Approximately 3,500 Pettit & Sevitt project houses were built during the 1960s and early 1970s in Sydney, regional New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Fiji. Approximately 500 were built in Canberra from 1966-1978.
Through a mixture of social and economic factors, project housing in Australia developed and grew in popularity during the 1960s. It represents an important development in Australia’s post-war cultural and architectural history. While Pettit & Sevitt wasn’t the first project home company, it represented a turning point in the development of house building processes and the marketing of project houses in Australia. For the first, time large numbers of people were able to secure an affordable house of high architectural quality in a straightforward manner.
Pettit & Sevitt designs popularised open planning, the idea of the family room and the ensuite bathroom. It was an important factor in the continuation of the principles established by Sydney School architects who influenced vernacular housing during the 1960s, and many Pettit & Sevitt houses are good examples of the Sydney School. The company won a number of RAIA NSW Chapter Project House Design Awards during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Pettit & Sevitt began operating in April 1961, set up by Brian Pettit and Ron Sevitt, two executives of the former project builders Sun-Line Homes. Ken Woolley began designing for Pettit & Sevitt in late 1961. In early 1962 their first split-level house was built at Clifton Gardens in Sydney and soon afterwards a second was built at St Ives. These houses produced enough business to provide Pettit & Sevitt with finance to start their first exhibition centre at the corner of Pennant Hills Road and North Rocks Road, Carlingford.
Pettit & Sevitt project houses were aimed at the educated, middle class buyer interested in a distinct, quality house but who might not be able to afford to engage an individual architect. The initial offerings were the Lowline, a flat roofed, single level house that Ken Woolley and Michael Dysart had produced for the Carlingford Homes Fair in 1962; and a two level ‘split level’ design. By 1964, the company’s display village at St Ives included a range of single level (Lowline, Courtyard, Gallery and Gambrel) and split level (Mk 1, Mk 2) designs. The architectural language of the houses was consistent Sydney School: post and beam construction, dark tiled roofs, exposed beams and timber with an oiled finish, large areas of painted or exposed brick, full height and clerestory windows. Along with Ken Woolley, Pettit & Sevitt utilised the services of well-known architects to design a range of different models, most notably Harry Seidler, Russell Jack and Neil Clerehan.
The houses were economical, well-designed, adaptable, well-sited and available with various options in materials and appearance
The house designs were based on a three foot module and could be extended by adding additional modules, while various features, such as the roof design, could be interchanged between models. Even a second storey could be added (there’s a two-storey Lowline in Mirning Crescent, Aranda). The appeal of the split level was that it had the potential to work well, and be built economically, on the types of uneven and sloping blocks that were commonly available in Sydney’s northern suburbs—Pettit & Sevitt’s initial target area. As it happened, many of Canberra’s developing suburbs in the late 1960s and early 1970s had similar sites. Nonetheless the Lowline was their most popular design.
A feature of the Pettit & Sevitt operation that set it apart from its competitors was the personal contact between client and architects. ‘Architect designed’ was central to the marketing of Pettit & Sevitt homes, as was the incorporation of modern kitchens, modern furnishing and the use of promotional material featuring the photography of Max Dupain. Clients were able to choose a house design from the Pettit & Sevitt collection and then had interviews with the architect to fine tune any modification of the basic design to suit their specific needs. Following an educational and promotional overseas tour in 1965, Pettit & Sevitt, with Ken Woolley, began to establish additional business affiliations in most capital cities and regional New South Wales to design and build Pettit & Sevitt houses.
In June 1966, Pettit & Sevitt held a meeting at the Canberra Rex Hotel to gauge interest in a Canberra operation. Construction of a small number of Pettit & Sevitt houses commenced during the second half of 1966 in the southside suburbs of Curtin, Deakin and Pearce.
The First Pettit & Sevitt display house in Canberra was a single level model called The Gable, built at 104 Dunstan Street, Curtin, in November 1966. Two more were built in Munro Street, Curtin, in 1967 (a Lowline and a Mk 2 split level). These were followed in 1967-68 by a pair of display houses in Parkhill Street, Pearce (again, a Lowline and a Mk 2 split level). During the construction of this second group, John Queneau took over the Canberra franchise of Pettit & Sevitt.
The scale of Pettit & Sevitt display villages in Canberra was much smaller than Sydney, and was limited to single and occasionally pairs of houses. During the ‘boom years’ for the company in Canberra of the early 1970s, a small number of groups were built for display, usually in cul de sacs. Kurundi Place in Hawker and Gray Place in Weston each contain up to six Pettit & Sevitt houses—but these were the exception. In terms of the relative popularity of particular models, the Lowline was the biggest seller. According to John Queneau, the Pettit & Sevitt franchisee in Canberra, the Lowline accounted for at least half of all sales.
The buying process in Canberra was the same as that for Sydney customers: clients could select a house design from the Pettit & Sevitt offering, and have an interview with Ken Woolley—either in Canberra or be flown to Sydney—to fine tune any changes to the basic design. Although both Neil Clerehan (3136) and Russell Jack (The Property) provided designs for Pettit & Sevitt, they were not involved in client interviews for houses built in Canberra.
The 1974 economic downturn caused sales for project home builders to drop dramatically; this was particularly so in Canberra, where the building industry suffered a severe downturn. By 1978, Pettit and Sevitt, facing declining sales and financial difficulties, went into liquidation. The project housing client base was also dissipating by the late 1970s. Many people who might be interested in project homes were not prepared to live in outer suburbs where land was available.
Of the 500 houses built in Canberra, there are perhaps fewer than 100 good examples left. What follows is by no means a complete list, but it highlights the range of models built here.