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2011 Solar Decathlon

Solar Decathlon 2011: Parsons and Stevens Institute Team Up

Using Passivhaus modeling software and feedback from residents of the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington, DC, to design a house destined for an urban lot

A group of 100 collaborators from several institutions are designing Empowerhouse, one of the energy-efficient homes entered in the 2011 Solar Decathlon contest.
Image Credit: Parsons The New School for Design, Milano the New School for Urban Management and Policy, and Stevens Institute of Technology
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A group of 100 collaborators from several institutions are designing Empowerhouse, one of the energy-efficient homes entered in the 2011 Solar Decathlon contest.
Image Credit: Parsons The New School for Design, Milano the New School for Urban Management and Policy, and Stevens Institute of Technology
Empowerhouse will feature modular construction and about 1,000 sq. ft. of interior space. Once the Decathlon is over, Empowerhouse will be transported to a lot in northeast Washington, D.C., where it will be expanded from a one-bedroom to a two-bedroom and joined to a similar structure to form a duplex. Empowerhouse incorporates Passivhaus design and construction strategies. When displayed on the National Mall, Empowerhouse will feature an easily accessible 300-sq.-ft. roof garden.

As the Solar Decathlon has evolved, the intended users of the homes in the competition have increasingly, even if only tacitly, become partners in shaping the finished products. Many Decathlon entries are not only climate-specific, they are designed to reflect regional architecture and to accommodate local culture and customs. Empowerhouse is one such entry, with design and performance features targeted for a specific lot and community environment in Washington, D.C.

Empowerhouse collaborators include students and faculty at Parsons The New School for Design and Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy, both in New York City, and students at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey – about 100 people in all.

The project’s other team members, meanwhile, are those who live and work in Deanwood, the neighborhood in Northeast Washington where, after the Decathlon, the 1,000-sq.-ft. Empowerhouse will be reconstructed, expanded from a one-bedroom to a two-bedroom, and joined to a similar house that will be built on the lot, forming a two-family home. The two Washington-based partners helping oversee that part of Empowerhouse’s evolution are the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity and the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Leaning on local support

The team says its basic goals are to address energy efficiency by incorporating Passivhaus modeling and construction details into Empowerhouse’s modular design while keeping construction costs relatively low and honoring the cultural conventions of the Deanwood community.

A recent issue of re: D, Parsons’ alumni online magazine, notes that the decision to partner with Habitat for Humanity and the Department of Housing came from Parsons’ consultations with Milano, which, through its participation in the JPMorgan Chase Community Development Competition, had acquired expertise in developing real-estate proposals for nonprofit partners and underserved communities. Feedback from Deanwood residents has figured significantly in the team’s approach to the project.


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“The worst mistake you can make with community-based projects is parachuting in with all the answers and not learning from the community itself,” John Clinton, a professor at Milano who is on its management team, told the magazine.

Although groundbreaking at the Deanwood site won’t happen until spring, the Empowerhouse team played host to a community gathering at the empty lot last fall to update neighbors on the project’s progress. By that point, Habitat local director of construction and land development, Dave Gano, was sold on the project’s prospects for energy efficiency and its affordability, which, as with all Habitat projects, will be helped along by free labor supplied by volunteers and the homes’ future owners.

“Already from this project, we at Habitat for Humanity decided to change our whole building schedule and model what we’re doing to the Passivhaus standard of construction, and the ground isn’t even broken yet,” Gano said in a video documenting the neighborhood gathering. Construction on the second house in the duplex will be timed to mesh with the delivery of Empowerhouse after its debut at the Decathlon.

For an overview of the Solar Decathlon teams, see GBA’s 2011 Solar Decathlon Resource Guide

One Comment

  1. Karl Korpela | | #1

    What a great idea
    Having Followed the Passivhaus and Net Zero ideologies for over a year now, I was begining to think there would never be a real opportunity to implement stategies to investigate what really works and what doesn't since there is only a handful of such buildings. Such a project as Habitat for Humanity really provides an opportunity to investigate what works in the field, to hopefully translate someday, (many decades away), into minimum building code requirements.
    This also provides an opportunity to field test innovative building materials such as Vacuum Insulation Panels (VIP's) and continued monitoring of such buildings under real living conditions.
    Hats off to all parties involved. Here's hoping the idea catches on with similar projects throughout North America.

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