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A CHIP shot at a better future?

September 16th, 2011 · 2 Comments

One of the nation’s most important — and sadly too little discussed — intercollegiate competitions is about to open in Washington, DC: the the biennial Solar Decathlon.  For two weeks, twenty university teams from around the globe will compete across ten categories (thus, “decathlon”) that show the house works (can they get household chores and tasks done, like washing dishes and cooking dinner), measured performance items (how much electricity does the house produce), and perception items that can’t be tangibly measured (like aesthetic design quality).   The Solar Decathlon is awaited by many, including this author, with much anticipation and baited breath.  Opening to the public on 23 September, after years of work, the homes are being assembled at Potomac Park in Washington, DC, as I type.  In preparation for visiting the homes, now is a good time to review them to highlight what to look for and what to focus on in discussions with each team.  While, as per the 2009 Solar Decathlon, a post will come laying out all 20 teams and the entire competition, here is a quick taste of the Decathlon with a pre-look at one of the competitors: the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARCH)/California Institute of Technology (CALTECH) CHIP shot at a path toward a brighter future.

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 As per the logo, CHIP stands for “Compact House, Infinite Possibilities“.  One of the realities of the Solar Decathlon are logistical and physical constraints. The houses are limited in size and the teams must be able to move them to and construct them within a constrained footprint on the Mall.  In line, one might say, with the entire small house movement, the Decathletes provide tangible visions of high-quality and highly-sustainable livestyles cost-effectively.

From the first moment, CHIP stands out compared to our traditional concepts of architecture and building.  Rather than putting insulating inside the structure and then having to drywall on top of it, the SCI-ARCH/CALTECH team chose to cover the outside with insulation.  For me, this makes this look like something that might have fit into a Star Trek episode as scientists’ housing on a remote planet.  As the CHIP team describes it:

The most singular feature of the design is CHIP’s unique exterior envelope strategy: A skin and insulation assembly which turns conventional wisdom on its head, wearing its thermal performance “on its sleeve.” Separating the structural members from the insulating layer, and wrapping the insulation assembly in a flexible vinyl membrane gives CHIP an exterior envelope with the extremely high R-values necessary for a net-zero house, at a significantly reduced cost, while indexing this performance in its physical appearance.

“Wearing its thermal performance “on its sleeve”” has advantages such as the highlighted cost reductions which result from greatly eased installation.  Considering that leads to obvious thoughts about how this creates the potential for sending variants into disaster environments where quality housing that can go up quickly should be prioritized and for other areas with very high cost to construct (which can overlap with remote areas with limited or no grid support).  This also, as discussed in the walk-through video after the fold, creates other values.  There isn’t the drywall — all the gaps where insulation would go now become internal space available for a variety of uses (such as, for example, bookshelves and other storage).  Imagine, as well, the stylistic opportunity created by color choices that could enable the house to stand out from its neighbors or, imagine a house in the woods, blend into nature.

The Solar Decathlon homes, increasingly over the years, aren’t only showpieces of renewable power generation but are showing innovative design approaches, cool ‘gadgets’ that could ‘make it’ in the market (like Arizona’s 2009 solar popcorn maker), and technical advances that we should hope to see make into our lives.  With each competition, not surprising considering overall technological developments, the Solar Decathlon teams have been getting ever more sophisticated in whole house power controls and other paths to control systems.  How about being able to use developments from the gaming industry to wave your hands in the air and control lighting (and other features)?  CHIP gives you that.  Less fanciful, perhaps, but an item that could have tremendous benefits if we implemented rapidly, CHIP has a whole-house ‘power down’ button.  One touch and all non-essential systems get powered off.  Don’t worry as you head off for a long weekend, one touch and you know that you didn’t leave the bedroom closet light on. 

One of the interesting Decathlon issues to watch is how the teams choose to use solar power: what is the mix of active solar (electric and thermal) and passive solar (related to heating/cooling, and lighting).  And, then, how do these choices impact their overall system.  The CHIP house is solely electricity run without solar thermal (hot water) panels.  With limited rooftop, their calculations almost certainly came out that having high-efficiency electricity systems and scavenging waste heat for hot water ended up making more fiscal and technical sense than having a solar hot water system as part of the overall structure.  Taking an all electric approach might, as well, end up creating a lower total cost to construct than the additional plumbing work for a solar thermal system.  For the ‘average’ consumer (at least considering various incentive programs), solar thermal is typically a far more cost effective first path toward active renewable power generation.  This is, however, a decision path that I hope to explore with the CHIP team (and others who chose to go all PV and no thermal).

Posts on 2011 Solar Decathlon:

Posts on 2009 Solar Decathlon:

Discussions of houses

Overview of Decathlon / policy / framing / discussion

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Tags: Energy · solar · solar decathlon · Solar Energy

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