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End of the Journey?

3rd place in affordability, 2nd place in engineering, 6th place overall, people’s gasps of delight, and kids’ laughter – those are some of the many accolades CHIP deservedly received. To be honest, there were also a lot of things that went wrong and a lot of other things that didn’t go as planned. However, the past three weeks or so flew by so quickly that I can barely remember the details. We arrived at DC, set up a puffy, white spaceship at the center of the National Mall, competed in the Solar Decathlon, and are taking it apart again and shipping it back to LA. Now, for the first time, I have a chance to sit down and reflect on what we as a team collectively have accomplished, and I have to say what amazes me every time is what the house turned out not to be.

The house is not just a solar house, a passive house, or an efficient house. It is truly a net-zero energy home. We didn’t design it to simply generate enough electricity to meet an average home user’s demand. We designed it to consume less energy and generate enough under any weather conditions at DC. This showed in the final energy balance results, where we along with only six other teams reach net-zero energy in a brutal nine days of competition when the sun shone through the clouds for maybe one afternoon. We took a look at everything that consumed energy and said to ourselves how can they consume less. As the result, our house operated differently during the competition. While majority of other houses shut down all non-essential systems and some essential ones to save energy, we continued to wash and dry our laundry, maintain the indoor temperature and humidity, and perform all other measured tasks with a clear understanding and trust in our systems that we would be net-zero-energy at the end of the competition. We were so confident of how much energy we would be using and generating that even during public tours we continued to demonstrate our Kinect and iPad home control systems. CHIP proved that a home can be net-zero without sacrifices.

The house is not the competition’s winner. It is tomorrow’s home. Whether or not we intended this to be our primary goal at the onset of the project, CHIP pushed every single boundary of tomorrow’s home living. We made a lot of design decisions knowing full well that they might not benefit us per se at the competition, but they were the right things to do because that was our vision of tomorrow. We put the insulation on the outside, because we think this is how every other home in America should be constructed. We broke a two-story house into four pieces, because we want to show everyone that a modular house doesn’t have to look like a trailer. We developed the most complete, functional, and advanced home control interface and backbone, because we think every homeowner should have the control of their home literally at their finger tips. Some of those decisions benefited us in the eyes of competition jurors. Others did not. One thing is for sure, all the kids walking through our house had the same sparkle in their eyes as they do on Christmas Day. Maybe, they are our tomorrow.

CHIP by now is on her way back to LA, and hopefully she can show another group of kids what tomorrow looks like.

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Upon finally seeing CHIP on the grass in Washington DC, I was moved.  My expectations for what I would see were set in the weeks and months earlier by drawings,  the mockup and then final house built up in the Sci Arc parking lot, along with the video walk-through.  None of these captured or prepared me for the reality that I saw on Thursday.  What I saw was striking — a wonderfully and tangibly real presence, suffused by real architectural inspiration and exciting engineering.   Indeed, engineering in the Latin word origin sense of “ingenium”, or intrinsic quality founded in clever invention.  CHIP’s spirit of risk-taking and inventiveness on both the engineering and architectural fronts is, in the humble opinion of this correspondent, unrivaled at Solar Decathlon 2011.  This kind of virtue is truly its own reward, as I could see from the pride beaming in the faces of the team, as well as the head-turning and transfixed gazes of visitors, dignitaries, sponsors and Decathlon officials as they passed by or entered into CHIP.   My experience of CHIP was bookended by a trip to Taiwan, a country where the vigorous energy of invention –coupled to the spirited determination to make things–  is intensely alive.   In the United States, our public discourse in recent days has been alternating between anxiety over economic woes and nostalgia for a time when our country’s spirit of innovation confidently led the world.  So upon flying back from Taiwan, I wondering inside where I might find that spirit alive in the United States today.  Fortunately for me, my first stop back in the United States was at CHIP and Solar Decathlon 2011, where I found an overpowering sense of not only ‘can do’ but also ‘have done’, ‘are doing now’ , ‘will do even more in the future’ — and even ‘will do whatever it takes’ on display.   For the Caltech students, this is probably the most ‘real’ project that they have experienced in their technical lives, and my hope is that the experience of working intensively with a group of passionately driven architects and architecture students on this project that is bigger than any one of them will exert a subtle or even significant course-correcting force on their lives and careers, since as Einstein noted, “Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”

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Affordability Results

CHIP enthusiasts,

Yesterday, in the first awards announcement of the Solar Decathlon, the DOE announced the results of the affordability category.
For those unaware of the details, the contest awards the teams that were able to most closely achieve a total construction cost of $250,000.
This includes materials and labor.

We are very proud to announce that CHIP came in 3rd place with a total cost of $262,495.11

Not only is this an exciting development for our team (as we climb the leader board), but it is also a definitive statement about the power of design. We entered this competition with the conviction that affordable design need not be banal and lifeless. This was one of our primary challenges. We believed strongly that design can transcend the assumption that being cheap=looking cheap. We wanted to use this platform of the Solar Decathlon to manifest this conviction and we have done so with inarguably the most innovative house on the block.

This is truly a statement that design can win out; that good architecture and sound engineering can alter convention.
This was an incredible effort across the board, by the engineers and architects alike, for pushing the limits while always keeping this end goal in mind.

Thanks to everyone for all your support,
-The Team

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It is what it does

There are a couple of reasons why the Solar Decathlon Competition  –  Washington DC, 2011  –   is the perfect challenge for a SCI-Arc design and Caltech engineering team.

The debate regarding the efficacy of solar, wind, geothermal, and other alternative energy options is in the offing:

It’s a developers’ debate.
It’s a bankers’ debate.
It’s a politicians’ debate.
It’s an engineers’ debate.
It’s an architects’ debate.

America’s future energy priorities will certainly be re-imagined and re-arranged.  And the conclusions are unlikely to replicate the current dependence on fossil fuels.
But what that future will look like, and in what time frame, is not yet clear.
SCI-Arc and Caltech’s CHIP proposal anticipates what might be next.

That “what’s next for housing and energy” discourse, along with concomitant considerations of construction strategies  –  sizes, shapes, materials —   and a broad range of sociological and organizational options  –  all these as yet indeterminate prospects allow SCI-Arc students and faculty to engage, comment, and propose solutions.
SCI-Arc is less interested in engaging topics in design, engineering, fabrication, and construction that have been solved and resolved.

So the CHIP proposition at the Solar Decathlon venue allows SCI-Arc and Caltech’s students and faculty to deliberate, and propose a new vision of America’s housing future.

Take a walk around the Solar Decathlon site at the Tidal Basin next to the Mall in Washington.
Examine the efforts at re-imagining America’s housing prospects.
Architecture and engineering students and faculty from Shanghai, from Brussels, from New Zealand, Canada, and all around the US have designed and constructed their propositions for housings’ future.

And there is an interesting quandary here in those proposals that’s worth examining.
Housing in America has a typical form language.  That is to say, there are one or two recognizable building types that are conventionally constructed by developer traditionalists, intended to appeal to a presumed consumer constituency in America, and what that constituency is typically willing to purchase.
The fundamental design and economic issue, underlying the competition, is whether an alternative image, an alternate visual and organizational proposition, will be palatable to that American consumer, or whether design for future needs must acknowledge the predictable images of shed roof or modern box that most frequently constitute the traditional American home.
Looking at that as yet indeterminate future, SCI-Arc is convinced that the alternative design option is a plausible consumer choice.

The SCI-Arc/Caltech proposal is unique because, conceptually, it is what it is because it does what it does.
The designers have rejected any obligations to the box and shed precedents.
That’s SCI-Arc’s tactical approach.
Rather than subscribe to the standard imagery,  SCI-Arc designed and Caltech engineered the CHIP prototype premised on the notion that if we re-organized the social order of the house, if we re-imagined the role of energy, insulation, and material choices, and if we re-invented the standard electrical, mechanical, and structural engineering priorities we would disrupt the traditional image of the American house, and produce a very different object.

Indeed, in the end SCI-Arc and Caltech have really taken on the question of livability in American housing and offered a new sensibility for both its content and its character.

The CHIP is a welcome address to an alternative housing future.

Eric Owen Moss
Washington DC
September 23, 2011

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Sitting here in the apartment after the 4th day of the 2011 Solar Decathlon Competition and all I can think about is how good our ramps look..-joking- actually what I’m thinking is how proud I am of all the people that I have gotten to know through the project. Having come from a background of fabrication and construction I am not unfamiliar with the processes that occur when building at this scale. When we started, the only person’s capabilities I was sure of were my own, over the last year I have been amazed at the adaptability, focus and commitment that the team has displayed as a whole. Although this was not my first build, the knowledge and experience I have gained could only have come from a project of this nature. A project that exists on a perpetually uneven plane between educational institutions and real world practices of architecture, engineering and construction, not to mention the occasional repertoire of a theme park docent.

This week is becoming more suspenseful by the minute as we near the end of the competition and hopefully not the bottom of the leader board. Bright is CHIP’s future as there are a number of possible traveling destinations for the home all of them temporal and with a publicity or educational purpose. Perhaps it will live the life of a large puffy traveling gnome.

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A picture of SCI-Arc at night, illuminated by the moon and street lights

On the topic of architecture, CHIP is arguably the most unique and unconventional house in the 2011 Solar Decathlon, if not all previous years. Beyond the conceptual particulars of the house, CHIP is a product of a group of students who are “products” of the design culture of SCI-Arc. SCI-Arc was formed by a group of faculty (one notably, a Pritzker prize winner, Thom Mayne) led by Ray Kappe, breaking away from CalPoly Pomona, who believed that architecture education had become oppressive to the discipline. Since then, SCI-Arc has always been as Ray Kappe puts it “a school without walls” focusing on experimental and avant-garde design. As a student of the school, we are inspired to question and challenge every aspect of design in architecture. Unhindered by preconceived notions of what a house is and looking forward at what a house should and could be, our team denies the status quo of the current reality for a new reality succeeding in a way never before demonstrated in SCI-Arc’s history.

CHIP does however break a mold of SCI-Arc projects in that a project this intensive and challenging has never been completed before. As one walks through the freight depot that is SCI-Arc, looking at walls pinned up with students’ drawings, renderings, and 3D-print models during reviews, it isn’t apparent that a group of students from here would be capable of building a full scale occupiable structure with real doors and plumbing. However, SCI-Arc has always been a school that stresses design through making. It is unknown if CHIP and the Solar Decathlon will change SCI-Arc, but if the school enters the competition in the future, one thing is for certain: the next CHIP will be ever more revolutionary than the first.

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A Soft Reading

A picture of CHIP from the northern side and with the vinyl exterior visible

By far the most prominent feature of CHIP and the design driver for CHIP’s architecture has been its innovative insulated skin. Of all the materials that go into a building, insulation does the most to make that building perform its primary function: separating the inside from outside. Despite this, it is often the most invisible aspect of architecture. Its value is measured purely quantitatively with little thought as to how it will look since it is stuffed behind finish material. For architecture this is an important and overlooked problem.

Architecture’s primary function is to create shelter, or to distinguish something that is human made and separate from the natural world. From the perspective of modern building, this separation between inside and outside is something that can be measured in terms of comfort level (how well a building maintains a desirable environment for the occupant in relation to what it is outside). It is insulation that makes this possible and the more efficient the insulation is the better. Contemporary architecture advocates function and efficiency, but its most efficient component: insulation, is ironically the least expressive.

This year’s Solar Decathlon gave SCI-ARC and Caltech the opportunity to tackle this problem. Our design does more than emphasize the harvesting of solar energy. It expresses energy conservation as well. We made CHIP’s insulation expressive of its function as a barrier between exterior and interior. In the process, we were able to make the insulation even more efficient and effective in creating an architectural building envelope.

The obvious solution to making insulation a primary architectural element is putting it where it can be seen: on the outside of the building. It’s amazing how this one move eliminates a lot of problems with insulating a conventional building, and makes one wonders why it hasn’t been done before. For one, insulation isn’t confined to stay between the structural walls, so we can use more of it. Also, outside of the structural walls, it can be applied continuously. This eliminates thermal bridging, a condition that occurs in conventional framing where heat can pass through the non-insulated 2x4s in the walls. With no restrictions from the structural walls a 16” thick continuous layer of insulation wraps around the entire building giving it an R-value of 40 (a typical home in Southern California has an R-value of 13).

But after moving the insulation to the outside of the building, how does one treat it architecturally? To emphasize the building’s innovative insulation strategy we have wrapped the blanket in a single layer of architectural vinyl. This acts as an excellent water barrier and eliminates the need for roofing, siding, gutters, and flashing. More importantly, the vinyl does not hide the insulation like a rigid cladding strategy would. The vinyl expresses the function of insulation as a puffy blanket for the building.

Fabric such as vinyl isn’t new to architecture, but the way we use it on CHIP is. Fabric is most often found in tensile structures, like stadiums, and large airport terminals. The material has always been used in tension, meaning it has been pulled into shape over an existing structure. CHIP is unique in that it uses architectural fabric in compression. The vinyl is draped over the insulation and pushed into the structure of the house with bolts that also tie down the supportive net. This gives CHIP its signature look of a puffy bag wrapped in a net. Its unique appearance and material effect has connotations of upholstery, moon bounces, and space suits.

The loose tolerance of the insulation system allows it certain freedoms and limitations towards how it is incorporated within the architecture. The insulation works really well across solid volumetric shapes, even if they are not orthogonal like CHIP. It has the ability to soften these hard shapes making them more playful. However when it comes to the openings in the building something more needs to be done. While the puffy blanket can negotiate edges and corners of volumes with diagrammatic clarity, holes punched through the volume for windows and doors create problems that are not only technical, such as drainage, but also formal, such as a clear reading of the mass and openings.

As a contrast to CHIP’s soft and puffy volumetric shape we’ve developed a solution that allows this system to terminate around connections between the interior and exterior. These are the hard pieces of fenestration that protrude out from the doors and windows. We call these the collars of building in keeping with the morphological analogy to the space suit. Like a space suit that must cover and be flexible enough to accommodate a moving body, its collars must also be precise and calibrated to accept strong connections from incoming services. In the astronauts case these are valves for air supply, water, and secure connections to the helmet and gloves. In CHIP’s case the collars must accommodate doors, windows, air intake, exhaust, as well as the means for an occupant to pass through the envelope.

A picture of CHIP from the east side

The contrast between the soft mass and hard collars give CHIP a reading of function and efficiency. Where the overall mass is large and simple an economical wrapper that allows for loose tolerances provides the insulation. Only in the few openings of the building where precision is needed are there hard collars. These frame the openings and give the vinyl skin a clearly defined boundary onto which it can terminate. Just as the skin emphasizes the puffy character of the insulation, calling attention to that which separates inside from outside, so do the collars. Anything that passes through the thick and soft envelope of CHIP must come through these access points. Not only does this give CHIP a clear functional reading, but it also makes a lot of practical sense in terms of the building organization. For one, it allows the vinyl membrane never to be penetrated, since anything entering or leaving the building does so outside the puffy vinyl boundary. All of our exhaust exits through the North end at the highest point of the house. The West collar serves as the brain of CHIP bringing together all of the electrical and mechanical control systems for easy accessibility. This also allows one to replace or upgrade components in the future without disturbing the vinyl membrane.

Through these two architectural systems: the puffy wrapper and the hard collars, CHIP is able to articulate a new reading of inside vs. outside. The insulated wrapper expresses the shelter created by the building envelope. The insulation is efficient from both a performative and formal perspective. The insulation provides both the function of insulating as well as the expression of insulating. This clarity in the reading of the building vs. the function of the building is significant for architecture in that the two are no longer separated from one another. The hard collars further this clarity by defining the zones which tie the exterior to the interior. So on the one hand the soft shell separates us from the environment and protects us, while the hard collars connect us to the environment. These two systems serve as means which the architecture communicates its primary function for us humans. Architecture both distinguishes us from the natural world and brings us closer to it by giving the world a meaning. By challenging the convention of building and the readings of architecture CHIP gives us a new way to look at shelters as something soft. This softness is a friendlier way us humans can distinguish ourselves from the world. CHIP does not fight the environment but has found comfort in it, and hopefully we can too.

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Monitoring and Predicting Energy Usage: From CHIP to the Grid

One of the biggest challenges we face as a global community in making the switch to sustainable and intermittent energy deals with consistency. Solar and wind energy production in particular are heavily influenced minute-to-minute by weather conditions. And because weather is such a hard thing to predict accurately, it’s hard to quantitatively tell how much energy your solar panels will produce today, tomorrow, or even an hour from now if the weather is bad. As far as the Solar Decathlon competition goes, it’s something we’d really like to know, because we have a week and a half to reach net-zero energy consumption.

This is also an insanely important issue in terms of grid management. While usually homeowners are concerned with how much energy they’ll produce in a month, or a year, energy companies need to satisfy demand on the grid at *all* times, or end up with power outages and blackouts. In a discussion with Bruce Ludemann, Vice President and General Manager of the North America branch of Hanwha SolarOne, I learned that some solar plants cope with this by keeping huge engines on standby to keep energy production steady when solar output drops. This isn’t a huge deal for a single homeowner’s solar panel array. However, as household solar systems become more widespread, the power put back into the grid will increase, and the grid will need to find a way to deal with a large, but not completely reliable and predictable distributed power source.

Over the course of the project, we have been working on prototyping energy prediction and planning software for CHIP that hopes to take the first step in resolving this issue. Our prediction software predicts how much energy our panels will produce over an hourly interval for the next seven days. We are able to do this using NREL’s System Advisor Model and hourly solar irradiance weather prediction data thankfully provided by SolarAnywhere.

That said, we also need to know how much energy we’re going to use. We’ve estimated this with a list of solar decathlon tasks for measured and juried contests and testing our appliances for energy usage, and we use weather predictions and an DOE 2.2 model with a weather and house thermal load schedule to determine how much energy our HVAC will use to meet the Comfort Zone contest’s requirements.

With the prediction software, we are really interested in how well our predictions work. Obviously, the farther in the future we look, the more uncertain the weather prediction data is, meaning our predictions are less accurate. How well can we predict our energy balance in strictly controlled conditions? That’s what we’re working on finding out now. We’re currently predicted to go net-zero through the length of our prediction data, which almost goes until the end of the competition. This is an extremely good status, but we are verifying our predictions as we compete.

But let’s say that we weren’t going to go net-zero. In that case, we’d end up consuming more than we produce, which we don’t want, and would lose a number of points in the competition depending on how much we go over. Is there something we could do to remedy this?

For the Solar Decathlon measured contests, there are a tasks we have to do, such as a hot water draw or a load of laundry. These are intended to test how well the house operates under typical (if slightly heavy) usage. We earn a number of points in the contest for each task we complete, partial points for partial compliance, and each task provides an energy draw on the house.

With this knowledge, we can optimize our house schedule. As per the competition rules, each kilowatt-hour is worth two points to us, and we can trade off energy for task points if it makes sense (e.g. the task points are more ‘expensive’ in terms of energy) until we’ve reached net zero or we’ve made as many point-energy trades as we can. Our planning software optimizes our schedule, and outputs the schedule and predicted energy use to be displayed on our house iPad application and implemented by a homeowner.

Graph of Measured and Predicted Energy Use

The above screenshot shows past, current, and predicted energy use and generation displayed our iPad application.

This also is representative of the next steps we need to be taking in grid management – let’s say that we are able to switch our grid to alternative fuels, and we somehow are unable to supply all demand. How do we deal with this? Instead of switching to a backup that uses conventional fuels, it may be possible to adjust demand for a short period of time by turning off a large group appliances, or shifting demand to later by suggesting that people do laundry at a different time.

Of course, this implies that we as consumers can’t take however much energy we want from the grid when we want, but if we are to live in a sustainable world, we must take this into consideration. We hope that our prototype software for our prototype house is able to be a proof-of-concept in solar energy prediction and grid management so the greater concept can eventually be implemented in houses as a part of our energy grid.

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As of 1:35pm today we passed our final AC inspections, followed shortly by the final building inspection. Although slightly later than we had hoped for, we’re still very much on top of everything going on, and we’re now ready to rest and compete. Here’s a fun list of things that got fixed in the last 48 hours:

-Replaced a circuit board on the outdoor HVAC unit.
–Something got lodged inside of the outdoor condenser, and fried a bunch of capacitors. This was discovered at 2am on Monday night, with Tuesday as the last possible day to get inspections. But we managed to get the part from a distribution facility, have it delivered thanks to Lanna’s sister, and installed by very professional HVAC contractors, in a matter of 8 hours.
-Blown fuse in the inverter, which was located and replaced in a matter of hours
-Ground-to-neutral faults tripping circuit breakers, requiring 10 hours of troubleshooting to fix.
-Missing parts, including fuse holders, lamp wires, screwdrivers, and sleep.

With all said and done, we’re looking forward to the competition itself, which starts Thursday; the first public tours are Friday at 10am.

Also, check out how our solar panels are doing.

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Faculty Advisor Weighs In

As practice and expertise, architecture cannot be taught, but it can be learned. The architectural kind of learning happens through experience. And the two year Solar Decathlon has been nothing if not an experience.

In architecture school this experience is typically gained in studio, through design projects, almost always represented by drawings and models. In school therefore any real learning specifically related to the traditional point of all this—producing a building—is ever deferred. For the architect-in-training this sets the school experience apart from “real life,” makes it only practice practice, and motivates her to get on with it and out into the “real world.”

But it would be inaccurate to say that this DC experience has in any way been more “real” than the studio experience if by real we mean “normal construction process” or “finished building.” In no normal situation would a project this small have so many people involved—and so many of them be simultaneously in charge. Nor cost so much (even in its affordable guise!), or take so long, or be so sort-of-but-not-really-modular. In no real (house) project would there be construction going on around the clock, in the rain, as well as sweltering heat. In no real project do inspectors come to you at any time of day or night, unannounced, and point out that you need to keep a clear path around your building through the mounting piles of wrapping paper and construction debris.

Maybe not real in that sense, but still awesome.

In fact, the Solar Decathlon project’s pedagogical value is more tangentially related to its celebrated, but misconstrued “reality.” The experiences the students have had during this long two year project may not conform very closely to the sorts of experiences they will eventually have out in the (normal) real world, but they have been tremendously valuable. Of course, they are getting lots of experience working on a team, not being in charge but still accountable, with a real schedule, with real stakes for the deadlines. But also being in charge of a task that the team depends on getting done, figuring out (hopefully) how to read the minds of the others who are also in charge of their own task—maybe the same one! Lots of hard decisions, lots of disappointment and wits tested, lots of little triumphs and then some genuine satisfaction, felt in the sore muscles and aching bones, as much as the mind and eye. Lots of demonstrations of the importance of agility. Lots of surprising discoveries and satisfying confirmations; a few bittersweet I-told-you-so’s.

Even the thrill of realization—the usual difference between studio and real life—has been skewed by the particularities of the process. The expected surprise (if that’s not an oxymoron) of the actual scale, for example (“real” architecture is always smaller than you thought, smaller than it looked on the screen), is blunted by familiarity with the full-size mock-up, built half a year and continent away. And the “final” building itself was built at least twice, once in the parking lot at SCI-Arc and now in DC. Still, this time its a “real” building, with doors and windows and people inside, with lights that light and stoves that cook (but no toilet that flushes).

This does not yet make it an architectural experience, though. Mere reality has never made a building architecture. Architecture is superlative building, building plus added value. By that measure we can assert that CHIP is architecture, but the test, and appreciation, of that possibility will only be known for sure in a couple days, when its all there, the site is cleaned up, and the product of this two year effort stands there before us to (hopefully) confirm the renderings. At that point, the students each need to take a moment, away from the excitement, to sit in the space, marvel at it as a feat and as a piece of intentional architecture. The fruit of their mice and keyboards first, before it was the product of their skilsaws and nailguns. Try to remember how it seemed, what they thought it would be before it became this inescapable fact, here, now. It is a cliché to ask what might have been done differently, what worked, what didn’t. But this is how the learning happens, by paying attention to these questions and experiencing their honest answers.

Of course, these days a final product is possible without anyone ever picking up a hammer. In the virtual realm, design-without-(physical) construction has become a potentially meaningful and lucrative career track for the architecture student. There is an undeniable attraction to using a newly minted degree signifying architectural expertise to create game environments, movie sets, and website “architecture,” where designs can be considered complete on the screen, and the particular pang of frustration (itself a sign perhaps of the architect’s commitment) caused by un-built designs can be avoided.

But the satisfaction of actually scratching that itch for the first time, in the “real” world, is something the new architect will never forget, and this puts the Solar Decathlon 2011 CHIP experience in an even more special category.

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