Decoding Design

Pre-fab, solar-powered CHIP house defies convention

Posting in Architecture

The Compact, Hyper-Insulated Prototype (CHIP) looks like a house turned inside out, but the new approach could inform future net-zero designs.

By wrapping its insulation around the exterior of the Compact, Hyper-Insulated Prototype (CHIP) solar house, students from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and Caltech Institute of Technology (Caltech) created a dwelling that is nothing if not novel. It's also an award-winning design, having earned the energy balance contest at last year's U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored Solar Decathlon.

Starting Tuesday (January 17) and through May 31, visitors to the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles will get a chance to tour the CHIP house and see those quilted walls up close and personal.

The exhibit will be open and available for free tours on weekdays from 10 am to 1:30 pm, and weekends from 10 am to 4 pm.

Insulation before covering

The 750-square-foot structure is a net-zero prototype home, meaning the amount of energy it can generate, through solar panels, for example, equals the amount of energy needed to operate the building. CHIP took two years, more than 100 students and $1 million to build. It would cost $300,000 to replicate the structure, including materials and labor.

The exterior of the building is covered in a rugged vinyl surface, so it's no surprise that the CHIP house exhibit is sponsored in part by trade group The Vinyl Institute. Hanwha Solar, whose panels cover the structure's roof, was also principal sponsor and exclusive solar module supplier for the SCI-Arc/Caltech team during the Decathlon.

The 45 solar panels generate three times more electricity than what the home uses—as long as it operates in temperate Los Angeles. With that capacity, residents could power two electric cars along with the lighting, appliances, and heating and cooling systems.

Students pimped an Xbox Kinect motion-sensitive video game system so that it is used as a master command center, through which residents would use gestures to control lights and appliances. A 3-D camera also sees occupants of the house and can automatically turn lights on and off as they move from space to space.

If you're not able to make it to the science center to see the building first hand, here's a virtual tour:

Images: Courtesy of CHIP

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure