The Dresden mobile workshop. Image Brett Boardman.

Closed-loop approaches are more than just an ambition for recyclable eyewear company Dresden Optics, and the recent launch of a mobile workshop designed by architect Alexander Symes is taking the concept on the road.

Symes formerly worked in facade engineering design and building physics with Arup before setting up his own architectural practice specialising in sustainable buildings across residential, multi-residential and healthcare.

The Dresden Mobile workshop, he says, started life as a holiday home commissioned by Dresden co-founder and GoGet founder Bruce Jeffreys.

He wanted something inspired by the Tiny House movement, so Symes’ design idea was to take the “smarts of a Kombi and create eco-luxury”.

Just after construction commenced, Jeffreys decided it needed to morph into a mobile workshop and pop-up store instead, with the ability to be a holiday home for staff or used for other functions such as a platform for concerts, as the case may be.

Symes says this meant the requirements from an engineering perspective had to be revisited to accommodate the equipment for the workshop.

What didn’t change was the decision to use recycled and closed-loop materials to the greatest extent possible in developing a building envelope that was adaptive, climate-responsive and thermally efficient. The facade also needed to be affordable, have value and be well-detailed. There was also a need for the materials to be lightweight to ensure it was truly mobile and could be registered as roadworthy.

To make sure the workshop is thermally comfortable across the wide variety of Australian climate zones, including remote communities, the layers of materials allow for different configurations to encourage airflow when it is hot, or block the wind when it is cold.

An outer polycarbonate skin and timber decks can be lifted up or down, depending on the need. An inner layer of recycled sail cloth and mosquito net provide shade when required and insect protection.

“You can open it up in different configurations depending on the climate and wind direction. It can be climate-reactive,” Symes says.

He says that creating airflow is the key in transient spaces.

The workshop is currently partly powered by solar PV with battery storage, and there is a generator for boosting supplies as a “last resort” in remote locations.

Symes says the design is still in evolution, even though the mobile workshop has already been serving customers in Sydney and Melbourne, including an appearance at last month’s Sustainable Living Festival. It will also soon be at the University of Sydney’s markets.

“Nothing is ever finished,” Symes says.

Alex Symes

The current facade has been designed to allow for the future installation of integrated PV and LED lighting for display purposes.

“Everything is a prototype; [we aim to] to keep iteratively improving everything.”

Symes says his work at Arup included environmental materials selection. This led to a firm commitment to closed-loop materials and recycling systems.

“Sustainable materials in architecture is about thinking how we can most efficiently use the world’s resources in a respectful manner. I believe we need to create closed loop manufacturing systems where no material goes to landfill or pollutes our natural ecosystems, but is rather up-cycled to minimise resource depletion and environmental degradation.”

The materials in the workshop are not all recycled, but have been chosen to encourage industry to look to how it can increase recycled content and shift towards closed-loop systems.

Materials specifications include lightweight insulating Danpolan polycarbonate cladding. This has thermal insulating qualities greater than double-glazing and blocks out up-to 70 per cent of solar radiation, while still allowing daylight into the workshop. The polycarbonate also has a percentage of recycled content.

The timber for the floors, decks and trims is recycled hardwood; the tent screens are made of recycled sails; recycled plywood was used for the ceiling; recycled Re-Board [made from cardboard] comprises the joinery; and the light baffles are recycled copper.

Jason McDermott in the mobile workshop. Image Brett Boardman.

Symes says the core of his design work is the thermal performance of facade systems and how to put them together in an environmentally efficient way that is also beautiful.

“For any client, we’re going to try and design as green a project as possible,” he says.

The degree to which the outcomes are uber sustainable comes down to the client’s individual preferences, the site and the budget.

“We do try and educate clients. At a minimum if there is something we don’t thinks is good, we do try and street them away from it.”

It seems logical that getting clients to have recycled materials would be a budget-friendly move, but Symes says this is not necessarily the case.

He has been building his own house in the Blue Mountains for the past five years out of “found objects” and is finding the recycled or upcycled materials are not necessarily cheaper than new ones.

“The additional labour involved in doing it means becomes more expensive,” he says. “There is a lot of labour involved.”

This makes it cheaper financially to source new materials, however, when you factor in the environmental cost of those materials the recycled/upcycled materials come out in front.

“The new material ethos is closed loop.

“It’s about getting an industrial symbiosis going, and having end-of-life processes so consumers can put things in the right place [for re-use, recycling or remanufacture].”

Working with Dresden

In terms of his work with Dresden, he says it is a real “meeting of the minds”.

“[Dresden is] trying to push the next stage of materials and design.”

Jeffrey’s co-founding partner of Dresden, Jason McDermott, also worked at Arup.

McDermott says the market is responding to the Dresden concept of eyewear made from 100 per cent recycled plastics that is itself recyclable.

The company uses a granulator to reduce any type of plastic including keg tops, milk bottle tops and fishing nets into shreds or pellets that can then be directly used by an injection moulder to make the frames.

Mouldable plastics can also be made out of organics such as semolina or chocolate.

“The community has started bringing in materials and saying to us, ‘What can you do with this?’ Yesterday some people dropped off a whole bunch of [plastic] shotgun cartridges.”

The company’s Newtown store has a small injection moulding set-up for experimenting. The bulk of the range is made by Astor Industries at Lakemba, a company that was on the brink of closure as it had made products for the auto industry.

“We’d been told you need experts and so on, but when you look deeper, a little bit of get up and go will get you a very long way.”

McDermott says that since the company launched eight months ago, it has been growing. A new storefront at Potts Point is in the works, and the staff will be involved in its construction.

The mobile store is also in demand, and McDermott says he hopes that in the near future regional and remote communities will be inviting it to their locality. There is also talk of taking the mobile workshop to overseas communities where there is no access to eye health services.

“The whole idea your health might be determined by your access to these kinds of services is nuts,” McDermott says.

“This is so obvious. We can take it on the road, and bring our company [to people].”

Interior of the mobile workshop. Image Brett Boardman.

Now onto a flat-pack home

For Symes, one of his current projects is designing a prototype flat-packed tiny house that can be used for affordable housing. The Big World Homes project, he says, is like “IKEA on steroids”.

Its aim is to address how people can use their own skills and time to “add value to their existence”.

The flat-pack home will be something people can put together themselves, and part of its affordability will be they can avoid “the margins everyone adds to everything”.

He also hopes to create a prototype for infill development, similar to a model that is used in the Netherlands, where developers rent out their sites for two years or so while development approvals are in progress. This helps the developers reduce holding costs, Symes says.

Decoupling land ownership from home ownership is the idea.

“We need fine-grained [housing] affordability, in areas where it is close to established transport,” he says.