Beyond the Mall

On September 23rd the Empowerhouse Collaborative’s building opens to the public on the National Mall in Washington DC. After a summer of non-stop construction on the Hudson River waterfront, our team, among the 19 competing in this year’s U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, is hard at work to make our design real. Ten days after the opening, when the competition concludes, most of the teams will pack up their houses and go home. Our house, however, will be moving to its newly poured foundation in the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington D.C, where it will be expanded into a two-family home for Habitat for Humanity families.

This is just one way that the Empowerhouse stands apart from the other Solar Decathlon entries. In addition to designing a high-efficiency, solar-powered home for the competition, our team of students from Parsons The New School for Design; Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School; and Stevens Institute of Technology worked closely with the D.C.’s government and the local Habitat for Humanity, to create a new model for green, affordable housing for the city.

Through these partnerships, our design goals evolved to support homeowners in their move toward more sustainable living. We have taken a whole-life approach that considers energy-efficiency as well as other strategies to improve people’s quality of life.  For instance, window boxes, composting units, and rooftop planters will enable the family to grow their own food. Our house will also be the first Passive House in Washington, D.C.

Jen Morris & Jessica Barnhouse building Rain Garden feature & Water tank housingJen Morris & Jessica Barnhouse building rain garden feature & water tank housing

Considered today’s highest energy standard, Passive House focuses on conservation through airtight construction, the use of efficient appliances, and triple-paned windows that optimize heat and light from the sun. As a result, heating and cooling this house will require about the same amount of energy as operating your hair dryer.

Jessica & Jen Work on Construction of the Rain Garden featureJessica & Jen Work on Construction of the Rain Garden feature

One of the initiatives that I have been most engaged in is our partnership with the DC Department of the Environment. Together we worked on implementing water retention strategies that will contribute to a goal of net-zero runoff; we’ll be harnessing all water that flows onto our site, so that it can infiltrate efficiently into the groundwater reserves.

With typical landscapes of concrete driveways and manicured lawns, the water runs off, often carrying debris and substances like petroleum byproducts and lawn treatment chemicals into the local watershed. To counteract this, Empowerhouse utilizes permeable pavers rather than concrete driveways and sidewalks, and indigenous grasses rather than non-native species, to better manage the rain that falls on the site. In addition, water from the roof that isn’t soaked up by planters and sedum trays is collected in an underground cistern, to be used for irrigation, while any overflow is channeled to the rain gardens planted at the rear of the house.

Empowerhouse_NJ_Vasilis KyriacouEmpowerhouse, New Jersey

The Empowerhouse Collaborative is also initiating the first residential-scale bio-retention cells in Washington, D.C. Planted with species that thrive in water contaminated with heavy metals and petrochemicals from vehicular traffic, these cells slow down water that would otherwise contribute to combined sewage overflows, and clean it along the way.  Such cells have, until now, only been implemented in commercial and municipal projects in Washington, D.C.  Once in place, the cells will gather water from curb cuts in the street, managing runoff both on the property and from the rest of the neighborhood.  We’re hoping that the success of these cells in Deanwood will create opportunities for other homeowners to take an active role in the management of their local watersheds, while also beautifying the landscape of neighborhood street edges.

Since most of these strategies are Deanwood-specific, how are we demonstrating our innovative water strategies at the competition? Decathlon rules state that there can be absolutely no ground penetration on the Mall, so all of our water strategies must be exhibited above grade. Since visitors to the show will not be able to get on the roof, we’ve placed sedum trays on top of the water tanks, which they will help to keep them cool.  Next to these tanks hangs a copper rain chain, which will convey rainwater into a planted seating area. The seated area features various plant species, which will grace the bio-retention cells, as well as the future rain gardens when the home moves to Deanwood.

So when you visit the Solar Decathlon next week, come and see us at the Empowerhouse and observe the potential that intelligent water strategies and environmentally conscious design have for improving the way we live, regardless of income.

Jessica Barnhouse is a Master of Architecture Student at Parsons The New School for Design, in New York City.

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