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The Solar Decathlon: Innovation Through Making

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SOLAR DECATHLON

Today (9/23/11), on the National Mall in Washington D.C., 19 houses powered by the sun will be open to the public for viewing. The presentation of these homes is part of an event called the Solar Decathlon; a student competition run by the Department of Energy that takes place every two years designed to spur innovation in residential housing.

For the last three years I have been studying architecture at SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture). This year, I participated in my school's entry in the Solar Decathlon in lieu of a traditional thesis. I spent the summer working in a parking lot in downtown Los Angeles building a house with a team that also included engineering students from Caltech. After building our house we disassembled it and sent it to Washington.

I have been in D.C. since September 12, reassembling the house with my teammates on the National Mall along with teams from China, New Zealand, Belgium Canada, and the U.S.

So, how are we doing?

The good news: It turns out it's not that hard to build solar houses that get all their energy from the sun. In fact it's easier to figure out the solar part than it is do figure out how to build a house that comes apart, fits on a truck, travels across the country without collapsing and can be put back together again.

These super-efficient homes that use no fossil fuels are available right now. They have all the conveniences we are used to. They will keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They will power your microwaves, dishwasher, washer and dryer and media centers. They require no energy from the grid or fossil fuels to do any of this. If you want one, I just graduated from Architecture school, am looking for work, and would be happy to build it for you. Call me.

The houses in the Solar Decathlon come in all shapes, sizes and weights. Our house is called CHIP which stands for Compact Hyper-Insulated Prototype. It has insulation on the outside that is wrapped in the same vinyl that is used in advertising billboards and looks a bit like a marshmallow. It weighs about 48,000 lbs. New Jersey's house is made out of concrete and weighs 480,000 lbs. Some of the houses, like University of Mass, Middlebury, have a more familiar shape -- the kind of shape that a kid might draw if you asked one to draw a house. The Chinese house is built out of shipping containers -- which makes sense because they had to ship it from China. The house from Belgium is so well made it almost doesn't matter what it looks like. And not being an Architecture School, Appalachian State University was unencumbered by dogma, pretense and history and developed a surprisingly great house with intelligent material choices and regional touches. One of the 2 entries from schools in New York is designed to sit on top of existing buildings in an urban setting. The other was done in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and is going to be donated to a single mom. Purdue's entry looks like a traditional suburban home. It's presented without irony which I think borders on irony. I'm not sure. No one is.

Here comes the part that is not so good:

The solar panels in our house are made in China. So is the plywood that I used to make all of our custom cabinets. Most of the tools we used to build our house are made in China. Our Patagonia team jackets that keep us dry when it rains are made in China. Our donated Wolverine steel toe work boots are made in China. Our authentic Off The Wall Vans (sneakers) that I am required to wear during the public tours are made in China. The water bottles that we were given by the Department of Energy at registration are made in China. I have nothing against China, what I do have something against, is the fact that as a nation we have stopped making things.

Economists and politicians can babble on about free trade and globalization. As an architect, I will babble on about making.

We are reminded every time we buy things and see the country of origin that we have stopped making things. And we need to start again because you can't foster a culture of innovation without having a culture of making. Here's the thing about making. It's hard to make things. Even simple things are hard to make well. There is an intelligence that comes from working directly with materials that loops back into the design process. You literally learn by doing, not by thinking about doing.

Making is not drawing something on a computer and printing it out. That is illustration. Making is not sketching something on a napkin and faxing it to an overseas factory. Making is engaging in the building process. Making is dust, sparks, grime, dirt, frustration and the deep feeling of satisfaction that only comes from using one's hands intelligently.

Like playing an instrument, drawing, or speaking another language, you get better with practice. Having "good hands" is not something you are born with. It's something that you are taught and share with others. Making requires tools that are sharp and might have spinning parts that can hurt you if used incorrectly. Making is table saws and routers and joiners and chop saws and welders. Making is cool.

There has been a revolution in making. Today's well-equipped shop is nothing like the shop in high school that you might remember. It has machines that are connected to computers that can generate phenomenally complex forms. We live in a world where product ideas can be rapidly prototyped, tested and improved.

This technology is not readily available, not because it is overly expensive or difficult to use, not because kids would rather hide out in their digital caves playing video games instead of experimenting with laser cutters and 3D printers , but because as a culture we've moved away from making and it is no longer perceived to be a part of our nation's character.

So come to the mall in Washington to look at the houses. If widely adopted, these houses could spur this green economy that the Obama administration keeps talking about and that everyone seems to be waiting for. They can reduce our use of fossil fuels and lead us to energy independence. They can inspire hope and make our future seem bright and limitless. And of course if you don't see a solar powered home here that you like, maybe you'll be inspired to make a better one yourself.

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