Solar Bake-Off on the National Mall

Solar Bake-Off on the National Mall

Passive House techniques were used by the New School team in their entry to the Solar Decathlon competition.
Courtesy Parsons

The Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon pits design schools against one another in a competition to design and build a cutting-edge sustainable house. Held every two years since 2002 on the National Mall in Washington, the competition draws throngs of visitors during its ten-day run. The houses don’t stick around, though. Typically they are transported across the country or around the world and then back to the schools where they were built. This year, the multidisciplinary team of Parsons The New School for Design, Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy, and the Stevens Institute of Technology, together with Habitat for Humanity’s Washington, D.C. chapter and the D.C. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are turning their demonstration house into a permanent home in D.C., and then building a second home using volunteer labor. Following their completion, Habitat for Humanity plans to sell both units as affordable housing.

The student-led team began by questioning the very premise of the decathlon. “We’re leveraging the competition,” said Joel Towers, the dean at Parsons. The students and their respective institutions felt the decathlon could be used to explore and address larger planning and affordable housing issues. Furthermore, they questioned why the houses should be treated as mere demonstration projects. “In order to really move the needle on sustainability, you have to engage communities and address affordability,” Towers said.

The New School team constructively critiques even some sustainability standards of the decathlon. “They don’t take the carbon footprint of these houses into proper account,” Towers said of the two-time winners, Germany’s University of Darmstadt, pointing out that it is hardly sustainable to ship a house back and forth from Germany. “There’s something touristic about the whole competition. Nothing stays in Washington.”

To increase their energy efficiency, both of the team’s structures will employ Passive House techniques to minimize the amount of solar technology needed to generate electricity. “If you have a very well-developed envelope, you can get by with a very small heating and cooling system,” said Parsons’ Laura Briggs, the project’s lead faculty member. In addition to architecture students, a number of lighting, interior, and product design students from Parsons will collaborate with planning and policy students from the Milano School and engineering students from the Stevens Institute. Over 100 students will work on the project, covering everything from fundraising and sponsorships to designing and fabricating the furnishings.

An early model of the New School’s Solar Decathlon entry.

The first house will be built using modular construction at the Stevens Institute in Hoboken, and shipped to the Mall for viewing in Fall 2011. Simultaneously, work will begin at the site in Northeast D.C., including construction of the second house. Following the decathlon, the first house will be moved to the site and joined with the second house. The competition house is a one-bedroom unit, while the second house will have three bedrooms.

In addition to building integrated photovoltaics, the 1,000-square-foot houses will include small green roofs and ground-level raised beds. “We wanted to add as many basic amenities as we could, so the residents can choose, for instance, to grow their own food if they like,” Briggs said.

While Habitat for Humanity has not historically been known for pushing the design envelope, the team found an able and eager partner in D.C. “They were already building fairly high-performance buildings. They’re quite an innovative chapter,” Briggs said. Even though they have questioned the rules and outcome of the decathlon, the team hasn’t given up its competitive spirit, Towers noted. “We’re doing the kind of project we want to do as a school,” he said. “But in the end, we also want to win.”