Solar Decathlon Plus

We’re not yet done discussing the winner of the 2010 Solar Decathlon Europe, and already the heat is on for next year’s competition in Washington, D.C. The 20 competing student teams have announced their plans for the high-tech solar houses they will build on the National Mall in fall 2011. But one team of students from Parsons The New School for Design, Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy, and Stevens Institute of Technology is taking the challenge to a whole new level.

For their entry, Empowerhouse, the students will be designing and building not one, but two homes, simultaneously — one on the National Mall for the contest, and another for the residents of Deanwood, Washington, D.C.  Both buildings will adhere strictly to Passive House principles, consuming 90 per cent less energy for heating and cooling than a typical single-family home. What little energy they need, they will generate themselves, primarily through solar power. Such efficiency is pretty standard for entries to the Solar Decathlon, which encourages the use of the most advanced technology possible, and expects a high level of design innovation.

What sets Empowerhouse apart is that Deanwood’s citizens will be closely involved throughout the design and construction process. Deanwood is pretty progressive for a quiet, working class neighborhood full of old houses – its residents have actively participated in programs like the CarbonFree DC’s “Extreme Green Neighborhood Makeover.” The Empowerhouse team researched both the neighbourhood’s history, and recently implemented sustainable practices. The students also held design charettes with community members, trying to understand how they live, and what their particular requirements are. 

The student team is collaborating on the project with the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, and with Habitat for Humanity, which has over 20 years of experience in working with communities to rebuild their homes. Once the competition is done, the two structures built for the Decathlon will be joined to create one two-family, semi-detached home. This fall, Habitat for Humanity will select the two families who will eventually move into Empowerhouse. The two families will work shoulder-to-shoulder with the students over the spring, building their new home.

Site Image GaultThe proposed site in Deanwood, Washington, D.C.

Most of the complex, high-tech structures built for the Solar Decathlon end up as empty showcases. There have been exceptions – the Missouri University of Science and Technology has entered the competition four times, and it is now using the buildings as student housing. But none of the entries has been designed with such a specific end-user in mind, much less been built in collaboration with the future inhabitants.

One of the reasons why the Department of Energy organizes the Solar Decathlon every year is to set new standards for design and technology in solar-powered homes. In terms of aesthetics, Empowerhouse definitely isn’t the most inventive among the entries for next year. But they’ve spotted an opportunity no one else has – using the Solar Decathlon as a premise to make a direct difference to people’s lives. Whether they win or not, two families get an absolutely state-of-the-art home, and a neighborhood learns something new in the process. By introducing the element of civic engagement, and by bringing in organizations with experience in implementation, the Empowerhouse team has raised the bar on what we can expect from the Solar Decathlon itself.

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