Modernist Living in the Net-Zero CHIP House

One of the most creative entries into the 2011 Solar Decathlon was the collaborative brainchild from the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the California Institute of Technology.  They impressed Solar Decathlon visitors with an affordable, efficient, practical and futuristic CHIP house.

The CHIP house was one of the most innovative entries into the 2011 Solar Decathlon.

The name CHIP is the shortened version of Compact Hyper-Insulated Prototype.  Working with a modified cube shape, the team utilized a creative and sustainable means of adding insulation to the outside of the structure in order to utilize more living space inside the structure.



A 7.2 kW array provides electricity to the house. Photo Credit: Eduardo Castilho of

The puffy-looking outer layer resembles the same look as puffy-down jacket on a person.  The soft look is created from the protective covering of the house that protects the puffy insulation, made in part from recycled blue jeans.

The structure is covered by a white vinyl-coated fabric.  Where does one get this type of fabric?  It is the same material used for outdoor billboards.  The material has a low cost and is built to withstand the blazing sun and other outside elements.


Active Solar

The CHIP home has a 7.2 kW array on the southern facing roof of the house.  The photovoltaic panels are situated at an ideal angle for electricity production.  While every location will have a slightly different optimal solar angle, the panels on top of the sloping home performed well in Washington D.C., achieving net-zero status in the Energy Balance Category.  (The photo to the right was taken by Eduardo Castilho of


The Layout

The home’s main living areas can be seen in the diagram.

The CHIP House has different living areas located in different levels of the house.  The different levels create distinctive living areas without the presense of walls.

The shared living areas are located in the lower portions of the home while the most private area, the bedroom, is located at the highest, most elevated section of the 700 square foot home.

The layout is an efficient one with the systems that use water in close proximity.  In the diagram to the left, they are contained in the grey area, denoted with a fork and knife and running water icon.



The CHIP Home was designed and built by the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the California Institute of Technology. Photo Credit: U.S. DOE / Solar Decathlon

Passive Cooling, Convective Air Currents

Because warmer air naturally rises, the home has a natural or passive means of cooling.  The lower side of the home can be opened along with windows at the highest elevation, to create an air flow that will naturally allow warmer air to leave the home at its highest point.

In addition, a highly efficient HVAC system works in conjunction with a air conditioning and domestic hot water (DHW) system to warm, circulate and filter the air.  It takes the building approximately 30 minutes to totally change over all the air in the home.

The SCI-Arc / CalTech Team opted to leave off evacuated solar tubes and instead utilized an efficient mechanical core that uses naturally occurring temperatures like the warmth in the air to help heat the domestic hot water.  That’s essentially the simple explanation; there is a detailed diagram of how the system functions in the photo gallery below.

High Tech Functions – Motion Detection & Lighting

The home’s can sense movement, so if someone points to the light, it will turn on.

The team offered tours during the Solar Decathlon where they showcased the  many cool high tech functions integrated into the CHIP house.

Upon entering the home, the visitor enters a lofty, open space within the kitchen area.

Visitors were shown how a motion detector can sense which light is being pointed to and as a result, is programmed to turn the respective light on.  The home can track movement through the home and modify the lighting so that it is utilized only within the areas in active use.

The bedroom is located on the upper and highest section of the home.



The bathroom can be accessed through a pocket door and even includes a bathtub.

The bathroom is tucked away on the side of the home between the bedroom and kitchen.  Accessed through a sliding door, the ingenious layout includes all the regular amenities and includes the luxury of a sunken bathtub.

Both the kitchen and clothes washing machine are located on opposite sides of the bathroom, keeping the water pipes and plumbing efficient and in close proximity.

The home has many electronic and creative features built into the home.  See the surround-sound electronic speaker tucked away near the ceiling?

Notice the green chair in front of the sliding pocket doors of the restroom? The furniture in the CHIP Solar Decathlon home project was also student designed and can be neatly tucked away in areas throughout the house.

The use of white cabinetry and light wood give the house an airy and open feel.

After sitting in the comfy green chairs…

… they are designed to stack neatly into the wall.

This Solar Decathlon entry is a wholistic system with strong student participation.  The furniture systems in the CHIP House were also designed by students.

The chairs could be enjoyed to lounge on the deck, used entertain guests or used to relax and read a book in the study.

After using the chairs, they stack neatly back into their storage space in the wall, transforming itself into a form of artwork.

The kitchen table can be seen in the gallery below and can be moved throughout the kitchen area or used to extend the higher area above the kitchen.


The home rises to the left hand side of the picture toward the bathroom, dressing and bedroom platforms, while to the right of the picture, the home lowers to the study and entertainment areas.



A projector is used to provide entertainment instead of a television screen.




Because of the layout of the house is an open one, with the different levels of the house creating a sense of boundaries, movement through the house occurs through the center.

The lowest section of the home is a study space and entertainment area.

A projector is utilized instead of a television.   A screen descends from the wall opposite of the projector and movies or television shows can entertain the occupants.


The is also a system for utilizing the water that falls on the roof.

The sloping roof of the CHIP House is also ideal for rainwater catchment. The team devised a ingenious metal grate that both extends the deck space, while it also is a catchment that collects rainwater in a storage tank.

It provides water for the plants located to the side of the house. A water sensor is used to determine if the plants are dry, and if so, will send water to the plants from the tank. The water collection system was also designed and built by the students.


Two members of the Exterior Team, Hyungbin Im and Mike Nesbit take time away from the tours for a picture.

The CHIP House was one of my favorites in the 2011 Solar Decathlon.  It was evident that the team put a lot of collaborative design intelligence and creativity into the home.

The Solar Decathlon homes that had this type of active student inspiration were especially enjoyable to tour because the ingenuity and the pride of the project showed through in the elegance and creativity of not only the features of the competition home, but also within the students who explained the different processes that they worked to create.

Some of the other Solar Decathlon entries subcontracted out various aspects of the building process, while others rented furniture or had it donated from a furniture company.  Others, like this cool project had student ownership throughout the project as the walls, insulation, furniture, piping, end even artwork were all student made.  These differences in participation create subtle differences within the final project while the sense of ownership and pride can be sensed when touring the homes.

Lasting friendships and professional networks are established when participating in the Solar Decathlon.

Take a look at the photo gallery and video below to get more angles and information about the CHIP House.


The Photo Gallery

Click on a picture below to enter a slideshow of the photo gallery.  Use the arrows to navigate or click on the right hand side of the photo to progress to the next one.


It’s my personal opinion – that I don’t think that the ‘Market Appeal’ jury was ready for this modernist house.  I don’t think that they appreciated the technologies and design features throughout the home. Both the house and the furniture had an abundance of forward thinking creativity and space-saving design.

Solar Decathlon 2011 Scores for Sci-arch

A screenshot of the overall scores from the 2011 Solar Decathlon.

The SCI-Arc/Caltech team tied for first place in Energy Balance and Hot Water as a super efficient, net-zero home, while they also received 2nd in Engineering and Home Entertainment.  The team also finished 3rd in the category of Affordability, costing a somewhat reasonable amount  of $262,500 to build. The house performed solidly in all the competitions, placing in 6th place overall and within the top 10 in all categories – except for in the Market Appeal category where they placed 17th.  (Conspiracy!)



See the original model of CHIP used to get into the 2011 Solar Decathlon

The Southern California Institute of Architcture and the California Institute of Technology – CHIP’s website:

The 2011 Solar Decathlon Main Website:


Keya Lea

Keya Lea likes to spend time outside, enjoying the sun.

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