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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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Southern California Institute of Architecture California Institute of Technology Solar Decathlon U.S. Department of Energy NREL