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The Shed I Wanted

I wanted to build a shed. Not a house, a shed. The fact was clearer in my mind than the reasons. A shed, especially of the three-wall hayshed variety, sounds cold, gaunt, comfortless – so how to explain my chronic shed-o-philia? My love of what I consider the brown paper bag (or maybe manila envelope) of architecture had two barely-formulated strands. One, naturally, was aesthetic. Farm sheds are often lovely. Even when the farmhouse is stiff or pompous or otherwise ugly (as modern ones tend to be), the sheds that attend them are often relaxed, unpretentious and sweetly comfortable in the landscape. Two, a shed is a place of work. I like work.

So I didn’t want architecture, not in the usual sense. I’ve always liked creative work-space, from Men’s Sheds and workshops to studios of all kinds. I like their mix of the creative and the practical. I also like shearing sheds, especially the old ones, and marvel that people with (presumably) little visual education or purpose made such lovely things out of need and utility when quite often the farmhouses – even the rich ones – are just try-hard. I like ordinariness, except when it’s trying to be special.

The shearing shed at Cassilis is a marvel of the colloquial. Built from nature to create an order that is absolutely cultural, it is open to the land but also defined against it, functional but graceful, beautifully proportioned, hand crafted and enduring. Farmhouses, by contrast, tend to be quite closed. Often this is for good reason, since their inhabitants are out on the land all day and when they’re inside, they quite rightly want to feel defended against cold or heat or wind or dust. They want protection.

I wanted that too, especially here on this windy tableland atop the Great Dividing Range, almost a kilometre above sea level, where temperatures can be ten below and wind howl off the Snowys. I get it.

Which may be why my other favourite image is not a shed but a barn. Australia doesn’t really do barns. I don’t know why. I suspect it’s something to do with the size of the joint, and the fact that even the first colonial farmers, the Wentworths and Macarthurs (as I think of them, generically) were forced, or maybe tempted, to think big. Faced with the entire continent, understanding it as terra nullius, perceiving the soil and grasses to be nutritionally inadequate (we’ll come back to this) and driven no doubt by an all-too-human yearning for the unearned increment, they always chopped the land into vast chunks. They chopped the chunks into vast paddocks – fencing is expensive, I know that now – and strewed them with huge numbers of animals.

The idea of course was that you needed to farm on this scale to make a quid from this thrifty ecology. And the irony was that this very fact, the hugeness and the fact that one mind and just a few bodies needed to exert itself over vast tracts, generated farming habits that themselves drove the depletion of the soils for the next two centuries. But again, I get ahead of myself. The point is, there were always too many animals to over-winter them in barns, even in places like Broken Creek where the winter warrants it. So, we have sheds. But we don’t have barns.

Yet as I wondered what and how to build the lovely barns of provincial Europe, with their hand-laid stone bases, age-softened timbers and great maternal roofs hovered like dusty apple-lofts in my head. I thought often of Burt Lancaster’s senile duke in Bertolucci’s 1900, sharing the barn with the nodding, placid, hot-breath cows, muttering all the while, “milk and shit, milk and shit.” Nothing happens in the scene but the flavour is intense; trapped mammals, trapped body-warmth and trapped body secretions, all waiting for the spring.

How do you build a shed, though? Should you buy one off the peg? In which case, are there choices other than colorbond? The dream here of course is to build the Eames house of a shed, where every component is off-the-peg but somehow the way it comes together is sublime. Go to Bunnings with this idea in mind, and you’ll come away depressed. Off-the-peg is no longer what it used to be. In the same spirit, though, I asked a couple of shed-construction companies and got their quotes before deciding that if I was going to spend $60K I might as well get something I actually like.

I had other, practical reasons to build a shed, not least that I had stuff costing me a fortune in storage, and a shed can be built without planning permission. So, I went to see a builder, George. I took one look at his shed, or linear collection of sheds out the back of his two-storeyed shop-house in Braidwood and thought, this is what I want. This right here. Working space, glancing light, zero pretence.

George’s shed

But it soon became clear that nothing was going to happen quickly. This is country lesson number one. Nothing is quick. More to the point, you can’t do anything on a site so far from home without being able to stay over. Get a caravan, everyone said. Get a container! But I was reluctant to have that junk-strewn look of so many country properties, so I got a kitset. It took three men, a truck and one-and-a-half days to build. Suddenly I didn’t just have a drive. At the end of that long winding gravelsnake I had a roof, a window, a door to open and place to sleep. Progress!

Seven am….

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