“Please remove your shoes before entering the house.” Steven Scribner, M.Arch ’11, makes that polite but determined request of visitors to Empowerhouse, the home he and his teammates built on the national mall for the 2011 solar decathlon. Scribner is part of a team made up of students from Parsons; the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School; and Stevens Institute of Technology. Surveying the soggy competition grounds from a spacious porch, Scribner is justifiably concerned. Members of the press are tracking in mud as they tour Empowerhouse and meet the students who created it. Scribner’s goal in keeping the house clean, he explains, isn’t to impress visitors or the decathlon judges as much as it is to preserve the house for its next life. Empowerhouse is about to become a home for Lakiya Culley and her sons, a Washington, DC, family chosen by habitat for humanity and as Scribner and others await Culley’s arrival, he wants her new home to look its best. “It’s not our home anymore; it’s Lakiya’s.”
For the Empowerhouse team, the Solar Decathlon competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) was both an academic exercise and a real-world mandate. Their building was the first decathlon project designed from the outset as a permanent home for DC families. The university team collaborated with Habitat for Humanity of Washington, DC, and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development to secure a double lot in Deanwood, a neighborhood on DC’s eastern border. Now that the Solar Decathlon is over, the Empowerhouse erected on the Mall has been transported to the Deanwood property to be expanded; the Culleys will occupy that structure. In the spring, another family will be selected for a mirror-image Empowerhouse being constructed on site. “The students have demonstrated not only that community-partnered projects have real, lasting effects on neighborhoods and individual lives but that design can support sustainable ways of living as well,” observes Joel Towers, Parsons’ executive dean.
That support extends to Habitat for Humanity even now. Habitat architects have been studying Empowerhouse’s environmentally and economically sustainable construction methods for home building over the course of the project. “Habitat is incorporating construction techniques developed for Empowerhouse into a number of new homes being built in the area. We want these advanced methods to filter out into mainstream home-building industries as well,” says Towers.
That may be exactly the broad impact the Solar Decathlon’s founder had in mind. The contest was conceived in the late 1990s by Richard King, program manager in DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. King was exploring ways to popularize the electricity-producing silicon panels known as photovoltaics (PVs). “The market wasn’t moving. People didn’t know what to do with them, and they wouldn’t accept slapping them on top of their roofs,” he recalls. The federal government enlisted the academic community to help win the public over to PV use. King’s office invited university teams to design, build, and operate attractive solar homes as a way to raise awareness about solar technology and other energy-saving measures. A competition was conceived, judged on ten categories related to building a comfortable, energy-efficient home and publicizing its solar-powered features. The Solar Decathlon was born.
Academia responded enthusiastically. Fourteen universities in the United States and Puerto Rico erected solar homes on the National Mall for the first Solar Decathlon, in 2002. The competition has been held every two years since 2005, each time attracting greater attention and international participation.
The decathlon has done much to promote solar energy, but cost presents a formidable barrier to mainstream use of PVs. The initial investment remains among the highest for a green technology. This point is vividly illustrated by the 2009 decathlon winner, created by a team from Technische Universität Darmstadt. The use of PVs on the entire exterior surface of the house brought the total budget to about $800,000.
Recognizing PVs’ off-putting expense, King and his DOE team introduced an Afford-ability category among its ten contests for the 2011 competition. Teams that achieved a construction cost of $250,000 or less would be awarded all 100 points of the Affordability contest. Those whose solar homes cost more than $250,001 would see their points in the category drop off on a sliding scale from 100 to 0.
Empowerhouse, which rang up at $229,890, was the least expensive house in the competition, receiving the full 100 points.
“Our students wanted to put solar power and sustainable design within financial reach of anyone,” recalls Laura Briggs, an assistant professor in Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments (SCE). Associate professor David Lewis, an SCE colleague, emphasizes the students’ sense of social responsibility. The team, he says, “thought about affordability as a factor in American home building more than as a contest to be won.”
Designing for modest upfront costs offered the best hope for achieving both objectives. In particular, maximizing affordability meant minimizing use of PVs. Empowerhouse has the smallest PV installation in this year’s Solar Decathlon. To compensate for the loss
in energy production, the team focused on conservation, employing Passive House principles in its design. This energy standard, which originated in Germany, calls for airtight, well-insulated homes that require no mechanical heating or cooling. Passive House works in tandem with net zero energy systems, making homes affordable in both capital investment and daily usage.
One of Empowerhouse’s Passive House elements is a 12-inch wall cavity filled with cellulose insulation—a green alternative to fiberglass and foam—which allows the roof and walls to maintain comfortable interior temperatures. The team installed triple-paned windows placed to collect the sun’s heat during cold months. Some windows are set within beveled surrounds angled to draw in every last ray of sunlight. Students also positioned water service lines to minimize heat loss. Inside, an electric water heater recovers heat from a clothes dryer’s exhaust, and dehumidified exhaust from the water heater provides cooling. Simply put, whatever warmth or coolness enters the house stays there, doing double and triple duty.
Before designing for the Deanwood community, described by its citizen’s association as “a stable nucleus of blue- and white-collar Black families” with a “strong sense of economic independence and self-reliance,” the Empowerhouse team spent time there listening and sharing. Led by DC Advisory Neighborhood commissioner Sylvia Brown and the community group Groundwork Anacostia River DC, students conducted door-to-door visits, community meetings, and presentations to get input from local residents on design elements that figured into the final plan.
A wide porch for gathering and an open kitchen and living space instead of formal dining quarters were two features Deanwood residents favored. The inclusion of a kitchen island accommodates the multitasking required of parents; in addition, the built-in worktop replaces a furniture purchase with a capital expense rolled into a mortgage—an elegant, resourceful solution. Discussing features such as the kitchen’s design, Lewis explains that “Empower” refers less to the energy produced on site and more to residents’ role as partners in the design process. The partnership yields highly functional and aesthetically pleasing results. “It’s not meant to look affordable; it’s meant to be costed affordably,” says Lewis.
In addition to placing first in the Affordability contest, Empowerhouse received a perfect score in the Hot Water contest and took 13th place in overall ranking. But the most eagerly anticipated victory is taking place now, ten miles from the Mall in Deanwood, where the expanded Solar Decathlon project and second house are going up.
Meanwhile Habitat is treating the students’ prototype as a “training ground,” in the words of Teresa Hamm, DC Habitat’s senior project manager. The nonprofit is currently applying Passive House principles to 11 homes in the District of Columbia; Hamm links the projects’ use of energy recovery ventilators directly to Empowerhouse, and construction crews’ framing, insulating, and sealing techniques to the education they’ve received from students.
“The Empowerhouse model is relevant to Habitat’s work because the low-income families we serve greatly benefit from homes that are affordable to heat, cool, and otherwise power,” adds Kent Adcock, president and CEO of DC Habitat. “We hope to promote Passive House design standards, and building methods we’ve learned through our Solar Decathlon experience, to Habitat affiliates around the country.” That approach to sustainability could also extend to private industry. In West Virginia, for example, former DC Habitat executive Dave Gano (also the supplier of Empowerhouse’s windows) is establishing a Passive House school for contractors to service markets for all socioeconomic levels.
The Empowerhouse team considers work undertaken for the Solar Decathlon as a means to several ends. The students have illustrated the benefits of Passive House and other best practices, which Habitat for Humanity is now employing in home building in the region. In the meantime, the second Empowerhouse is being built with Habitat in Deanwood to join the first. Both houses will have families living in them by next summer, each with children who will grow up in a home where sustainability is an integral part of daily life. Students working on the ongoing project acquired extensive knowledge about sustainability and collaboration, as did those on Habitat’s staff. As Steven Scribner puts it, “What we’re doing is laying a foundation and then scaling it up. This house is just the beginning.”
“Our students wanted to put solar power and sustainable design within financial reach of anyone.”
-Laura Briggs, assistant professor, Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments.
The Deanwood Learning Garden
Crowning Empowerhouse is a south-facing roof terrace. Like its patio and open kitchen, this feature was conceived expressly for Deanwood. The habitable rooftop is intended to encourage small-scale urban farming to provide fresh produce.
Parsons students also helped create the Deanwood Learning Garden, a community garden with decorative and edible perennials located a short walk from Empowerhouse. Local teachers can use the garden as a resource for lessons on ecology, food systems, and other topics. Alison Mears, director of the undergraduate Architectural and Interior Design programs at Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments, oversaw student work on the garden; the project was a collaboration with Groundwork Anacostia River DC, a local environmental group, and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. During the two weeks of the Solar Decathlon, Empowerhouse team members and Groundwork Anacostia volunteers made the garden a reality. Local residents and students moved dirt and mulch, constructed raised beds, and planted blueberry bushes, fruit trees, and other hardy flora. “The garden offers lessons about sustainability and new models of economic development for the community,” said Dennis Chestnut, executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC. “Parsons made a total investment in the Deanwood community.”
Many Hands to Build a Home
Empowerhouse was made possible by many individual and corporate sponsors whose generosity deserves mention. Parsons would especially like to thank the following supporters:
Founders Circle Partner
Binational Softwood Lumber Council
District Department of the Environment
Forestry Innovation Investment
General Growth Properties, Inc.
Sheila C. Johnson and the Washington Mystics
Jones Lang LaSalle
Tess Dempsey Design
U.S. Department of Solar Energy
The Dow Chemical Company
John L. Tishman Scholarships for Sustainable Development, Design and Construction
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company
For a complete list of donors, visit parsit.parsons.edu/sponsors.