ECO-STRUCTURE recently interviewed Wilson Chang, a 2011 graduate of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) master’s program and the LEED AP specialist for the SCI-Arc and California Institute of Technology co-team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon.  

How is your solar paneling unique?
The solar panels are secured to the roof using a pipe clamp system that does not penetrate the vinyl skin membrane, which is outfitted with 42 solar panels for the Solar Decathlon in Washington D.C., but can hold up to 45 depending on user demand and climate. On the electrical side, the solar array is connected using a Tigo Energy Maximizer System that optimizes the operation of each module, keeping the array running at maximum efficiency. While we found it beneficial to be a little inventive, the scope of this competition is not only to spur innovation, but also to demonstrate that cost-effective, off-the-shelf solutions are available to the average consumer.

What other sustainable features have you incorporated into your design?
The most sustainable feature of this house, CHIP, is its compact size, which does not sacrifice user functionality or a generous interior volume. In order to reduce the water consumption, CHIP contains both a graywater system and a rainwater-collection system. The shape of the roof is designed to drain all the rainwater to the south deck, so a pan and tank is all that was needed to collect all the water. In addition to the reclaimed cedar decking, most of the insulation used in the house consists of recycled denim batt. Due to the shape of the house and the lack of walls, CHIP takes full advantage of daylight and natural ventilation, as well as more active systems such as HVAC thermal storage.

What was the inspiration of your design, and does it display any regional influences?
We looked to California's technology and aerospace industries for inspiration, but also to the California Case Study Houses that took materials and methodologies from other domains and introduced them to the field of architecture. The exterior is heavily influenced by space suits and down jackets, while the interior is geared towards occupants with an active lifestyle. The climate in Southern California accommodates indoor-outdoor living for much of the year, however necessitates a large southern overhang to minimize solar heating during the summer; both of which influenced the overall massing of the building.

How has the new affordability criteria affected the design of your house?
The affordability criteria ensures that all the entries in Solar Decathlon 2011 are viable in the real world, not only for the purposes of research, or just as a competition entry. We deconstructed typical residential wood construction methods and materials, analyzed the components, and reassembled everything in a novel way using relatively low cost and, in some instances, unconventional materials to achieve a high-performance building shell. CHIP's open interior layout reduces costs by eliminating unnecessary walls and reducing the length of MEP runs.

What will happen to the house after the Solar Decathlon?
The current plan is for CHIP to become an exhibit on the Caltech campus in Pasadena to serve as a teaching and outreach tool to demonstrate solar and sustainability concepts.