Lara Knight – 3 June, 2020
Australian farms have lots of sheds. Falling-down shearing sheds, machinery sheds, packing sheds and stockyards are often left in place because there’s plenty of space to build new ones. But leaving them to disintegrate is perhaps not the best use of farm resources.
In the US, barn timber has been in demand for decades and reclaimed lumber yards scour the countryside for dilapidated outbuildings. Australian sheds are less substantial, but still hold a wealth of old growth hardwood for repurposing or reuse.
As tree-changers move into rural areas we’re seeing farm buildings converted into guest accommodation, wedding venues and small business premises. What’s less common is building a new utility building from old materials. This modest shearing shed blends into the landscape a couple of hours from where it originally stood, completely revived and ready for action. Hugh walks us through the move.
You’re a carpenter and craftsman in rural Victoria. Tell us a little about your background.
My exposure to building came from an early age helping Dad on his worksites. Cutting noggins, nailing off a floor, or just filling the skip. I loved being on the building site.
When I finished high school, my formal education in building came from a degree in construction management at RMIT. During university, I was working part-time for various local builders and a plumber. By this time, I was also an avid woodworker obsessed with dressing up old wood usually salvaged from houses during demolition. Hardwood or Oregon framing would either end up in the skip bin or the firewood pile so I’d take the nice bits when I could. Other trades on site would often laugh and wonder why I’d be interested in an old bit of fascia board. I’d go home that night and turn it into a picture frame.
I finished university only to last 4 months in a construction management employment role. It confirmed for me that all I wanted to do was get my hands dirty and continue to develop my building skills. I got a job with a local builder (owned by a mate of my Dad), Dabb Constructions, that specialises in renovating old houses and architectural extensions. Dabb was a phenomenal carpenter, builder and teacher. 3 years working for Dabb served me well and made me ready to start subcontracting on my own to clients and other builders/carpenters. During this time with Dabb I was always working after work and on weekends with my personal woodworking projects and commissions. The creative aspect of woodworking with reclaimed materials helped balance the sometimes black and white formulated aspects of building a house.
One of your biggest jobs last year was deconstructing two sheds in Waggarandall and moving the materials 200km to build a new shed in the Macedon Ranges. How did that project come about?
Some regular clients of mine needed a shearing shed on their property. It was decided without much hesitation that a new shearing shed would simply not fit the bill for this historic property. The shearing shed is an idyllic part of the Australian landscape so it was important to be true to this aesthetic. A shearing shed and storage shed for sale was found in Waggarandall, Vic. The proposal by the clients was to deconstruct the sheds, flat pack it onto a truck, and rebuild it on their property. Simple.
What was the process of sorting two sheds into one? Was the new building design different to the older ones?
The shearing shed was the shed of most interest to us. Unfortunately, it was beyond repair. It needed more than just rebuilding, it needed replacement of much of the structural frame. This is why we acquired the other storage shed for sale on the property. We knew by combining the two together, we would have (almost) enough materials to form the dream shearing shed.
By deconstructing and reconstructing, as opposed to relocation of a whole building, you afford the luxury of design tweaks. Although the new design differed from the old one to some degree, we were still governed by the lengths of rafters, joists, bearers, studs, stumps, flooring, corrugated iron etc. In fact, before deconstructing the sheds, we accurately surveyed them on a piece of paper which we made lots of copies of, to aid our set-out when it came time to rebuild it. When setting out for the rebuild, I shrunk the building 200mm in every direction to allow for cutting off the rotten ends of each timber.
The new building also differed in framing design in order to adhere to current Australian building codes. Codes which didn’t exist in the early to mid 20th century especially for farm shedding.
Some other design alterations/additions were the wooden vents placed in the gable ends of the new shed to encourage cross flow ventilation for those hot summer days. Also the fixed frame sash windows at the front of the building to help capture the north facing sun. A shearing shed is designed to be practical and functional so these design tweaks have helped with this.
Old shearing sheds are often rough sawn timber with decades of weathering. What are some of the challenges of reusing materials?
The challenges are endless. Each piece of timber or piece of corrugated iron presents its own challenge.
A carpenter is taught that things must be square, straight, parallel, plumb and level with little tolerance. If you follow this fundamental principle, things are relatively straightforward. The challenge with building using 100 year old hardwood is that one stud will measure 95x45mm and the next 100x50mm with a 20mm bow even though they were both once upon a time the same size. The next stud will be straight but it’s got a big split through it, and then the next stud looks good but there is evidence of wood borer down one side of it.
It’s enough to pull your hair out at first because it’s against everything you’ve been taught when framing a house. Not to mention the splinters. I adopted the mentality to aim for 100 but be willing to settle for 90, because nothing will be ‘perfect’.
How did upcycling this shed compare to the cost of a completely new build?
Upcycling can be expensive for 2 reasons. There is a demand for quality 2nd hand goods. And labour costs are greater when undertaking unique projects dealing with 2nd hand materials. But hopefully there is value made somewhere. For this project, the value came from buying 2 sheds whole. If you were to individually buy the 2nd hard materials used to build this shed, it would have cost at least 3 fold. That being said, there is a labour of love aspect to this build. And realistically, it was not done to save money, it was done out of the love and appreciation of the great Australian shearing shed.
What did you do with leftover materials?
Like most things on farms, nothing ever gets wasted. Timber which was too far gone to use for framing went to the firewood pile. The ever durable and versatile corrugated iron was stored away for future projects. We found a way to use up all the materials. For example, all the leftover flooring was used to build the sheep penning and gates inside the building.
You’ve helped build or restore several farm buildings with reclaimed materials. Is that mostly an environmental or aesthetic choice by you and your clients?
I think it’s a win-win situation when working with old materials and old buildings. Preserving them is good for the environment and also aesthetically pleasing. We try to preserve historic buildings because they are beautiful and it’s impossible to authentically replicate the patina of an old building.
Often it’s too hard or too expensive to fix an old building but I think it’s a waste of resources to not give something another chance. So it essentially comes down to the design and quality of the build to start with. If things get built right the first time, we can respect it more and it will have a greater chance of longevity.
Where can people see more of your work?