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University students bring Solar Decathlon to the community

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Forging new ground in the Solar Decathlon, a team of students from Parsons The New School for Design, Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy, and Stevens Institute of Technology have announced they will develop a solar-powered home for residents of the District of Columbia, working in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Washington, D.C., and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

"These enterprising students and faculty will play a significant role in the future of affordable, urban housing," said Joel Towers, dean of Parsons The New School for Design. "Their project, Empowerhouse, will create a new design standard for sustainable housing. It’s a standard that will be replicable around the world. The innovative approach we’ve chosen reflects our commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration, civic engagement, and design innovation."

The Solar Decathlon is an international competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy that challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses, which will be exhibited on the National Mall in October 2011.

The Empowerhouse team will for the first time take the competition beyond the Mall, by also designing and constructing a solar-powered house in the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington D.C. At the conclusion of the competition, the two single-family structures will be joined to create one two-family, semi-detached home for local residents.

While each house is designed as a "net-zero" system (producing all of its energy needs), it will achieve peak efficiency in its final form. In addition, both houses will incorporate cutting-edge design innovations that adhere to Passive House principles-today’s highest energy standard-and will consume 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than a typical home.

"The Empowerhouse project enables students from a number of different disciplines to work together on practical technical solutions to one of the most pressing problems facing the world today," said Dr. Michael Bruno, dean of the Charles V. Schaefer Jr., School of Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology. "In addition to the learning opportunities, this exciting, highly-competitive project provides an extraordinary opportunity for students to witness first-hand the power of science and technology to improve lives."

Deanwood was selected as the site for the project due to its strong, diverse base; its location in one of the greenest wards in Washington, D.C.; and its history of community activism. One of the oldest neighborhoods in Northeast Washington, D.C. and historically African-American, Deanwood is notable for its small-town character, with wood-frame and brick homes that date from the early 20th century.

Several well-known African-American architects, including W. Sidney Pittman and Howard D. Woodson, and many skilled local craftsmen designed and built its homes. Residents recently participated in the CarbonFree DC "Extreme Green Neighborhood Makeover," which green retrofitted low and moderate-income homes.

"Empowerhouse will serve as a grassroots model to other neighborhoods in D.C. and nationwide," said Sylvia C. Brown, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Deanwood. "Deanwood and its surrounding neighborhoods are undergoing a powerful revitalization with economic development and environmental sustainability as key components of the resurgence. For the past six months, these students have taken the time to understand Deanwood’s history and potential, and how sustainability efforts can best impact the lives of residents."

In developing the project, the Empowerhouse team hosted design charrettes with community members, and conducted extensive research on the neighborhood, including its rich architectural history and sustainable practices and resources. In addition to creating new esidences, the team is looking to extend the impact of the project by leading workshops this fall and spring that will educate all residents on how to make their homes more sustainable-from retrofitting solar panels to community gardening.

"The District of Columbia’s Department of Housing and Community Development is excited to partner with Habit for Humanity of Washington, D.C, Parsons, The New School, and the Stevens Institute of Technology to make the Empowerhouse a reality," said DHCD Director Leila Finucane Edmonds. "This innovative project provides a unique opportunity for us to highlight and demonstrate our commitment to creating sustainable affordable housing for the residents of the District of Columbia."

The community will play a direct role in building the house, in keeping with the Habitat for Humanity mission. "Over the past 20 years, we have worked side by side with local residents to build more than 100 homes in our nation’s capital," said David Gano, director of construction for Habitat for Humanity of Washington D.C. "As our knowledge of energy efficiency has increased, we have taken steps to ‘think green’, but Empowerhouse gives us the opportunity to take our efforts to a new level. These students’ out-of-the-box thinking is making possible a new scenario where families live in a comfortable home where they pay no utilities, breathe clean air, and harvest rainwater runoff to grow vegetables."

Habitat will select the families who will occupy the home this fall, and in the spring they will join students from Parsons, The New School, and Stevens, local residents and other volunteers to construct the home. The team also is working with a local community garden to provide plantings for a roof garden and vegetable window boxes; and hopes to collaborate with a local school to create a system of modular furnishings for the home.

This whole-life approach reflects the team’s wide range of expertise. With an understanding that sustainable design stands at the intersection of a number of fields, Empowerhouse brings together graduate and undergraduate students from a number of design disciplines-from architecture to fashion design, product design, communication design, and design and technology-in collaboration with engineering, management, and urban policy students.

For more information, please visit https://www.empowerhouse-dc.org.