Unmoored Architecture: On Modules, Mobility and Manufacturing

Living/Dining/Work Module of Project RE:FOCUS, as it arrives at Villa Solar in preparation for the Solar Decathlon Europe Competition. Photo by Clay Anderson, Madrid Spain.

In many classic variants on design/build as implemented in our schools, architects learn how to build or builders learn how to design, with individuals expanding their skill sets laterally such that they are able to understand more aspects of the design and construction processes. This is most readily accomplished when the building assemblies or design objectives are more conventional or modest in size, scale, and scope.

As design and/or technological proposals become more complex, however, greater expertise is required in the particularities of each system, often requiring specialized design skills, fabricators, and/or installers. As the different systems become more intricate, it becomes more difficult for single individuals to be able to understand the nuances of them all, and most often results in specific individuals within a team who are charged with specific tasks, based on their unique abilities and skill sets. As a design/build project, the student learning outcomes in this model shift from more general to more specific. Students are able to develop a greater depth of research in particular areas, but largely by sacrificing the ability to work laterally across multiple subject areas, systems, and/or project goals.

In terms of design, there is often some concern about a contraction of the process, about getting to an end too quickly, about closing possibilities, and an aversion to the perceived finality that comes with larger-scale constructions. In schools without exhaustive shop and fabrication facilities, the limitations imposed by tools and/or students’ abilities can also be a concern, especially if these limitations lead students to construct fictional parodies of their projects, simply to be able to make them with accessible materials and/or hand tools.

Part of our challenge in evaluating design/build methodologies is that we have tended to operate with the understanding that all design/build programs are directed to similar pedagogical ends, and therefore can be collected without concern under the same conceptual umbrella. This approach, while perhaps effective in offering a sweeping survey of architectural education as a whole, overlooks the peculiarities and eccentricities that define each design/build program – and it would be hard to find a more peculiar program than the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon experiment.

This paper considers issues raised by the Solar Decathlon competitions as well as design/build pedagogies through the particular lens of the Project RE:FOCUS House, designed and built for the 2010 Solar Decathlon Europe Competition in Madrid, Spain.

This paper will be presented at the 2012 ACSA Fall Conference in Philadelphia, PA, 27-29 September 2012.  It will subsequently be published as: McGlothlin, Mark and Bradley Walters. “Unmoored Architecture: On Modules, Mobility and Manufacturing in the RE: FOCUS House.” Proceedings of the 2012 ACSA Fall Conference. Philadelphia PA: Temple University, 2012. (in press).

It is available online here.