Kudos Solar Decathlon!

Congratulations, Solar Decathlon, you’re an Honor Award winner! I’m a Decathlon groupie, and have been since the first one in 2002. I’ve labored, consulted, volunteered, and cheered for both the event itself and, of course, rooted for VT’s three generations of exquisite entries. To celebrate the Honor Award, we’ll have a small exhibition at the Museum, a sneak preview, of the final 20 chosen to compete in 2011 (more on that on a later post!) and there will be an article in Blueprints...as soon as I write something. Well, obviously I’m writing something now, which could be interpreted as either a) productive avoidance behavior or b) a vaguely related and therefore mutually beneficial exercise. Both sound good.

I’m fascinated by the fact that so many of teams right from the start looked at and then right past the actual goal of the competition. The Solar Decathlon website states right on the homepage that the whole point of the competition is “to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house” and to show the public “the powerful combination of solar energy, energy efficiency, and the best in home design.” Not be a semiotic nitpicker, but it’s interesting to me that the trio “attractive, effective, energy efficient” is in that order first and then in the second sentence, “solar energy, energy efficiency, and design.” It’s an effective bit of word-smithing, actually, because it resists the hierarchy implied in always saying one of those first.

And that’s where things get interesting. Architects and allied design professions would probably list “attractive” and best-designed” at the top of the list, with efficiency as the crucial supporting actor. Engineers might do the opposite; attractiveness is nice, but may have no necessary connection to efficiency or effectiveness. But the real issue is that these are in fact very different values, requiring different words which only in combination express the full range of what a good house does. Maybe that’s not a very efficient use of words after all. Do we need a string of words where one should suffice? Or is it the nature of architecture to spill over the capacity of a single word?

When I served as a consultant for the 2005 Solar Decathlon on the Architecture and Dwelling contests, I found myself pulling Vitruvius out of the 1st century and into the middle of this hi-tech competition. He couldn’t get it all into one word either. His aphorism is usually recited as “firmness, commodity, and delight” but my more scholarly colleagues suggest that's what his English translators of the 17th century thought. Another translation is strength, utility and grace.” Those are the enduring values and they’re hard to argue with. Efficiency is a modern value, born of industrialization and the whole modernist project of development and technological progress. It is not an unequivocal good thing. But that rumination will wait for the next post, which, if I’m a bit more efficient with my time, may actually occur later this week.


the snow did it....

It’s the snow’s fault. Everything’s the snow’s fault: all errors, omissions, backsliding, procrastinating, overeating, bad hair, and bad tempers. I’m blaming it all on the snow until the last crunchy crystals sublime and leave nothing but black smudges behind. I guess the fact that few heaps still remain is livin’ proof that global warming is a hoax, because if it were real the snow would have melted by now. I just can’t wait until the big “I told you so” we all know is coming…

But seriously, it really does prove that naming is power, and that every system—or debate—is highly sensitive to initial conditions. Had the term “climate change” or “climate instability” been the initial description we might have a different discussion. Instead, attempts to redirect things with new names tend to rile up the doubters and serve as evidence of our slippery and untrustworthy natures.
“Warming” is, unfortunately, a word with a host of good and comforting associations. Why, it’s almost onomatopoetic. Say it slowly…waaaarrrming…with rounded lips and just a hint of smile on the “ing.” Now, try “climate instability” with its short vowels and clipped consonants. I prefer that one to “climate change,” because depending on one’s usual situation, change can look pretty good. Instability though, that’s a different story. Who doesn’t like a little warming? Heck, it’s warming up out there (I TOLD you so!) right now and everyone looks so happy about it, even if the flip-flop wearers are pushing it just a wee bit. Maybe “global broiling” or “pan roasting” would get the message across, but in fact it is instability and abnormality that we should fear.

Nuclear winter. Now that was a chilling—literally and metaphorically—phrase. An endless winter brought about by our own actions was probably one of the most frightening scenarios put in front of the public in the dark waning years of Cold War. In a short essay in 1983 Carl Sagan culled the facts from a scientific paper for which he was one of the co-authors, "Global Atmospheric Consequences of Nuclear War," and laid them out in a way the public could grasp. His goal of course was action, not only description and prediction. In words that could apply just as easily to the present climate change tempest, Sagan asks:

Conceivably, we have left something important out of our analysis, and the effects are more modest than we calculate. On the other hand, it is also possible-and, from previous experience, even likely, that there are further adverse effects that no one has yet been wise enough to recognize. With billions of lives at stake, where does conservatism lie in assuming that the results will be better than we calculate, or worse?