There’s a well-known saying in mental health circles that goes: “Women talk face to face and men side by side”. Shoulder to shoulder, as it were, which is the adage of the peak organisation for one of our great inventions.

A men's shed, sometimes known as a community shed, is a not for profit organisation that provides a space for craft, most often woodwork, and activities to promote social interaction. There are now over 900 of them throughout Australia.Take the Pyrmont Ultimo Glebe, or PUG, shed in NSW for example. Their ‘shed’ is not as you might expect, but like many others, it is a former industrial or abandoned space, in their case under Sydney’s inner west light rail line. Their so-called shed “provides a familiar place to promote the health and wellbeing of men … (who) can gather to socialise and participate in constructive projects”.

The efforts and resources of the shed are dedicated to a rule: “do things that are of benefit to the men’s shed, to the community, and to themselves”. They have 60 members, known as ‘shedders’, who believe that there are physical and mental health benefits from participating in activities such as handcrafts, music, fine arts and a ‘brain train’ (mental quizzes), all aimed at fostering self-esteem for participants and making contact with each other. Like most sheds they reach out to the community directly by making valued and worthwhile contributions by way of jobs and projects.

The first organised men’s shed in Australia is said to be the Albury Manual Activity Centre, which opened in 1978. Sheds opened informally all over Australia for the next 20 years, often focusing on the lack of appropriate care for older men living with dementia, and particularly for Vietnam veterans.

The first named ‘men's shed’ was in Tangala in Victoria in 1998, following a national health conference dedicated to men in 1995. This was closely followed by the NSW Lane Cove Community Shed. Men’s sheds grew out of the long-enjoyed backyard shed, where men would retreat from the family to undertake manual activities, particularly woodwork, or to repair cars and machinery like Victa lawn mowers.

Key research on men’s sheds has been done by Professor Barry Golding, who coined the word shedagogy to describe “a distinctive new way of acknowledging, describing and addressing the way some men prefer to learn informally in shed like spaces, mainly with other men”. Golding has argued that men’s sheds help address imbalances in healthcare, where men have worse outcomes across all age groups than females in most Western countries.

It has been described as a ‘health by stealth’ approach, particularly in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes. Alzheimer's Australia NSW developed some initiatives through their “every bloke needs a shed” pilot project. The men’s sheds movement is now reaching out to other members of society, not just the older men, but younger generations, helping those with social and mental health issues and the intellectually challenged, making visits and developing pre-cut projects for assembly.

Two groups represent and promote men’s sheds: CAMSA, the Council of Australian Men’s Sheds Association established in 2002; and the AMSA, the Australian Men's Shed Association established in 2007. Both seek to foster the growing number of sheds and establish useful practical information and knowledge about the processes, training, checklists and tools, all of which form the basis for a safe men's shed.

Men's sheds are a great Australian export. The first country to pick up men’s sheds in a big way was Ireland, and there are now over 500 in the UK. The United States has set up a national association and there are made men's sheds all the way through Europe.

Across the ditch there are over 50 sheds represented by a group called MENZSHED. Clever Kiwi-ism. (As an aside: ‘Australia’, the word, has little potential for wordplay, only rhyming with failure. But the two letters NZ give rise to all manner of witticisms, think Split Enz or the hydraulics repairers ENZED).

A distinguishing feature of Australian men's sheds is that no two sheds are alike, there is no fixed template. Most are open to the wider community; some are in closed communities (we have advocated for, and designed, two in retirement villages). Some take women in, some focus on music, some on food, some on products for sale. Indeed, many aren’t even in a shed as such.

They are all truly individually local, all with the aim of helping men deal with physical and mental health issues, getting rid of the weight of past bad practices: shed can be both noun and verb. we know of no better invention of the last 25 years.

plus 1 / plus one / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting sustainability and Australian design. You can contact +one at [email protected].