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  • The full-sized mock-up of the SCI-Arc/Caltech Solar Decathlon house.
09/05/2011 07:00:00

CHIP Goes to Washington

On September 6, after five months of 60-plus-hour weeks of construction—and another two years of planning and design—CHIP, the high-tech house built by a joint team of students from Caltech and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), will finally hit the road, en route to Washington D.C. for the biennial Solar Decathlon competition.

The Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), features 19 teams from around the world selected to design and build the most energy-efficient, affordable, and attractive house they can. The event, held on the National Mall, is intended to inspire policymakers, industry leaders, and the public to pursue a sustainable future with cutting-edge design and technology.

Over the past few weeks, says Caltech undergraduate student Fei Yang, the team's systems engineer, "construction has been humming along" on CHIP (or, more precisely, "CH:IP," which stands for "Compact Hyper-Insulated Prototype"). "We completed a craning exercise that disassembled and reassembled the whole house on-site. We also completed a series of systems testing that tested and validated the functionality and energy consumption of every engineering system in the house."

So far, all systems are go—and operating with impressive efficiency. For example, using just half of CHIP's array of photovoltaic panels, "we have produced 23 kwh in one day, which is enough to power our entire house for a day in DC," says undergrad Cole Hershkowitz, the team's public relations lead at Caltech.

Earlier in the summer, CHIP's unique heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system—which uses waste heat to pre-heat the house's domestic hot water, saving energy in the process—had been getting "sub-prime results," says Hershkowitz. "The causes for our problem are complex," says Yang, "but in essence, we had capacity issues with our original HVAC condenser, and swapping it out for a bigger one did the trick."

CHIP's "brain," a computer that monitors the house's energy balance to ensure net-zero energy use, is also online, and the iPad interface—imagine the ultimate universal remote—has been completed "and is controlling everything in our house from lights to TV to shades," Hershkowitz says.

On Tuesday, the structure, which has been painstakingly assembled at the SCI-Arc campus in Downtown Los Angeles, will be disassembled and loaded in four pieces onto a flatbed truck for the journey east, accompanied by Hershkowitz and Caltech student Richard Wang. "They are scheduled to arrive in D.C. the following week, on the 11th or 12th," says Yang. Then, he says, the house will be reassembled, "and the remaining furnishing of the interior will be finished. It is going to look fantastic!"

How do the students feel about sending CHIP off on its next adventure? "I am sure it is different for every team member," Yang says, "but personally I am still pretty tense, because the project isn't done until the competition is over. At the same time, sending it off to D.C. concludes a big chapter in the project—and the ensuing respite is much welcomed by everybody."

To read more about CHIPs construction, visit the SCI-Arc/Caltech team's blog.

Written by Kathy Svitil