH Tange, G Rudduck, A Colley, AW Paul, AS Brown and PJ Lawler.
Full employment in the building industry, 1947–49
Correspondence and memoranda on building industry statistics and the building industry and the full employment policy. The correspondents include AS Brown, AW Welch, PJ Lawler and SR Carver.
Series: A9816
Housing and the building industry, 1941–47 (2 parts)
Correspondence, minutes and notes on the organisation of the building industry, building labour, Commonwealth–state machinery to deal with the building industry, the Building Industry Congress and the Building Industry Advisory Committee. Correspondents include AH Tange, R Mendelsohn, G Rudduck, L Ross and W Baker.
Labour requirements of the building industry, 1944–47 (5 parts)
Correspondence, minutes, reports and statistical papers on training targets, estimates of labour employed and required, apprenticeships, occupational surveys, training facilities and expenditure, the shortage of building materials and a conference (July 1947) with unions and employers. The correspondents include HC Coombs, AS Brown, PWE Curtin, AG Colley, MW Phillips, JE Willoughby, TW Swan, JF Nimmo, PJ Lawler, R Wilson, AW Welch, S Lucas and EP Eltham.
Building methods, reforms, town planning: submissions, 1941–46 (4 parts)
Submissions from individuals, organisations, ALP branches, trade unions and local government authorities on housing, building materials, the Commonwealth Housing Commission, building standards, construction methods, labour, home building schemes and other subjects.
Housing: building materials, 1942–44
Correspondence and minutes on the availability of building materials, prices, stock accumulation, construction costs and related matters. The correspondents include HC Coombs, JG Crawford, G Rudduck, JL Knott, NG Butlin and W Baker. There are also letters from companies and other organisations dealing with specific products.
1943/670 Pt 1
Forestry: policy matters, 1941–47
Includes notes (23 October 1942) by AH Tange and PR Judd on forestry and timber supplies.
Building industry in South Australia: KE Newman, 1942–45
Correspondence concerning the research of KE Newman of the University of Adelaide on the building industry in South Australia.
Experimental Building Station, 1943–47 (4 parts)
Reports, minutes and agenda papers (1944–45) of the board of directors of the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station and correspondence concerning the establishment of the station, its organisation and functions. The correspondents include HC Coombs, JG Crawford, LPD O'Connor, G Rudduck and D Isaacs.
Re-establishment statistics: building industry, 1943–44
Correspondence and notes of interviews on employment data and workforce requirements in the building industry.
University of Tasmania: housing and building research, 1943 (2 parts)
Surveys by B Denholm and A Crisp of the building industry in Hobart, Launceston, Devonport and Tasmania generally.
Timber industry, 1944–47 (2 parts)
A report (4 May 1944) by S Kessell and R Turnbull on the post-war timber industry, notes of a meeting (30 May 1945) of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Timber Import Requirements, and correspondence relating to overseas sources of timber and timber consumption. The correspondents include HC Coombs, AH Tange, Sir Harry Brown, W Baker, S Kessell and NG Butlin.
Building control, 1945
Minutes of a conference (12–13 September 1945) of Commonwealth and state officers, chaired by LJ Loder, on the control of building materials and building permits.
Statistics of males discharged from the Services and placed in the building industry, 1946
Statistics of the distribution of male workers in the building industry (1939–45), compiled in May 1946.
Expansion and maintenance of employment in the building industry, 1946
Correspondence and memoranda on expansion and maintenance of employment in the building industry and notes of a conference (30–31 May 1946), chaired by HC Coombs, on training and the building industry. The correspondents include FM Forde, TW Swan, AW Welch and LF Loder.
Experimental Building Station Advisory Committee: minutes, 1946–48
Agenda papers, minutes and correspondence of the Experimental Building Station Advisory Committee, chaired by LJ Price, with G Rudduck representing the Department of Post War Reconstruction.
Experimental Building Station: conference of State Liaison Technical Officers, 1946
Agenda papers and minutes of a conference of state liaison technical officers (18 June 1946), chaired by D Isaacs.
Statistics of production and distribution of building materials, 1946–48 (8 parts)
Correspondence concerning statistics of the production and distribution of building materials. The correspondents include HC Coombs, LF Loder, NF Stuart and S Lucas.
Department of War Organisation of Industry
Series: CP80/1
Australian production of building materials, 1943
A statement (November 1943) of timber production by S Kessell, the Controller of Timber.
Timber supply: post-war, 1944
A report (4 May 1944) by S Kessell and R Turnbull on the production of timber in the post-war period.
Building trades in the post-war period, 1944
Correspondence and papers concerning a meeting (June 1944) between JJ Dedman and representatives of building unions in Sydney.
Department of Works and Housing
Series: A692
Materials Commonwealth: cement, 1946–51
Correspondence with state housing authorities and the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station on the economical use of cement in housing, cement shortages, prices, and the import, production and distribution of cement. The correspondents include N Lemmon, AW Welch, RE Banks and T Cavanagh.
D136 Pt 1
Materials Commonwealth: bricks, 1946–52
Newspaper cuttings and correspondence on brick shortages and production, closure of brick kilns, and requirements for housing. The correspondents include AW Welch, RE Banks and CH McFadyen.
Materials Commonwealth: fibrous plaster, 1945–51
Correspondence on the production of asbestos fibre, shortages of fibrous plaster sheets, the manufacture of fibrous plaster sheets in Queensland and the supply of sisal hemp. The correspondents include HP Lazzarini, WP Ashley, AW Welch, EG Yeomans, RE Banks, I Langlands and HP Breen.
Prime Minister's Department
Series: A461
Building materials, 1940–50 (5 parts)
Correspondence of J Curtin and JB Chifley with state premiers, organisations and individuals about methods of construction, prefabricated housing, control of building materials orders, shortages of materials, state housing programs, building permits, the abolition of Commonwealth controls, Commonwealth–state conferences (12–13 September 1945, 11 August 1947) on building materials, assistance to building firms, public works priorities, the release of materials by the services, pegging of prices, and government action to stimulate production.
Housing: IDC on the Building Industry, 1944–45
Correspondence between J Curtin and the state premiers about the establishment of the Inter-Departmental Committee on the Building Industry and creation of state committees.
Series: A571
Relaxation of building restrictions, 1944–45
Includes a minute from AC Joyce to JB Chifley commenting on a Production Executive submission (16 March 1944) on the control of building operations.
Post-war control of building materials and labour, 1944–49 (2 parts)
Correspondence and notes concerning inter-departmental committees on the building industry, production of building materials and accumulation of reserve stocks, allocation of priorities for building works, shortages of materials, the draft White Paper on the building industry (March 1946), and expansion of employment in the building industry. The correspondents include HC Coombs, HJ Goodes, R White, TW Swan and PW Nette.

Further reading

Allport, Carolyn, 'Left off the agenda: women, reconstruction and New Order housing', Labour History, no. 46, 1984, pp. 1–20.

Barnett, F Oswald and Burt, WO, Housing the Australian Nation, Left Book Club of Victoria, Melbourne, 1942.

Bunning, Walter, Homes in the Sun: the past, present and future of Australian housing, WJ Nesbit, Sydney, 1945.

Bunning, Walter (ed.), The Housing Problem in Australia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1947.

Commonwealth Housing Commission, Final report, Sydney, 1944.

Greig, Alastair, The Stuff Dreams are Made of: housing provision in Australia 1945–1960, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1995.

Mendelsohn, R,'The housing problem', Australian Quarterly, vol. 17, 1945, pp. 52–8.

Troy, Patrick, Accommodating Australians: Commonwealth Government involvement in housing, Federation Press, Sydney, 2012.