An Elemental Study in Conservation: A Ceramic Artists' Retreat on Virginia's Rappahannock River
Burcham, Stephanie Marie
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In the process of developing my thesis, I wanted to let go of the contemporary way of thinking about the relationship between architecture and sustainability, which lately tends to be through a lens of applied technology and a baseline understanding of building code that assumes the structure will be designed around an HVAC system that runs 24/7/365 and windows that will never open. I found it difficult to shed that habit, as the first sketches I produced showed massive amounts of insulation in the walls (which again, assumes that the interior air is mechanically conditioned). I thought about how long air conditioning has been a factor in culture today. Just one generation ago, young people were growing up in homes that didn't have air conditioning, or if they did, it was space-based, cooling whatever room happened to be occupied. Certainly, the generation before the previous did not live in a culture where air conditioning was an assumed part of building design. We're now spending more time huddled in our air conditioned homes, which is harmful to our health, distorting the way in which our bodies naturally acclimatize to changing weather. Air conditioning was once considered a luxury expense, and now is practically, or actually, illegal to be without. In addition to the relationship between architecture and air, I also thought about water. Where do we get our potable water from and how? Is the way we currently collect, filter, distribute, receive, use, and dispose of water the best practice for keeping our rivers and aquifers healthy and clean? What about the way we heat our buildings? Every apartment I've lived in the city of Richmond, VA has had at least one fireplace, and they are all bricked up. My current apartment has two chimneys, one in the living room and one in the bedroom, both of which have been long forgotten when the building was hooked up to gas heat. I look around the skyline of my neighborhood and see hundreds of unused chimneys. Is that progress? Is the technology we have now to heat homes more efficient, able to provide more comfort, or better for our environment that what we had used for staying warm in the winter for thousands of years? Lastly, I thought about the relationship between architecture and landscape, especially in regard to plants and animals with which we share our habitat. Not just the native plants and animals that happen to be around us, but also the plants and animals we choose to cultivate and raise. I also think architecture also has a place in the reconsideration of our culture's relationship with food, which is to say, our relationship with the earth, our source of food. I was adamant that the site I chose, and the way in which I created architecture on it, would have a positive impact on both the people who visit, and the local ecosystem. In order to stay focused on my concept of what sustainability is for the future of architecture, rather than what society tells me sustainability should be, I framed my argument around the four elements: air, water, fire and earth. As I dove into developing a program and designing structure and landscape, I used these elements as a framework, my own baseline for what good, comfortable, and environmentally responsible architecture should be.
General Audience Abstract
How can I redefine conservation through site and architectural design? I’m going to test a new way to think about environmentally responsible design by designing an off-grid habitat and systems sensitive artists’ retreat in a place that not only has personal meaning to me, a popular getaway spot for Richmond, VA locals, but is currently under threat of 85,000 acres of groundwater-contaminating natural gas fracking in adjacent counties, a thousand acre nearby bald eagle habitat-destroying golf resort development, and irresponsible but difficult to change agricultural practices allowing rampant overgrowth of algae and bacteria severely undermining the health of the river’s ecosystem. The program I chose to investigate also has personal meaning to me, and is usually considered an unsustainable practice: ceramic art. I began learning ceramics my first semester of graduate school and quickly became hooked. However, I noticed many fossil fuel dependent energy and water-intensive practices that were considered quite normal at the studios I worked in at the time. However, the longer I was exposed to ceramics and the more studios I visited, I found more people that approached their making methodology through a conservational lens. They were able to teach me their methods and over time I learned how to properly reclaim clay and use limited and recycled water in the process of making pots and cleaning up the studio. There are still many more aspects of the art to study and perfect, some of which I begin to tackle in my thesis design. Merging the retreat nature of the site and its needs for an intervention to achieve a greater potential for human and environmental health, preserving and protecting the river for its beauty, health, retreat and recreational purposes, and my growing interest in the usually wasteful and environmentally irresponsible art form of ceramics-making launched a thesis level investigation into how to both live in a community that satisfies our basic needs as humans and make this type of art I’ve been drawn to recently in a responsible way.
- Masters Theses