The Empowerhouse Moves From Solar Decathlon to Neighborhood Anchor

With Empowerhouse, students from various schools have designed a passive home in Washington D.C.

All images courtesy Empowerhouse

Three years ago, faculty and students from three schools came together to form the Empowerhouse Collaborative. The participants—Parsons The New School for Design; the Milano School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School; and Stevens Institute of Technology—joined forces to compete in the US Department of Energy 2011 Solar Decathlon. We wanted to change the way affordable housing is designed and developed.

This December 4th we realized our goal, joining Habitat for Humanity of Washington, D.C. (DC Habitat) and the D.C. government to celebrate the dedication of Empowerhouse, a new home for two local families in the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington. This was also a celebration of a series of firsts in the district: the first net-zero-site, the first Passive House, and one of the first low-impact residential developments.


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From the start, we wanted to design a house that would be more than just an exhibition piece on the National Mall. We wanted to create a dwelling that would have a lasting impact, and serve as a real-world experience for the participating students. Throughout the lifespan of the project, our team incorporated the ideas and initiatives of over 200 dedicated students and faculty. We envisioned a simple and beautiful solution to the question we had asked: How do we combine aesthetic, environmental, and economic concerns to create a highly energy efficient home for a low-income demographic?

What set our project apart was its community-based approach. At the outset, we reached out to local civic leaders. They, in turn, connected us with DC Habitat and the District Department of Housing and Community Development to take the house beyond the Mall (where all the Solar Decathlon projects were on display). This resulted in our being given a lot in Deanwood for its development.


We never lost sight of our goal: Make the house a home that fit within the neighborhood (as opposed to a technological box for showcasing new gadgets). We chose a simple construction method that would enable Habitat volunteers to build the house. We employed a light and warm color palette, sustainable materials such as wood, and contemporary furnishings and fixtures. As a Passive Solar House, these homes will generate as much energy as they use, thus reducing household expenses for the family who lives there.

At the Solar Decathlon this past fall, we won first place in the affordability contest (the first ever awarded at the competition), as well as the support of many visitors.  Then DC Habitat selected one of two homeowners who would live in the house. Students from the Milano School conducted extensive outreach to identify the right candidate from the area. At the event, the homeowner, Lakiya Culley, toured the house, which was a highlight of the competition for our students and faculty.


Over the past year our focus shifted to making the exhibition house into a real home. To that end we moved Empowerhouse to Deanwood after the Solar Decathlon, where our team expanded the one-story, one-bedroom exhibition house into its ultimate form. We added a second story, as well as a second unit mirroring the first. Each unit features three bedrooms and two baths on two levels, as well as a generous front porch and back terraces on both levels. When the house arrived in Deanwood, the team at DC Habitat took on the challenge of completing the construction with their volunteers.

Our focus on sustainability, affordability, and energy-efficiency led us to some very specific design choices. One of these was the use of engineered wood—inexpensive, sustainable, and easy to construct—which comprise both the framing and sheathing of the house. The second was the focus on Passive House principles, which required extra insulation and an airtight building envelope. Empowerhouse features 12-inch-deep walls (versus the standard depth of 6 inches), which are sheathed on the interior and exterior in the engineered wood OSB, which keeps the house airtight and watertight but still allows it to breathe. We also chose triple-glazed, deep-set windows strategically placed to maximize daylight. To test airtightness, we conducted a blower-door test, which pressurizes the house. While a standard new home would achieve 7 air changes per hour (ACH) on this test (the higher the number, the less airtight the house), Empowerhouse achieved 0.6 ACH. To make it even more airtight, during the test we hunted down and patched any remaining leaks.


In addition, we chose to insulate the house in cellulose, which is inexpensive, non-toxic, and made of recycled material. Most of the house is constructed from off-the-shelf, inexpensive materials, including right-sized electrical and mechanical systems (which were placed in cavities within the walls to avoid penetrations that could impact the airtight structure), and Energy Star appliances. Outside the house, just as much attention was paid to the landscape design. We took a layered approach to conserving water with cisterns, rain gardens, and bioswales.

While construction was happening on site, academic work continued back home in New York on campus. Students focused on finalizing the landscape design and drafting a homeowner manual. Over the course of the coming year, they will monitor the energy production and consumption in the house. Our students are also setting up a Solar Co-Op in the neighborhood, and they’re applying for various certifications, including Enterprise Green Communities Certification, a program run by Enterprise Community Partners that encourages low-impact development.


Our house has also already become a living educational model for the District. In the spring, the project won a Mayor’s Sustainability Award and was invited to participate in the District’s United Nations World Environment Day activities. We hosted a day of house tours and workshops focused on low-impact development, Passive House construction, and photovoltaic installation, with over 200 people visiting the site. In addition, over the summer, our team participated in the D.C. Solar Flare, a renewable energy technology expo held in Deanwood, which enabled many additional local residents to tour Empowerhouse.

Ultimately, we are happy to report that the project was successful in creating a learning laboratory and demonstrating the possibilities of cross-disciplinary collaboration—not only for our students, but also for local civic organizations and government agencies.  All parties benefited from the research and development of the green construction techniques. And the public was able to see the possibilities of creating a modern green home that maintains the integrity of the community. As we plan ahead, we have the tools and the experience of a successful project to take with us into future endeavors.

Our students are now alumni. They’re pursuing their passions in related fields, while faculty continues to advance these teachings. This spring, Parsons The New School for Design will partner with Habitat for Humanity of Philadelphia on a similar project, while DC Habitat continues its goal of providing energy-efficient and sustainable affordable housing for low-income, working families. A second Passive House project with six units of housing now is now under construction in the District’s Ivy City neighborhood.

Orlando Velez is director of operations of Empowerhouse. He is a master’s candidate at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, where he is earning a degree in Urban Policy Analysis. He was recently hired by Habitat of Humanity of Washington, D.C. as the manager of Housing Services, where he will continue to work on Passive House projects. Velez studied architecture as an undergraduate, and served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay on urban development projects.

Laura Briggs is partner at BriggsKnowles Studio and teaches courses on ecological design at Parsons The New School for Design. She is the faculty lead for Empowerhouse. She has taught architecture studio and construction technology at University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and at University of Michigan as a Mushenheim Fellow. Her New York City architecture practice is recognized for its use of light, color, and the integration of energy efficient and renewable energy technology. She holds a Masters Degree from Columbia University’s Advanced Architectural Design Program and a Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design.

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