'Colourful .. Modern .. Inexpensive'
Although Wunderlich Ltd had been chiefly known for its metal work and architectural terracotta, the increasing prevalence and low price of manufactured building products such as asbestos-cement led to the company expanding its operations in order to compete in this new field.
It was in the early years of the twentieth century that asbestos-cement became an important building material in Australia. Before the First World War, Britain’s two major producers of asbestos-cement exported most of their product to Australia and the other colonies.
Asbestos-cement became a significant element in building construction because it was cheap, durable, fireproof, light and easy to use. It was ideally suited to owner-builders and renovators. A simple wood-framed house could be quickly constructed and sheets of asbestos-cement easily cut and used for the walls. Many holiday homes were constructed from asbestos-cement. It was generically known as ‘fibro’ or fibro-cement and produced under a variety of trade names. Most commonly in Australia it was known as Fibrolite, produced by James Hardie Ltd, and Durabestos, made by Wunderlich.
Wunderlich Ltd was the first to begin Australian manufacture of asbestos-cement at its factory at Cabarita in Sydney in 1916. The popularity of this new material meant that by 1928 the company’s sales of Durabestos had surpassed those of the metal division. The cheapness of asbestos-cement sheeting meant that the dream of home ownership could be extended to the working classes; in the 1920s a fibro house could be constructed for 27% less than a similarly designed brick house and 15% less than the equivalent weatherboard home.
Asbestos-cement leant itself to a variety of designs. It could be low slung and modern and the walls could even be curved. Fibro was easily able to be utilised in the popular, new style Californian bungalow home. The cheapness of the material also encouraged changes and developments in housing designs as internal spaces became more logical and the long central corridor with rooms opening off either side became shorter or non-existent. Fibro became linked to modernism.