New School News

Empowerhouse, DC’s Most Energy-Efficient House, Now Open

Earlier this month, Lakiya Culley stood with her three children outside of their new home in Washington, DC’s Deanwood neighborhood, being interviewed by the media. “When I stepped into the finished product, I was amazed,” she told news station WTOP. “It was more than I could even imagine.”

The media had turned out, along with scores of representatives from Parsons The New School for Design, the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School for Public Engagement, Stevens Institute of Technology, Habitat for Humanity of Washington, DC (DC Habitat), local government agencies, and, most importantly, the community. Culley and her family were touring the completed Empowerhouse, a highly energy efficient and environmentally sustainable house developed over several years by over 200 students, which will become Culley’s home this January, and of another family—coming out of public housing—shortly following. The house was designed as an entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, a sustainable building competition. Empowerhouse took first place in the competition’s Affordability category.

After the competition, while the other participating schools were dismantling their houses, the Empowerhouse team was gearing up to give their house a second life. The project was intended from the start to have a broader impact, serving as a real home for local families and as a model for affordable housing. The student team had partnered with DC Habitat and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to secure a plot of land, build the house, and find families to live in it.  Following the competition, Empowerhouse was moved from its display site on the National Mall to Deanwood, a neighborhood across the Anacostia River.

There the house became a two-story, two-family duplex. The home still maintained its adherence to Passive House principles, the strictest energy-use standards in the world. It requires a minimal amount of energy for heating and cooling (roughly the amount it takes to operate a hair dryer) and is equipped with solar panels to provide all its energy needs. The project has been so successful that DC Habitat already has half a dozen homes of a similar design underway. The New School is also beginning a second project, this time with Habitat for Humanity of Philadelphia.

“This is the reason I came to The New School,” said Orlando Velez, a Milano Master’s candidate who has been working on the project since 2010. After a year serving as the project’s operations director, DC Habitat has just hired him as its housing services manager, where he will be responsible for coordinating and implementing green building initiatives across the District. “I came from an undergraduate university that was focused primarily on theory, and I wanted a more hands-on approach. This program is typical of The New School and why I want to be here.”

Velez, who worked as an architect and also served in the Peace Corps before attending The New School, is fascinated by the potential of sustainable housing to improve people’s lives. He spent the past two years working on the project and has immersed himself in all the details. It’s hard to speak to him without becoming lost in a haze of Pascals and BTUs. But this is not a technological box—Empowerhouse is also beautiful to look at and has a strong sense of place. It mixes a clean, contemporary architectural sensibility with the porch culture of its home base, the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

“It was important for us to work with the local community to make sure the house fit its environment,” Velez explained. “At the same time, we’ve always felt that good design doesn’t have to be sacrificed for affordability.”

“The District of Columbia is on course to become the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the country within 20 years,” said Michael P. Kelly, director of the DHCD. “Our primary mission is to create more affordable and sustainable housing options for DC residents. Empowerhouse does a tremendous job of creating housing that’s affordable for a first-time homebuyer to own as well as maintain through low energy consumption.”

And what about those homeowners? Culley, for her part, seems thrilled. After cutting the ribbon on her home, reported the Atlantic Cities, she gazed out at the assembled crowd and declared, “I’m ready to go in the house now!”


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