Earlier this month, Parsons the New School for Design, Stevens Institute of Technology, Habitat for Humanity and the District’s Department of Housing and Community Development celebrated the completion of Empowerhouse. Located in the Deanwood neighborhood of Ward 7, the home is not only the District’s first “passive house” — a dwelling built to use substantially less energy — but also one of the few houses constructed in the United States that is both sustainable and affordable.
But for Culley, Empowerhouse is more than just a home that could reduce her utility bills by up to 90 percent, it is the place the 30-year-old single mother and her three young boys — 6-year-old C.J., 5-year-old Christopher and 1-year-old Camari — can call their own.
“I can’t wait,” said Culley, who will move into one half of the duplex. Dorothy Jackson, who was selected from a program that helps people leave public housing for home ownership, will live in the other half.
The boys “were really excited [when they saw the house]. They even picked out my [bedroom]. They were like, ‘Mom, this is your room.’ ”
Passive homes are designed to be well insulated and airtight, heated mainly by solar or geothermal energy and the machines and occupants inside them. The first passive house was built in Germany, and Europe has led the way in construction of these homes.
By preventing heat from entering or escaping the home, a passive house requires less energy to maintain a constant environment inside its walls, regardless of the temperatures outside. Besides Empowerhouse, the Washington area has two passive houses — one in Arlington and another in Bethesda — and one under construction in the Pimmit Hills neighborhood of Fairfax County. Empowerhouse is also a net-zero home, which means it will produce as much energy as it will use.
Back in 2008, Laura Briggs, the faculty lead on the project, approached Joel Towers, who had just become dean of Parsons, about entering the school in the Solar Decathlon. The competition, run by the Energy Department since 2002, invites 20 universities from around the world to design, construct and operate energy-efficient, solar-powered homes. The homes are judged on 10 criteria, hence the name.
For the most part, the entries tend to be more concerned with the technology than with housing. Towers considered that approach shortsighted. He said he felt Parsons, which is a division of the New School in New York and one of the oldest design schools in the United States, should follow the guidelines of the competition but also think more broadly in terms of the end-use of the house.
The competition is “kind of like designing a little jewel box of technology without thinking about it as a piece of housing,” Towers said. “What we were really interested in was to use the competition as a way to demonstrate that you could do affordable housing that was also highly advanced from the standpoint of energy and environmental concern.”