A Bach on the Mall

So the competition is now over, with the 19 solar-powered houses removed from site and packed away. West Potomac Park goes back to it’s former life as a place for quiet riverside baseball diamonds, with squirrels scampering happily across the grass. By all accounts, the team from New Zealand did very well indeed. Victoria University’s entry, the First Light House, came in with a 1st place in Engineering (a vindication of the Building Science being taught at Victoria, and a major coup for the students involved), a 2nd place in Architecture (only one point off from being 1st there too, and many of the public comments indicated that the quality of the house design and execution deserved a better mark), and 3rd place overall – which really, is the only thing that matters. You can read more about the project on the official website www.firstlighthouse.ac.nz

It is interesting to muse upon how and why a team from New Zealand, a country that had never entered before (in fact, as you have probably heard, it was the first entry ever from the entire southern hemisphere), managed to win a place.
I guess you might say that having to ship the house from NZ placed some restrictions on the design right from the very start. Knowing that the house had to come easily apart and be fitted into containers meant that we had a rigid size dimension to keep to, right from day one, with a width restriction of a 2.2m module, so that we could fit the house into the standard shipping container width.

The height too was an issue, with an open top container being selected to gain height, but a restriction still in place relating to the bridge heights found in both NZ and the USA, measured off the back of a truck. These restrictions gave us a rigour that perhaps the American teams did not have, as they were more free to drive their buildings to site, and being overweight, over height, over width did not matter so much.

Team New Jersey decided to construct their house entirely from concrete, which made their building weigh in at a staggering 535,000 pounds, or about 25 times the weight of our building. It also slowed them up on site, required a lot more crane work, and gave rise to awkward material junctions where plastering had to be done on site at the mall.

A team from Florida got over the whole over height / over width issue by trucking their house in one main piece, but the ensuing load was so big that the truck and trailer could only travel at certain times of the day or night, and could get stuck crossing the smallest rise in the road surface – meaning that railway lines were particularly hazardous. Visions of the house being struck amidships while crossing the tracks haunted the minds of the truckers there.

Or the team from Tennessee where the load size was such that they had to dispense with the trailer altogether, and they just bolted the wheels directly onto the front and rear of the house – a brilliant solution, but requiring construction of a special rig to be designed and a steel skeleton for the house, pushing the price up sky high. In retrospect therefore, the kiwi Bach had an easy life, using a smallish crane to sling the house direct from a truck to the foundations. No worries, mate.

What I think that most people seemed to respond to though, was the feeling of an individually crafted house. America is not just a country, it is a machine, a way of living, a giant industrial system. Cars and trucks are mass produced, with thousands alike, all based on the same chassis and power train with just differences in trim and colour. Houses too feature mass production at their core, with kitchens bought from chain stores and installed all alike. Our quirky wee house, with the tiniest kitchen (easily about a sixth the size of many other kitchens on display) and the recycled rimu wood paneling really opened the eyes of the public, as did the hand-crafted concrete table at the centre of the house. Designed single-mindedly by student Daniel Starkey, the table was loving stroked and commented on by a majority of the thousands of visitors to the house – it really struck a chord, unusual for a piece of concrete furniture.

Other features really captured the imaginations of the American audience as well, like the recycled sheeps wool insulation in the walls, which was a major PR hit for the NZ wool industry, and the incredible look and smell of the cedar cladding. If only we had good durable wood products that looked this good in NZ to clad our houses in! The cedar, of course, came from Canada, as did a large chunk of our willing labour on site, with the input from staff and students at the Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, who willingly drove 10 hours down from Canada to work on the project like a slave for 5 days solid, then drove home again.

All up – a highly successful mission, and a major advertisement for solar-powered housing. It’s here, available right now, in Washington DC, and is coming soon to NZ as well. Get ready!


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