The semi-detached house (colloquially known as a semi) is a common, yet ordinary dwelling
type in New South Wales. Buildings containing a pair of dwellings attached by a party wall
have generally been overlooked by Australian architectural historians, and semis are poorly
represented in the statutory heritage registers within New South Wales. Many semis which
are listed appear to have heritage significance arising only from their aesthetics – their
resemblance to two attached Victorian terraced houses.
This study seeks to show that semis are a dwelling type which is distinct from both terraced
houses and detached dwellings. It traces the development of the semi from its roots as a
rural double cottage in Britain to its place within the colonial dwelling hierarchy. By analysing
the social, economic and political factors which have influenced the development of housing
in New South Wales, the study shows how the semi became the ideal vehicle for the
speculative builders who provided private rental housing for lower middle class tenants in the
suburbs and towns of the state after Federation. The form fell from favour during the interwar
period, but during the latter part of the twentieth century semis once again became a
pragmatic use of residential land, and a popular dwelling type.
The role of architects in this development is examined, and the way in which the garden city
movement facilitated the transition of the semi down the social scale into working class public
housing. The attitudes towards semis and terraced houses between the wars are compared,
with new evidence provided for why no new terraces were constructed in New South Wales
after the First World War. The post-Second World War regulatory framework, including rent
control and de facto subdivision, is shown to have transformed the stock of semis from being
respectable investments for widows and spinsters into a way for lower middle class tenants to
participate in the Great Australian Dream of home ownership.
Based on the evidence of the social and historical factors underpinning the development of
semis in New South Wales, the study challenges the view that semis have no heritage or
cultural value other than some limited aesthetic value. An assessment of significance gives
rise to a discussion about how the community and heritage professionals perceive the
heritage value of modest, suburban buildings. The vexed question of whether semis are
worthy of conservation is considered, as well as the threats posed by unsympathetic
alterations and additions. While change is inevitable, it is hoped that if the history and
heritage of their semis is better understood, owners may make more appropriate choices
when implementing those changes.