Brain Power

Brain Power

Martin Seck

Empowerhouse, an affordable energy-efficient green home, was completed earlier this month in Washington, D.C after many years of planning, design, and development by a team of students from Parsons The New School for Design, the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy, and the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Originally submitted as an entry for the 2011 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathalon—which challenges collegiate teams to design build and operate solar powered houses—Empowerhouse began as a compact modular pre-fabricated one-bedroom home of 1,000 square feet. After the competition a partnership with Habitat for Humanity and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development was established, the structure was moved to the Deanwood neighborhood in D.C. It was then expanded to 2,700 square feet, making it suitable for two families with additional bedrooms and bathrooms in each unit along with a rooftop terrace suitable for growing vegetables.

First floor (left) and roof terrace (right).
Ashley Hartzell and Sarah Gerrity / DOE

No detail of Empowerhouse was considered without an eye for energy efficiency and sustainability. The house was constructed of light-weight renewable engineered wood, blown in cellulose insulation—which has a minimal environmental impact—aluminum clad low maintenance windows, and recycled permeable materials for its sidewalk and driveway allowing water to be collected in an underground trench drain later used for gardening. The house draws little from the public water supply by low flow appliances and its rainwater system reduces storm water runoff into local sewers. A 4.2-kilowatt photovoltaic array was placed on the roof and smart electrical systems, which consume as much energy as a hair dryer, were installed. Window placement was carefully considered to reduce the need of artificial lighting and low-cost high-efficiency fluorescents and LED light sources reflect off of the houses’ light color palette to fulfill any additional lighting needs.

Following the Passive House approach—a leading international energy-efficiency standard—the team managed to create a house that uses 90 percent less energy than an ordinary home for heating and cooling by making it virtually air-tight.

Habitat for Humanity has already selected two families for the home, one being a single mother of three children living in the Deanwood neighborhood and a second family that is transitioning from public housing.

FLoor Plans.
Courtesy Empowerhouse

This project fulfills a longstanding vision of out team to create a house that would endure in a meaningful way after the Solar Decathlon was over," Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons The New School for Design said in a statement. “Empowerhouse illustrates The New School’s commitment to design-led civic engagement, and is a true model of affordable sustainable housing that has the potential for national as well as international replications.”

Replication of the home is simple, affordable and can serve as a model for new green housing in urban communities across the nation. As of past June, Habitat for Humanity D.C. broke ground on six energy efficient homes that will meet the Passive House standards. Parsons is also in conversation with Habitat for Humanity in Philadelphia for a similar project to be unveiled at the 2013 Greenbuild Exposition.