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If there’s a wool … there’s a way

A conservation architect is exploring a unique slice of New Zealand farming history by documenting remaining examples of woolsheds before they are lost.

It is an idea that Martinborough-based Chris Cochran has been “hovering around for 10 years” but he has “become absorbed by it since retiring in recent times”.

Cochran’s Woolsheds of the Wairarapa – An Architect’s Appreciation of a New Zealand Vernacular was one of 10 history grants recently awarded by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage [MCH] to a wide range of histories that will tackle topics from the revival of Moko Mataora [facial tattoo] to a 1795 shipwreck in Tamatea Dusky Sound in the South.

“The annual Whiria Te Mahara New Zealand History Grants support historians, researchers and writers working on non-fiction projects that will significantly enhance our understanding of New Zealand’s past,” Manatū Taonga MCH chief executive Leauanae Laulu Mac said.

Cochran’s project will explore the history of sheep farming in the region, and the evolution of the design and construction of woolsheds since the establishment of the first sheep runs in Wairarapa in the 1840s.

“Quite ordinary-looking woolsheds can actually turn out to have amazing stories,” Cochran said.

“The social history of these buildings is as important as their architectural history.”

Cochran told the Times-Age that woolsheds are the most important buildings on any sheep farm, and in his work as a conservation architect, he has always been interested in being commissioned to aid in the repair and conservation of farm buildings.

“I helped the Shears History Trust with the relocation of the two woolsheds that today form the heart of the museum, and I have worked on the conservation of the farm buildings at Brancepeth, a complex of great national importance,” Cochran said.

“Farm buildings have been at the very heart of the economy of Wairarapa – indeed the country – and their architecture is uniquely of this place.”

The funding will help cover Cochran’s research and photography costs, with Jim Simmons doing much of the photography.

Woolsheds are more than just a place to shear sheep, Cochran said, noting that penning, shearing, classing, pressing, and storing all require conditions of a sensible sequential layout, functional spaces for the various parts of the operation, and appropriate lighting and ventilation – “Not forgetting the all-important smoko room.”

“Internal layouts have changed quite dramatically since the 1860s, and I am interested in tracing these changes over time, as blade shearing went to machine, petrol engine to electric,” Cochran said,” and also assessing the influences that came from Australia in the early years, and of the contributions of farmers, shearers, architects and builders.

“Not surprisingly, farmers themselves were the greatest innovators in improving the design of woolsheds.”

Most of the woolsheds Cochran has documented have common features – most are built in timber, the early sheds in totara felled from the land; there is widespread use of corrugated iron for roofing and wall cladding, and many have simple geometric gable-roofed forms. They are unadorned, functional buildings, built to fulfil a very specific functional need.

“These features add up to them being special to the Wairarapa, a local vernacular architecture,” Cochran said.

“Having said that, they are each unique in the stories they tell, of their owners, designers, builders, and of course the shearers, classers, pressers and rousies.”

If you would like to share a story or a woolshed with Cochran, contact him at: [email protected]

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