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Award-winning solar home opens at California Science Center

By Hayley Fox
Published: Thursday, January 19, 2012, at 08:30AM
Ryan Tyler Martinez/SCI-Arc

The CHIP Solar House has been said to look like a couch, a quilt and a spacesuit, among other things.

At first glance the 750 square-foot home looks like a marshmallow. It can be controlled by an iPad and it produces all the energy it needs to power every light and appliance inside. Known as CHIP Solar House it's currently open to the public at the California Science Center for viewing.

Created by the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and Caltech, this solar power home competed in the U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored Solar Decathalon in Washington D.C.

But one of the more unique aspects to the design is that the home looks like a house turned inside out, with all the insulation on the outside. In this case, it's a tight vinyl covering that coats a fiberglass-like material that's actually made of recycled jeans, said Finlay.

"Insulation is not usually the sexiest component of a building but we said,'why cant it be,'" he said.

Besides all the of the standard features you'd expect in a typical house (fully functioning with running water, a toilet, and power appliances) this house also has some high-tech controls. There are two ways to turn on and off lights; An iPad application and an Xbox Kinect. The Kinect (like a Nintendo Wii, but without controls), monitors the motions of your body movements and uses a camera to see what lights you need turned on.

The SoCal team had to build the entire house in California and then transport it to the East Coast for the competition.

"It's difficult to do," said Reed Finlay, the house's project manager and an ex SCI-Arc student of transporting the structure. "Not only are we creating a solar powered, net-zero house, we're asked to make it totally mobile."

The house doesn't have many solid partitions, but includes all the features of a normal home, including a bedroom, bathroom kitchen and living room. It was designed for Southern California living and is big enough for a young couple, probably without kids, said Georgiana Ceausu, from SCI-Arc's Public Relations & Online Media department.

The house won special props at the Decathalon for its accomplishments in engineering and affordability. Reproducing the actual house would cost $260,000, Ceausu said.

"I think one of the biggest challenges of green design is getting over the stigma that if you do it green, it's automatically expensive," said Finlay.

The Decathalon consists of 10 "events" or categories; five objective and five subjective. There are 20 U.S. schools that are chosen to compete and they are judged based on measurable qualities like humidity and temperature as well as more taste-based evaluations, including architecture and elegance of design.

The entire solar home is net-zero, meaning it produces at least as much energy as it needs to function, and in this case, it produces almost twice the energy needed, Ceausu said.

The house took nearly two years to build and used the help or more than 100 students and about $1 million. It's now on display in Exposition Park at the California Science Center. It's open to the public for free tours through the end of May, giving visitors the opportunity to actually go inside the home. Tours are weekdays from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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