A parka with windows, a big box in the sky
At the U.S. Energy Department’s Solar Decathlon, visitors can try on — OK, tour — these avant garde houses, knowing at least that they’re supremely energy efficient. And with the solar power industry on the defensive after the Solyndra bankruptcy, it’s a decent showcase for new technologies.
Set up along the Potomac River on a slightly out of the way corner of Washington’s National Mall, the village of 19 solar-powered homes represents the work of collegiate designers from New York to New Zealand, the University of Tennessee to Tongji University in China. The requirements are strict: each house must be between 600 and 1,000 square feet, and no taller than 18 feet, and be powered by the sun. Any power taken from the grid must be offset by solar energy produced by the house. No fireplaces, fire pits or candles allowed.
Officially opened on September 22, the contest judges the homes’ affordability, appliances, architecture, comfort zone, communications, energy balance, engineering, home entertainment, hot water and market appeal.
The CHIP house — the one that looks a bit like a parka or a big down quilt heaped into a mound — was standing room only on opening day, with a waiting line for visitors. It wears its insulation on the outside, swathed in white vinyl, and its unusual shape is meant to help channel cool air in and hot air out, easing fuel costs. Most electric devices in the home are controlled by a system using an iPad and XBOX 360’s Kinect, which means they can be controlled with a wave or a pointed finger. Solar panels cover most of the roof. CHIP (short for compact hyper-insulated prototype) is the work of students from Caltech and the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
The City College of New York decided to build a house suitable for the underutilized urban space on top of mid-sized residential or commercial buildings. The team from the University of Calgary in Canada constructed a tortoise like TRTL house — “technological residence, traditional living” — with solar cells standing in for the turtle’s shell. China’s team featured a modular Y-shaped house dominated by triangles, from the floor to the furniture. The Empowerhouse, by Parsons The New School for Design and Stevens Institute of Technology, has a known future: after the competition ends, it will become home for a family in Washington DC’s Deanwood neighborhood.
Photo credits: SCI-Arc/Caltech’s CHIP house, September 23, 2011; Parsons The New School for Design/Stevens Institute for Technology’s entry, September 22, 2011; Team China’s Y house, September 23, 2011 (all photos by Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy)