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Empowerhouse, A Solar Decathlon Winner, Becomes Home to Two DC Families
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December 26, 2012

Empowerhouse, A Solar Decathlon Winner, Becomes Home to Two DC Families

By Cheryl Kaften
TMCnet Contributor

Several weeks ago, Lakiya Culley stood with her three children outside of their new home in Washington, DC’s Deanwood neighborhood, being interviewed by the media. “When I stepped into the finished product, I was amazed,” she told local news station WTOP. “It was more than I could even imagine.”

Culley, a Deanwood resident and single mother of three young children who works as a secretary for the U.S. Department of State, will move into the brand-new, net-zero, affordable house in January. A second family was just approved, and will be transitioning from public housing.

Called Empowerhouse, the highly energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable home was first developed cooperatively by students from the New York City-based university, The New School, and the Hoboken, New Jersey-based Stevens Institute of Technology  to compete in the 2011 Solar Decathlon, sponsored hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy.

At the competition, it won the Decathlon’s first Affordability contest, as well as several additional categories.

The Solar Decathlon is a biannual, international competition that challenges collegiate teams to design, build and operate solar-powered houses. Developed in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Washington, D.C. (DC Habitat), and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), the Empowerhouse project marks the first time in the Solar Decathlon's history that a team partnered from the outset with civic and government agencies to create a house specifically for a local community. It is the first Passive House—the leading international energy standard—in the District of Columbia, and already a recipient of a Mayor’s Sustainability Award.

The Empowerhouse team took the competition beyond the Mall by designing and constructing a house specifically for Habitat on a site in the Deanwood neighborhood east of the Anacostia River in Washington DC.  At the conclusion, it was moved to Deanwood and expanded into a two-family home for local residents.

Deanwood, a primarily working-class, African-American community, was selected as the site for the project due to its location in one of the greenest wards in Washington DC, and its history of community activism and self-sufficiency.

Today, Deanwood and its surrounding neighborhoods are undergoing a powerful revitalization through economic development and environmental sustainability initiatives. Residents recently participated in the CarbonFree DC "Extreme Green Neighborhood Makeover," which retrofitted low and moderate-income homes.

"This project fulfills a longstanding vision of our team to create a house that would endure in a meaningful way after the Solar Decathlon was over,” said Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons (News - Alert), The New School for Design. “Empowerhouse illustrates The New School's commitment to design-led civic engagement, and is a true model of affordable sustainable housing that has the potential for national as well as international replication. Due to the success of this project, Parsons is now in the planning stages of a second project to build a home with Habitat in Philadelphia."

Beyond bringing together the not-for-profit, academic and government sectors, Empowerhouse also brought to the table the knowledge and support of the design and construction industries, as well as important local stakeholders. This included such project sponsors as Binational Softwood Lumber Council, Jones Lang LaSalle, Metlife Foundation, Tess Dempsey Design, and Sheila Johnson and the Washington Mystics – as well as community organizations such as Groundwork Anacostia River DC, which provides environmental education and restoration projects to neighborhoods along the river.

“This project has given students an extraordinary opportunity to address first-hand one of the most pressing problems facing the world today – affordable, sustainable housing supported by alternative energy,” said Dr. Michael Bruno, dean of the Charles V. Schaefer Jr., School of Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology. "The team has set itself apart by designing a house that is not only net energy neutral but also requires low energy consumption to operate – a welcome feature for the ... family that will be living there.”

Image via Stevens Institute

Each unit of the two-family house is designed as a "site net-zero" system (producing all of its energy needs), but each achieves peak efficiency when joined. The house adheres to Passive House principles, which have only just begun to be recognized in the United States, and consumes up to 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than a typical home.

Through the use of these principles, the house had one of the smallest photovoltaic arrays of any in the competition, and its heating and cooling will require the same amount of power as it takes to operate a hair dryer.

Building on the theme of self-sufficiency, the house is designed not only to provide its own energy needs, but the team also is working with Deanwood’s Lederer Community Youth Garden to provide plantings for a roof garden and vegetable window boxes, to provide families with the opportunity to grow their own food. The house has a comprehensive water strategy that includes a rainwater harvesting system that will capture and store rainwater not only from the site but surrounding homes for use in the garden, with the ultimate goal of minimizing the water that is drained into the public sewer system.

"The District of Columbia is on course to become the healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the country within 20 years," said Michael P. Kelly, director for the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. "Our primary mission at DHCD is to create more affordable and sustainable housing options for District residents. Empowerhouse does a tremendous job of creating housing that's affordable for a first-time homebuyer to purchase and for the owner to maintain reasonable housing costs through low energy consumption."

The community played a direct role in building the house, in keeping with the Habitat for Humanity mission, and the house features an innovative construction system that will made it easy for volunteer participation, as well as many off-the-shelf components that are available in home improvement stores. The construction process was so affordable that in June, DC Habitat announced it was breaking ground on six new energy-efficient town homes in the Ivy City community that use the Empowerhouse team’s Passive House design standards.

"Because the passive house design can reduce a home's total energy consumption by 80-90 percent, the owners of the Empowerhouse units will enjoy substantially lower energy costs throughout the lifetime of their homes,” said Susanne Slater, President and CEO of DC Habitat. “DC Habitat is thrilled to offer two hard-working families the added affordability of this model. For some families, a significant savings on energy can mean the ability to afford a summer vacation or help pay for college tuition."

The Empowerhouse project was community-driven. Throughout the course of its development, the team hosted design charrettes (collaborative meetings) with community members, and conducted extensive research on the neighborhood, including its rich architectural history and sustainable practices and resources. In addition to creating new residences, the team extended the project by leading workshops to educate residents on how to make their homes more sustainable—from retrofitting solar panels to community gardening.

The team is also creating a new learning garden in Deanwood, working with Groundwork Anacostia and local volunteers.

“The team has taken an integrative approach that reflects both the wide range of issues in the project and the students’ wide array of expertise,” said David Scobey, executive dean of The New School for Public Engagement.  "Empowerhouse has brought together over 200 graduate and undergraduate students in ways that connect sustainability with management, urban policy, engineering, and many levels of design—from architecture to fashion, to product design, to communication design, to technology.  The project engages sutainability in a fully interdisciplinary way.”

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Edited by Braden Becker

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