It seems the 'sickie' is as old as the First Fleet itself. PETER COLQUHOUN explores the beginnings of our built environment after British settlement in Australia.
We inhabit one of the most beautiful, harshest and remotest environments on the planet. Is it not remarkable native civilisations were able to survive here for so long without any obvious signs of permanent shelter? Who then laid the first building blocks in Australia? In terms of planning and engineering there is mounting evidence to suggest that indeed traditional owners did lay down structural foundations that suggest periodic settlement in traditional meeting lands.
The stone fish traps in Brewarrina in western New South Wales are made up of 12 teardrop-shaped pools along a 500-metre stretch of river. They show a thorough understanding of dry-wall construction, hydrology and fish ecology. Some argue these stone foundations could be the oldest man-made structures on earth! In effect, they could be Australia’s Stonehenge.
While ancient construction in Australia has its roots with our First Peoples, building as we know it today starts with with sails on the horizon in 1788.
The area is now flanked by two of the world’s most identifiable structures – the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge – but when the First Fleet arrived at Farm Cove, they had two years of food supplies, tents, a few tools, a portable hut for the Governor, a small amount of lime and around 10,000 bricks, which had been used as ballast. OK lads, get to work!
Our captain and foreman was 39-year-old Arthur Phillip, who had been sent by his superiors halfway around the world to establish a colony – without an architect. Phillip and his overseers did have a few things in their favour. In those days, you could still use the lash and, with no councils or review panels, they decided to build whatever the bloody hell they liked.
Substantial buildings were commenced straightaway. British authorities assumed all the timbers needed would be found locally. However, local trees were unlike anything back home and it took months before their problems became apparent. While bark-covered shelters were observed, they were seen as inferior and it took several years before bark was adopted as a viable roofing material. Things were looking grim until the brick moulds were found in the bottom of one of the ships and fortunes turned when it was discovered that lime could be made from local seashells.
Phillip described the situation in his first dispatch to head office, written on 15 May 1788:
“As there are only 12 convicts who are carpenters, [they] ...work on the hospital and storehouses. The people were healthy when landed, but the scurvy has, for some time, appeared amongst them, and now rages in a most extraordinary manner. Only 16 carpenters could be hired from the ships, and several of the convict carpenters were sick.”
So it seems the ‘sickie’ is as as old as the First Fleet itself. Also most of the tools were in a bad condition, as the good ones had been used to barter with the natives off the cost of Guinea.
Despite the challenges, construction in Australia was off and running. By the arrival of Governor Macquarie on 1 January 1810, Sydney town was established.
Fast forward to today and we continue to import building ideas and techniques, struggle to meet expectations and demands. Builders and designers are still living and dealing with the legacy of British planning. But a balance must be struck between respecting heritage and employing innovation while always responding to landscape.
In a country dominated by the sun and the specific demands of a local area, our design inspiration must be driven by the environment, as opposed to overseas trends or the preservation of the past.
If there is a split decision between emulating a period detail or using something new, one must always inject a better idea. Builders must be versatile and nostalgia must never impede innovation. In this country, as Captain Phillip could attest, long-term survival depends on it.
This was originally published in issue 02 of Better Building.