RE:Source Depletion - Thwarting Future Disaster Through New Modes of Dwelling

Declan Barnett - Science & Technology


A semester’s work for the final design studio of my Masters Degree in Architecture, RE:Source Depletion takes aim at continued global extraction of finite natural resources. To ensure project efficacy, the notion of resources encompasses the broad range of components intrinsic to the notion of dwelling, from initial embedded resources such as construction materials & systems to ongoing applied resources, such as energy, food & water sources. Modern society’s relentless pursuit of non-renewable fuels & materials is historically fuelled by colonial & neoliberal hegemonies, directly contributing to the acceleration of worsening climate change disasters. To keep up with rising demand and shortening supply, developed & developing nations alike are desperately taking stock of their dwindling deposits, ultimately seeking leverage over one another in what seems an unavoidable race to the bottom.

This prophecy of future resource depletion is by no means new theory, with Marion Hubbert’s Peak Oil prediction dating back to the 1970’s, echoed by the more recent research of Dr Dana Cordell and her contemporaries into similar predictions of Peak Phosphorus and other vital mineral scarcities. Resource depletion is a widely accepted issue with serious potential for economic impact, however stalling innovation has resulted in few viable alternatives able to match wider demand for resources in manufacturing, transportation & end-user industries. With this debate largely explored in economic & scientific arenas, this project instead tries to expose society’s collective negligence towards promoting ecological sensitivity through the lens of architecture, by employing the latest commercially-available technologies to showcase designing to future-proof communities.

To best (or worst) illustrate this future disaster of resource depletion and its many impacts to society, we need look no further than the township of Walgett, in central northern NSW. Suffering overlapping episodes of food & water insecurity, from severe droughts drying the banks of the Namoi & Barwon rivers, to losing the only supermarket within eighty kilometres to fire…twice, this remote location battles more than most. Regions similar to Walgett are fast becoming epicentres of climate disaster, partly due to growing rates of urban exfiltration due to living affordability, localised ‘hotspots’ where innovation is urgently needed to ameliorate resource scarcity & impending depletion, prototyping solutions for possible application to a broader setting.

Scaling down from the broader issue of ecological fragility to focus on the single family home as the base domestic unit, we can begin to understand the individual act of dwelling as a highly-choreographed performance centred on consumption. The home as a well-defined sequence of task-oriented spaces – kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, lounge – is being constantly reframed through the latest household gadgets & appliances aimed at making life ‘easier’, further detaching occupants from the exterior process of production. Through this, we are being trained to consume more and more without questioning how or where our objects were harvested, refined and manufactured.

This transition away from a more sustainable, needs-based consumption has largely taken place over the last century, as Anitra Nelson’s book Small Is Necessary suggests. Moving from a space of casual production towards one of rampant consumption, Anitra implies the domestic realm has been hyper-privatised and consequently detached from the now-universal procurement of things (power, food, water, gadgets!). She argues for a return to a more modest, regionalistic way of dwelling – reaffirming James Mittleman’s research into New Regionalism as both a chapter of & challenge to globalisation.

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic exposing our own home as a more complex sequence of consumer/producer spaces (#wfh), therein lies genuine potential to rewire the networks within which domesticity is situated, ideally towards more sustainable and ecologically sensitive alternatives.

The above issues are of key concern within contemporary architectural discourse, afforded agency through innovation in construction technologies to reduce emissions & waste and optimise building operations. One example local to this project is Ateliers Jean Nouvel’s One Central Park development in Chippendale, which employs a tri-generation plant to provide residents & businesses with low carbon energy derived from renewable solar power & on-site waste treatment. However, the space of resource sensitivity is not just reserved for high-end skyscrapers, with modest projects like Kengo Kuma’s Nest We Grow exploring sustainability at a smaller scale. Done in collaboration with UC Berkeley students, this four-storey project explores a more wholistic method of providing communities with a space to cultivate & prepare ethically sourced food. Much more of this valuable work needs to be done if we are to effectively thwart the future disaster of resource depletion, with ventures such as these proving successful at a variety of scales.

Situated within this broader field of sustainable architecture, my own project strived to incorporate similar ideas of self-sufficiency and sensibility towards resource production & consumption. It was developed as a prototype for low density housing within rural Australia as well as an architectural provocation towards current modes of dwelling more broadly. Domestic life is now defined by the constant processes of production & consumption required to sustain it, not merely the quantified outcome of a predetermined process, procured elsewhere and ‘conveniently’ shipped on-site. 

Designed for the semi-arid climate of Walgett, with an understanding of key principles from the Living Building Challenge, which certifies high-performance sustainable buildings all around the world, this project promotes responsible dwelling and genuine connection to landscape. It does this through the implementation of insulated thermal mass and manual façade operation for users to personalise the regulation of internal temperatures, alongside reliance on endemic vegetation for food & material sourcing, tasked at investigating design opportunities presented by Julia Watson in her book Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism. This design exercise reveals housing as intrinsically linked to its environmental context, as centred around a constructed wetland for water filtration, simultaneously acting to repair the riparian ecosystems of the traditional Gamilaroi land on which it was proposed.

Aiming to reframe the domestic space as a raw, anthropomorphic device situated within a field of sustainable networks, notions of circular economy & closed loop systems were applied to this project to renegotiate the interaction between inhabitant and habitat, centred on, for example, using locally grown organic construction materiality, renewable energy systems and sensitive treatment of food & water for ancillary environmental application. In the rural context of this project, the on-site treatment of wastewater for ancillary environmental application.

The projects’ inception began as a modern reworking of the Deutscher Werkbund concept of existenzminimum, taking a post-war space & housing crisis into a future disaster of resource depletion. Domestic space is condensed to accommodate for the basic performative acts of dwelling – sleeping, cooking, eating, bathing, lounging – and is continually transformed by colliding these typical domestic activities with otherwise peripheral sectors: textile fabrication, food cultivation, water treatment, furniture production. 

Architecturally, this continual reorganisation of internal spaces is achieved through varying assemblages of movable built components – from walls and windows to the roof, floor and furnishings. This allows the residents to tailor the space to accommodate varying tasks or programs, of both conventional and non-conventional household nature.

In conclusion, RE:Source Depletion instills organic materiality within simple construction methods, shaping spaces that sustain ecologically-sensitive dwelling through passive systems and ethical waste treatment. This project aims to improve our understanding of potential alternative embodied and applied resource applications within architecture, reducing our reliance on finite deposit of non-renewable minerals to aid with inevitable negotiation around future resource scarcity and potential depletion.


Written by Declan Barnett

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