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Conserving O’Connell’s Earth Building Heritage

5 October 2018
Real world conservation experience
Master of Heritage Conservation students travel to O’Connell to investigate a group of earth buildings.

Students from the Master of Heritage Conservation recently undertook a two-day fieldtrip to study a group of vernacular, earth buildings in and around the town of O’Connell, about 180km west of Sydney.

Earth Building is the practice of building using unfired earth material. It has been successfully used around the world for over 11,000 years. Earth can be used to construct walls, floors, roofs and even furniture, fireplaces and ovens.

While rammed earth has seen a revival in recent years, historic buildings that use this technology are now quite rare in Australia. However, the town of O’Connell and its environs are home to a significant extant collection of such buildings. The Office of Environment and Heritage recently announced that its Heritage Near Me will provide funds to assist in the conservation of these buildings by building local capacity to care for them. The O’Connell community will benefit from a $100,000 grant to support this work.

This is a fascinating set of buildings, that highlights the richness of vernacular architecture that exists in some of our regional areas. The individual stories conveyed by these places and the evidence of cultural and technology transfer that they represent is little understood. But hopefully projects like this will change that.
Cameron Logan, Director of Heritage Conservation, University of Sydney

Alumna, Jenny Snowdon (MHerCons ’16), who owns Mountain View, an extraordinary property outside O’Connell, approached Dr Cameron Logan, Director of Heritage Conservation, to see if there was a way of involving students in the effort to conserve the buildings. Jenny, now a heritage consultant and researcher at Jean Rice Architecture, is in the process of slowly documenting and restoring her property with her father and was keen to help others in the area do the same.

Students in the unit Conservation Methods and Practices were asked to select one of the earth buildings in O’Connell and prepare Conservation Management Plans to help provide policy guidance for property owners. Masters student Loredana Sipione’s group chose the Lindlegreen Barn, a recent addition to the State Heritage Register.

Photography by Pejman Ghanbarnejad

“The Lindlegreen Barn was built in 1827, by a convict, John Barker, under the employment of Reverend Thomas Hassall. In 1818, Governor Macquarie granted 800 acres to Hassall for the grazing of cattle. Hassall opened the first Sunday School in Australia and was the first Australian candidate for ordination. The site represents early European settlement in in-land New South Wales” explains Loredana.

“We spent two days on-site in O’Connell, measuring the building and detailing its condition through photographs and sketches. Our plan will be used to manage and enable change to the building, while still respecting the item’s significance”.

Working on-site and with the property owners students encountered a range of interesting techniques that the settler brought with them from England and Ireland in particular. These included pisé, or rammed earth, cobb and wattle and daub. “By participating in this project, I have had the opportunity to study old construction techniques in earth buildings, conduct a fabric analysis and recording of a site and interacted with a community on the heritage significance of their area. These skills will inform my practice when working with heritage sites” said Loredana.

The Heritage Near Me team are working closely with local government, industry and communities to ensure that local heritage values have greater recognition. Property owner, Gavin Christie said, “The students collaborating with the community will not only increase the interest in the project, but will also assist in getting the restoration under way and completed”.