The Little House on the Lawn

There’s a little house on the lawn of the Building Museum. Virginia Tech’s Solar Decathlon crew rolled slowly into town before dawn on Wednesday September 2 and unloaded this elegant, hi-tech, hi-craft box onto the west lawn of the Museum where it will live for the next month before moving to its next home on the Mall. This is VT’s third trip to the Decathlon. Their 2002 house looked great but was balky. They came roaring back in 2005 with arguably the most beautiful house in the Solar village—I’m not biased, ask anyone—but that year was the Battle of the Batteries as rain and clouds hampered performance all around. They sat out 07 to focus on 09, and—I’m not biased—the result is a gem.

I spent a too-long lunch hour getting a quick tour of the Lumenhaus from Joe Wheeler, the architecture professor who breathes design and bleeds PV. Joe’s enthusiasm can make you want to put on the work gloves right there and pick up a screw gun...well, I would except for that 3 pm conference call and this darn blog that I make myself write every Thursday. So I went back upstairs to talk and write about green, while right outside an army of students and their faculty were sweating, tinkering, testing, and assembling the real deal.

In architecture we often talk about the problematic split between theory and practice, or as Michael Polanyi, who I wrote about last week, might put it, between “knowing what” and “knowing how.” It’s an old split in architecture, traceable back through Burnham, the Industrial Revolution, the Ecole, the Renaissance...and so on. It’s coated with class and status issues; those who “do”--who build, who work with their hands--occupy a lower status than those who instruct others in the manner of doing, who work with their minds. Yet, as Polanyi suggests, the best work in science or design comes not from rarified philosophizing or mindless assembling, but from a conversation between the physical and the intellectual work. Donald Schon, who builds on Polanyi’s writing, talks about this as a “reflective conversation with the situation.”

Design-build programs and practices are aimed directly at eliding that difference and at giving value to both kinds of knowing, and clarifying the reflecting-in-action in the crucible of construction. The Solar Decathlon is a particularly challenging form of design-build where all sorts of clever knowing what runs smack into knowing how. The architecture student who knows what looks cool, but can’t move past it to know how to make it work won’t last on the team. Likewise, the engineering student who knows what should be done but doesn’t know how it fits into the design. More subtle, anyone who is just sure they know what’s what and what’s best but doesn’t know how to communicate, cajole, and collaborate will come to the bitter realization that knowing what isn’t enough.

Every time the Solar Decathlon rolls into town I’m newly inspired and awed by what these students and their faculty can accomplish in such a demanding situation. It’s all a bit like an haute couture fashion show; these houses themselves are usually ill-suited to actual life, but the innovations and inventions they contain are already seeping into buildings. So, if you’re in town over the next month come on by the Museum and check out the Lumenhaus before it goes to the Mall. If you’re lucky you can see lots of teaching and doing as the team puts the finishing touches on the house.

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