Houses that Build People

Watch for special alumni events around the Solar Decathlon in the Fall of 2013.

Around this time next year, several students from Caltech and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) will be having what seems to be an average day in their shared house: they'll be doing laundry, inviting neighbors over for dinner, watching TV, playing video games, doing homework. But monitors will stop by to weigh the towels the students launder. The neighbors will judge the dinner party. Every kilowatt that passes through the TV and computers will be noted. And all of this will happen in a house that has yet to exist.

For the second time, a SCI-Arc–Caltech­ team has won a spot in the Solar Decathlon, a biennial Department of Energy–sponsored competition to design and build a solar-powered house with the ideal blend of affordability, market appeal, design excellence, energy production, and efficiency. Twenty student teams from around the United States and the world will open the doors of 20 new houses in the Orange County Great Park, in Irvine, California, on October 3, 2013. During the 10-day competition, each team will put its house through the paces of normal life to simulate a real homeowner's experience—although most homeowners don't have hundreds of visitors tromping through daily. (All Decathlon homes will welcome visitors from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday both weeks of the event.)

After the Decathlon, the SCI-Arc–Caltech house will make an encore appearance at the California Science Center, which exhibited the team's inaugural entry, nicknamed CHIP for Compact Hyper-Insulated Prototype. CHIP actually produced more energy than it consumed, sharing first place in the contest for both energy balance and water heating, winning second in both engineering and home entertainment, and—though its architecture and advanced features suggested a luxury home—garnering third place for affordability.

Melany Hunt, an advisor for the 2013 project and Caltech's William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Mechanical Engineering, uses the Solar Decathlon project as teaching lab. She mentored several students this spring and summer as they brainstormed engineering concepts for the 2013 house's solar panels, the HVAC system, the radiant floor heating, and a unique phase-changing insulation. The insulation—something like bubble wrap filled with a wax-like material instead of air—will help keep heat in or out, as needed, as its filling melts and solidifies. The SCI-Arc architects are being equally innovative, envisioning a house that opens up in fine weather and actually moves so that its solar cells can catch more rays. Their Caltech counterparts—for their part—are engineering ways for the house to sense whether the cat is asleep in the path of the living room.

This summer, electrical engineering sophomores Brynan Qiu and Do Hee Kim optimized concepts for the house's solar panels. As part of their project, they looked at how dirt reduces power production for panels mounted at different angles. They used solar panels that had been exposed to L.A.'s dusty air for seven months on CHIP's roof, retrieving the panels from both flat and angled parts of the roof. "They were really disgusting," says Qiu. "We measured energy production and then cleaned the panels and measured again." They found that the dirty flat-mounted panels lost 20 percent of their power production—more than twice as much as those mounted at a 15-degree angle. With data in hand, they went to the architects . . . and the debate began.

"It's interesting working with the architects," Qiu says. "Engineers and architects have different modes of thought and tastes. While we might want to have our array tilted at the optimal angle for energy production, a large tilted roof may not be part of their vision." So Qiu and Kim are working to see through their partners' eyes, designing novel solar-panel configurations that will produce plenty of power while permitting a graceful and striking roofline. "Interacting with the architects helps me think more creatively and generate more ideas," Qiu says.

This academic year, Qiu and some 20 other students in Introduction to Multidisciplinary Systems Engineering will take the solar house from concept through construction with their SCI-Arc partners, while earning computer science, mechanical engineering, or electrical engineering credits. Hunt, who is leading the class, says the project itself is entirely student led. "I see my role as a supporter," she says. "I love the ideas the students come up with, and want to put them in the position of making all the decisions, thinking about things that are clever and unusual and inexpensive that we can put into this house."

The Decathlon gives Caltech's engineering students an opportunity to extend themselves as they learn to interact with their architect partners and with the media, corporate partners, and the public, says Elisabeth Neigert, a 2010 SCI-Arc graduate and a project manager for the 2011 team. (Neigert is the external relations program manager for the 2013 team, supported by Caltech's Resnick Sustainability Institute.) One key asset helps Caltech students stretch, she says: "They are incredible at collaboration. They're selfless. They are used to thinking about what's best for the team. It's always about the vision."

Written by Ann Wendland