Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Orlando Velez. He is operations director at the Milano School at the New School, not at Parsons. The article also left out Stevens Institute of Technology as a partner in designing the project.
Lakiya Culley’s home started off as an idea by a couple of academics who didn’t want to play by the rules.
Four years later, after enlisting 200 students, a nonprofit organization and a government agency, as well as community leaders and countless sponsors, the concept has gone from an academic exercise to reality.
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.”
Towers also objected to the comings and goings of the houses. The entries were built on campuses across the country and around the world, shipped to the Mall in Washington to be judged and then shipped back to their campuses.
“The carbon footprint alone of that activity for a project that is supposed to be environmentally advanced is a little bit ironic, shall we say,” Towers said.
What made the most sense was to keep the house in Washington. The students were tasked with finding a community where the house ultimately would reside. One of the students who had worked on affordable housing in Washington suggested Parsons meet with Sylvia Brown, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission board member in Deanwood.
Brown had been a strong proponent of environmental initiatives in her neighborhood, finding grants to help homeowners make their properties more energy efficient. As soon as she heard about the Parsons project, she leaped at the chance to bring it to her working-class community.
Brown wasted no time in connecting Parsons with Habitat for Humanity and the city housing department. Habitat already had built homes in Deanwood, and DCHD had a program for getting housing built on vacant lots in the community. With her connections, Brown fostered the teamwork the project needed.
“That’s what I like to do,” she said. “Instead of trying to recreate the wheel and go through the bigwigs at the agencies, you work with the cogs in the wheel, if you will, who really get things done, who are making things happen,” she said. “It was a very gratifying feeling. It can be a challenge to get agencies or individuals to think pro-actively and think collaboratively as well.”
Brown helped the students work with the housing department to locate a property that was near a Metro and had good solar access.
The next challenge for the students was coming up with a design for the competition and one for Habitat. In the end, two sets of architectural plans were drawn — one for a 1,000-square-foot house for the Mall and another for two three-bedroom, 1,350-square-foot houses in Deanwood.
In a spare-no-expense world, it is easy to be green. The bigger test is making green affordable. The students chose a passive house design because it required the least amount of technology to make it energy efficient. Their house had the smallest solar array in the competition, which kept costs down.
“What I kept saying to [the students], ‘Look, the goal here is to use the competition to change the way we do housing in America,’ ” Towers said. “The idea that in America we still build houses that look like something Thomas Jefferson might have designed is actually a kind of false respect in a way, because Jefferson thought he was doing something innovative and new. And if he was around today, he wouldn’t be building them like that. We get stuck with a kind of false historical continuity rather than really getting at the core thing we do want to continue.”
The updated version of a Federalist-style house — actually, only one-quarter of what it would become — was constructed in New Jersey by the students, then moved to the Mall for the 2011 Solar Decathlon. The entry won awards for most affordable and best lighting. Among the judges comments were: “Moments of delight on a tight budget” and “Adding to the legacy of Habitat homes, this team sets a new, higher bar.”
All of the comments, however, weren’t positive.
The judges “thought a low-income community wouldn’t want something modern like that,” Briggs said. “They didn’t think it hit the market. The students didn’t agree with [the judges]. They had been working really closely with the community, and they were the ones that were saying, ‘We want a progressive house.’ ”
Once the competition was over, the house was moved to Deanwood, where Habitat took over construction. Site supervisor Andrew Modley has built more than 35 homes for Habitat. Although he received training from Parsons on building a passive house, it was more to underscore the importance of building the home a certain way than teaching him new skills.
“Some of the practices we’ve done before, but everything is a lot more strict in terms of air sealant and insulation levels,” he said.
It starts with the exterior walls, which are constructed in a way to prevent air from seeping in or out of the house. In between the cedar and cement-board siding on the exterior and the plasterboard on the interior, there are several layers of walls, one of which is connected by I-joists and filled with a 12-inch depth of dense-pack cellulose insulation.
In typical home construction, the wiring is run within the walls. In a passive house, the wiring is tucked in a cavity between the insulated walls and the interior wall. This prevents fewer penetrations that would allow heat to enter or escape the home.
The triple-pane windows and doors have multiple gaskets to create airtight seals. The pitch of the roof overhang was calibrated to allow plenty of light into the home while shading the house from the sun’s harsh glare.
Located in a closet in the entry is the house’s heart and lungs. At first glance, it looks Space Age with its blinking monitors and complex wiring. But as Orlando Velez, operations director at the Milano School at the New School, another partner in the project, explained, “It’s really low-tech high-tech.”
Despite all the gizmos and gadgets, only two of the systems are not found in most homes — the solar inverter, which converts energy from the solar panels and sends it back to the grid, and the Energy Recovery Ventilator, which recycles the air in the house.
The heat pump uses the heat produced by the washer and dryer to make hot water. Hot water pipes run directly to each tap rather than through a main line to prevent wasted water.
Because the students are eager to see if the house performs as expected, they have designed systems to monitor energy consumption and production, as well as humidity, indoor and outdoor temperature and air quality. The data will be used in future projects, but it will also be shared with the homeowner.
“You can build an energy-efficient house, but you can’t build an energy-efficient family,” Habitat project manager Teresa Hamm said. “The idea is to work with the homeowners to understand how their house functions but then also how to live an energy-efficient life.”
The first time Culley saw all the systems, she was a bit overwhelmed.
“I was like, ‘Do I have to have a manual to live here?’ ” she said. (Actually, the students did write a manual for her explaining how the systems work and what she needs to do to maintain them.)
“Even though it’s different, the inside, it’s not too weird,” Culley said. “You think it would be something like ‘The Jetsons.’ ”
The students tried the make the exterior of the house as environmentally sound as its interior. They created a community garden down the street. They installed a bioswale along the curb that captures the water running off the street, filters it through the plants, soil and sand before it is delivered into the Watts Branch tributary behind the house. They built planters for a container garden on the rooftop terrace. All the water that falls onto the house will be collected in a cistern that the homeowners can use to water their lawn and gardens.
“Sixty percent of the water use in most homes in a site like that is used for the landscape,” Briggs said.
A typical household in Deanwood spends around $2,000 annually on utility bills. The Empowerhouse homeowners are projected to spend $390, mainly on water costs. Some first-time homeowners can find their fluctuating utility bills a burden. Homes like Empowerhouse make it easier to plan a household budget.
“The goal is for them to have a better cash flow and a more predictable cash flow,” Habitat president and chief executive Susanne Slater said.
Because Empowerhouse was built in collaboration with Parsons using their designs, the home costs more than a typical Habitat house. It was appraised at $285,000, far above the usual cost of $220,000. Habitat, which will be building more passive houses in Ivy City, will use less expensive materials and a different design for those homes.
“This type of project is a good experiment, kind of an incubator of like ideas to push forward affordable housing design,” Hamm said. “This house wasn’t incredibly affordable, and it’s not our model of what affordable housing should be.
“We’re creating a passive house that’s more in line with the regular homes that we’re building. The layout will be a typical Habitat layout. The interior finishes will be standard to what we’re normally building.”
Still, building passive houses isn’t cheap. It took an extraordinary fundraising campaign by Parsons and Habitat to pay for Empowerhouse.
“We’re hoping that the first time around was more expensive than the next six times around,” Slater said.
Parsons and Habitat already have new passive house endeavors underway. Parsons is partnering with Habitat in Philadelphia on a smaller project.
“There was a lot we learned, and from what we learned, we can share,” Briggs said.
Habitat has begun work in Ivy City. Ultimately, the organization would like to construct multifamily passive housing.
“One of the things with passive building is it goes along with the whole city’s sustainability plan of transit-oriented lifestyle and being able to have a net-zero impact on the environment,” Slater said.
Meanwhile, Culley is looking forward to moving into her new home in January. After squeezing into a two-bedroom apartment with her three boys, she can’t wait to have more space. Asked what she liked best about the house, she said, “the fact that it’s energy efficient.
“Saving money,” she said, “that’s the most important thing right now.”