This Prefab Shed Allows an Indigenous Community in Australia to Double Down on Food Production

SJB Architects collaborated with members of the Nyul Nyul Community to create an on-site harvesting facility that works with the elements.

Since 2009, the Nyul Nyul Community of the Kimberley region of Western Australia has sustainably wild harvested Indigenous foods like the gubinge, a superfood that has the highest source of vitamin C on the planet. When frozen, it can be dehydrated and milled into a mixable powder, which community members sell to the likes of chocolatiers and cosmetics companies.

More recently, on the Dampier Peninsula north of Broome, harvesters installed a prefabricated shed structure that has allowed them to streamline their operations. Instead of transporting produce off-site for sorting, cleaning, and processing, the Nyul Nyul can perform those same procedures on location using the shed, increasing efficiency under improved working conditions.

The Packing Shed,  shown here as a rendering, was designed by SJB Architects in collaboration with the Nyul Nyul Community. The Orana Foundation reports that gubinge harvest has increased by more than 120 percent since introducing the shed to production.

SJB Architects, a firm with Sydney- and Melbourne-based practices, designed the shed in collaboration with Bruno Dann, a Nyul Nyul elder and traditional owner (a custodian of the land), as well as the Orana Foundation, an organization promoting and protecting Australia’s Indigenous food culture.

The architects at SJB spent a decade working with Dann and his business partner, Marion Louis Manson, visiting the site in Western Australia and learning more about the community’s needs and its relationship with the land.

The gubinge is a deciduous tree that grows in the Kakadu and Kimberley regions of Australia. The Nyul Nyul Community harvests in the Kimberley region in Western Australia between December and May, depending on the weather.

SJB Architects spent years visiting the Twin Lakes Cultural Park and the Nyul Nyul Community that lives there, homing in on a design that would would work best with their practices and the environment.

"By staying on country with the traditional owners, the project team was able to develop an understanding of the environmental conditions the packing shed would need to withstand," says the firm. Those conditions, among others, include monsoons and termites. With hot and humid weather, the harvesters needed cover, shade, and ventilation, as well as protection from rain and cyclonic winds.

To fend off pests, SJB built the structure primarily of termite-resistant timber, using laminated-veneer lumber and plywood in conjunction with native hardwood dowels. But the use of timber was also a statement.

"In protest of the disruptive impact of the mining industry, the use of any metals has been kept to a minimum including connection details for beams, column, and sheets," says the firm. "Furthermore, the shed can be erected in seven days, and when disassembled, leaves no trace out of respect for the land."

The Nyul Nyul Packing Shed sits lightly on the land, drawing energy from a solar array and water from hydro panels. "Harvesting is not simply picking produce, it is a form of landcare," says the Orana Foundation.

Beyond the produce it stores, the shed packs a punch in efficiency. In a single day, hydro panels fixed to the structure turn humidity from the air into 20 liters of drinkable water, which is used in part for washing harvests. Attached solar panels power freezers for storing food prior to transport.

In protest of controversial mining-industry practices, SJB designed the shed predominantly with timber materials.

"[The Packing Shed] has resulted in grade-A fruit now being consistently produced, resulting in less waste, higher yields, and a higher market value that’s being passed on to the harvesters," says the Orana Foundation, reflecting on the shed’s first year in use.

This year, the shed received a Good Design Award in the social impact category. "[It is] in itself is a very powerful symbol for frugal and context appropriate design," said the judges. "It is a scalable and effective solution and makes the case for design supporting creative decisions for people and planet."

The Packing Shed won a 2021 Good Design Award in the social impact category, with the judges calling it "a wonderful collaborative design project."

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