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.”