New School’s Empowerhouse Team Takes Project to D.C.
Carly Berger was happy to take a break. The Parsons architecture student had been standing in the mid-September D.C. heat for nearly five hours — an unpleasant experience, as anybody who has suffered through one of Washington’s notoriously swampy summers will tell you. But Berger stayed upbeat in spite of the conditions: she and several of her fellow New School students were finally getting to show off two years of hard work at the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.
The Solar Decathlon — a biennial sustainable housing competition that takes place at the National Mall — pitted teams of college students against one another to see who could build the most cost-effective, energy-efficient and aesthetically pleasing home. Participants came from places all across the globe, ranging from New York to New Zealand, to compete in the Decathlon.
Berger was part of a team that included students from Parsons, Milano and The Stevens Institute of Technology. The team built their house, called “Empowerhouse,” over several months on a waterfront parking lot in Hoboken. Upon completion they then broke it down, trucked it to Washington, D.C., and reconstructed it on the National Mall for the competition.
“It’s frustrating to build a house more than once,” Berger said. “But you get a chance to work out kinks. We actually left a piece of the house in Hoboken.”
The students used the “passive house” model, which requires 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than your average suburban home. Windows are strategically placed to maximize heat retention in the winter and reduce it in the summer, and walls are heavily insulated. Because the house requires so little energy, it has one of the smallest solar arrays in the competition, keeping costs low. As it stands, the house has a current estimated market value of around $250,000.
But Empowerhouse is special for more than just its advanced, cost-effective design principles; the Empowerhouse team worked with Habitat for Humanity Washington D.C. and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development to ensure that their project will also serve a practical purpose. Once the the Decathlon is over, the structure will be broken down once again and reconstructed in the Northeast D.C. neighborhood of Deanwood, where it will be the new home of longtime Deanwood resident Lakiya Culley and her three young boys.
Habitat chose the Culleys early on in the process. Heather Phibbs, Habitat’s D.C. Director of Communications, explained that the organization wanted a low-income family familiar with the neighborhood, so that they would be personally invested in the project and more likely to spread interest in sustainable living throughout Deanwood’s front-porch community.
“I moved to Deanwood about 15 years ago and I have seen so many drastic, positive and beautiful changes,” Culley told The Free Press. “This is the first solar house in D.C. It’s history in the making for me and my children.”
As a first-time home buyer, affordability was key for Culley — something helped by the Empowerhouse’s energy-saving, cost-efficient design.
“Saving money is essential to me because I have three sons to raise, and would like to have money saved for college,” Culley said. Her sons — aged five, four, and five months — are too young to appreciate the financial and environmental perks of the home, but Culley said her 4-year-old, Christopher, is already mulling over where the toy box will be located.
At the Solar Decathlon, which ended on October 2, the competing houses were judged in several categories including affordability, architecture, engineering and market appeal. The results from each category were then averaged together to decide a winner. Though rated first in affordability, Empowerhouse finished 13th overall in the competition, with the University of Maryland’s project taking home the top prize.
While Carly Berger and her teammates would have preferred to win it all, they’ve been able to maintain their perspective on the broader picture.
“I wanted to do something with tangible results,” Berger said. “Working with Habitat lends a degree of reality.”
Phibbs said the organization was equally enthusiastic about their work with the students.
“They organize themselves extremely professionally and exhibit an outstanding amount of enthusiasm,” she said. “It has been a true joy working with them.”