Artist impression of a timber building in the country in Australia; Artist impression of a timber building in the country in Australia;

Olkola Cultural Knowledge Centre, Cape York, Queensland

Building collective knowledge of Country and culture

The Olkola Aboriginal Corporation (Olkola) is the Traditional Owner and custodian of Olkola Country in remote Cape York in Far North Queensland, about 300km north of Cairns.
A local ranger base and four outstations support Olkola to maintain the land; however, there is no base on Country to help protect and promote cultural artefacts and knowledge. The Olkola people share a vision to extend their ability to care for Country and continue cultural practices.  
As Olkola knowledge elder and knowledge holder Uncle Mike Ross says, “You can’t live and learn on Country if you don’t have a base.” 

To help make this vision a reality, our Community Engagement Programme has partnered with The University of Melbourne, Monash University and the Centre for Appropriate Technology to provide structural and mechanical engineering design for the new Cultural Knowledge Centre on Olkola Country. 

Project Summary

869,822 ha land make up Olkola Country

200+ kmfrom the nearest city centre

12dedicated volunteers refined the design to the point of construction

A collaborative partnership led by Olkola’s Traditional Owners

The project is a unique collaboration of a real-life engineering challenge and education led by Olkola’s Traditional Owners. Since the project began in 2018 as an undergraduate university unit at Monash University, it has evolved into Uncle Mike Ross’ true vision for a cultural base on Country. 

This project is a brilliant example of a collaborative cross-sector partnership driven by community-led design. Not only is this a critical investment into essential social infrastructure to enable a return to Country, it also provides a powerful learning opportunity for our people to apply their technical mindsets in a culturally rich context. ” Sunny Oliver-Bennetts Sunny Oliver-Bennetts Australasia Community Engagement Manager

Dr Hannah Robertson, Lecturer in Construction at The University of Melbourne, has been working on the project alongside a dedicated volunteer team of graduate engineers, architects and construction managers. Students have been involved in the project design through their course work at the university.
“Arup’s involvement in the Olkola Cultural Knowledge Centre has been instrumental to working our project up to the point of engineering certification,” said Dr Robertson. 

We investigated a variety of solutions for this project and explored and pushed the capabilities of the rammed earth and locally milled timber systems, as specified by the Olkola Traditional Owners.

Designing a sustainable building typology

The building typology design acts as a catalyst for creating sustainable livelihoods on Country by combining cultural and economic purposes with sustainable construction practices. 
The design uses rammed earth walls (a technique for constructing foundations using natural raw materials) and locally sourced and milled timber reflective of the natural surroundings and landscapes. The design also includes internal and external spaces in keeping with Olkola’s externally oriented lifestyle.

The project has a constant focus on sustainability: for example, there was a conscious choice to use locally milled timber as the base structure and include a large solar energy system on the site. The incorporation of local timber and rammed earth walls helps to strengthen connection to Country for the Olkola Traditional Owners. ” Shelley Crowe Shelley Crowe Structural Engineer, Arup

Aerial view of a remote forest and dam in outback Australia Aerial view of a remote forest and dam in outback Australia

Overcoming remote site challenges

The site’s remote location and cyclonic weather have influenced the project design and material choices.  
During Queensland’s six-month cyclone season, Olkola is prone to wet weather and flooding. As a result, the project design elevates the centre one metre from the ground to avoid damage to the spaces and artefacts. 
Olkola’s remoteness can also make it difficult for access to construction materials, as it is more than 200km from the closest construction suppliers in Cooktown. Therefore using the site’s natural resources is a practical solution for this project.

Image credit: Hannah Robertson

The centre will be completed during the next two dry seasons. By November 2023, it will house Olkola artefacts and archives, welcome tourists for cultural tours and be a base for land management research combining indigenous knowledge with technological sciences.  
It will also include a commercial kitchen, amenities and a covered deck for cultural tourism use and land management activities like traditional fire management, carbon abatement and habitat protection.