Spirits are high at the opening ceremonies of Solar Decathlon 2011, in West Potomac Park on the National Mall. Richard King, the decathlon’s director, and New Jersey senator Robert Menendez joke that it’s rare in Washington to get anything done in three months—let alone build a solar home. King welcomes the decathlon participants, most of whom have traveled far from home to take part in the U.S. Department of Energy’s biannual event, but one government worker in the crowd hasn’t traveled far at all; her house is close by. About 100 yards away, to be exact. Lakiya Culley, an administrative staff member of the U.S. Department of State, is here as the future occupant of Empowerhouse’s entry in the Solar Decathlon.
Built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity DC, the efficient, solar-powered home will be moved to Deanwood, the DC neighborhood where Culley has lived for the past 15 years with family, after the decathlon. Next spring, Culley’s home will have another floor added to it and be joined to a companion house, and she and her family will move in. “It happened pretty fast,” says Culley, describing the process of applying for a home with Habitat. “I’m excited to see my new home up close. It’s DC’s first solar house—it’s like a part of history. I’ve met some of the Empowerhouse people before, but I’m looking forward to meeting more.”
Meanwhile, the Solar Decathlon teams prepare for the arrival of press and VIPs. The Empowerhouse students are especially eager to meet Culley. The team’s many meetings during the past two years with Deanwood community leaders like DC Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Sylvia Brown and local residents ensure that the house will fit into the neighborhood. But will Lakiya like the Empowerhouse? Feel at home in it? Will her three young sons play on the wide porch and climb into the loft, looking out on a space they’ll feel is theirs? Questions like these are on the mind of Carly Berger, a third-year M.Arch student working on the home’s design and communications plan, as she adjusts a framed photo of Culley and her sons on a kitchen shelf. “I want to get to know Lakiya and her boys—what they like to do, how they’ll use the house. This is a human project—it’s not a science project,” says Berger. “As an architect, I’m proud of the design but most excited about making a sustainable home that won’t demand much from its owner. And it won’t cost much to maintain, either: We predict Empowerhouse will save Lakiya $140 per month in utilities.”
Chris Piuggi, an interaction designer and research assistant in the MFA Design and Technology program, picks up the conversation. “Empowerhouse isn’t a ‘smart home’; it’s a home to support smart home owners,” he says. “Our plan was to design ways to make sustainable living easier. We hope that Lakiya and her sons find ways to make monitoring their energy usage fun and share what they learn with neighbors.” Piuggi calls attention to a feature that apprises Empowerhouse’s occupants of their energy use habits: a monitor that dynamically tracks power consumption and production in the house. Vasilis Kyriacou, a recent BFA Design and Technology graduate working on the energy-logging interface, explains that he explored using the system for an interactive game challenging Lakiya’s family to conserve energy.
A moment later, Culley arrives at Empowerhouse, accompanied by Habitat staff. Peering into a child’s bedroom, she is met by Laura Briggs, a lead faculty advisor for Empowerhouse and an assistant professor in Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments (SCE). Culley smiles as she takes in the home’s open plan, with its central table for gathering and eating. Briggs introduces Culley to Berger, and the two chat on the couch about Culley’s sons—CJ, who is five; Christopher, four; and Camari, just shy of eight months—and the messy art projects they’ll undertake at the kitchen table. “Everyone’s been asking me, ‘What is a solar home, and how can I get one? What are you going to do with the money you save on electric bills?’ I think I’m going to be doing a lot of house tours,” predicts Culley. “I can’t believe we’re going to live here; this is going to change our lives,” she says, looking out onto the back porch, where herbs grow in planters. Showing Culley the framed family photographs the students have placed around Empowerhouse, Berger beams as if her life has been changed just as much.