New School News

Let the Sunshine In: Solar Decathlon Begins in DC

Students Jason Hudspeth, Steve Scribner, and Amanda Waal working Empowerhouse construction this summer.

When Hurricane Irene was forecast to deliver torrential rain to the metropolitan area, a team of Parsons and Milano students had reason to panic. Nearly two years in the making, Empowerhouse, The New School’s entry to the international Solar Decathlon, sat eye-level with the Hudson River on the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.

As it turns out, like many recent Parsons projects, Empowerhouse made it safely through Irene and is in excellent shape for its debut on the National Mall in Washington on September 23. The biennial Solar Decathlon competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, challenges 20 college teams to design, build, and operate a solar-powered home. Over two years, Empowerhouse brought together more than 200 students and 20 faculty and staff members from The New School (coming from Parsons The New School for Design and the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy) and Stevens Institute of Technology, to envision a new future for affordable sustainable housing.

Through partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and the DC local government, Empowerhouse will extend its reach beyond the Mall, turning its competition entry into a permanent home for two families in the DC neighborhood of Deanwood. The team consciously designed a model that Habitat can use to provide low-income families with homes that are not only safe and comfortable but able to produce all their own energy. Empowerhouse even features window boxes, composting units, and rooftop planters and arbors that will enable families to grow their own food.

From engaging the community to masterminding design and construction, the heart of Empowerhouse is the students. Amanda Waal and Jason Hudspeth were master of architecture students (both graduated 2011) who have been involved since they began their studies at Parsons.

Before coming to Parsons I studied architecture and worked in the field, but never before have I been involved in something that really pushed the envelope in terms of sustainability and energy efficiency,, says Hudspeth, who as project architect was responsible for reconciling the design as it made its way through construction. As we built, we experienced everything that comes up in a real world project, which required troubleshooting and making design changes along the way. Playing both roles has been really interesting.,

Key to Empowerhouse is its focus on conservation rather than consumption. It is designed following Passive House principles, today’s highest energy standard. This includes airtight construction, efficient appliances, and triple-paned windows that optimize heat and light from the sun. As a result, Empowerhouse has among the smallest solar arrays in the competition, and its heating and cooling will require about the same amount of energy as operating a hair dryer.

It is amazing how far reaching an effect a small house can have for a community,, said Waal at a June groundbreaking ceremony in Deanwood. Reflecting the character of the historically African-American neighborhood, the house will have generous porches and an open living space that creates an intimate environment for entertaining and interaction. Much of Empowerhouse is built with off-the-shelf components, while its innovative, panelized construction makes it easy for Habitat volunteers to put it up.

The project was unusually collaborative, with designers, engineers and urban policy majors working side by side. When we began, it took some time to break down the walls, , says Hudspeth. Now we are one group. Since engineering and civic engagement are such huge components of the competition and how the house serves the Habitat family in the future, teamwork was essential.,

Recently, Habitat selected one of the two families who will live in the house in Deanwood, a working mother from the neighborhood with three small children. The family, along with Empowerhouse community partners, is expected to visit the house while it’s on the Mall. New School students will lead tours for the public, competition juries, and other guests, and will host dinner parties, movie nights, and other events where they can mingle with students from other teams.

I am really looking forward to seeing not only the completed house but all the other competition entries,, said Huspeth. Just to be awarded a spot in this event is such a huge honor; it is great for everyone involved.,

You can follow along with the house as it is prepared for the competition and during the course of the event by visiting the Empowerhouse blog.

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