The Empowerhouse: An Affordable, Energy-Efficient Home Built By College Students

This home costs less than $250,000, uses 90% less energy than a standard U.S. home—and was built by a group of college students.

If you're in D.C. sightseeing this week, you might want to skip the traditional landmarks in favor of something more novel: 19 of the most cost-effective, energy-efficient, and downright attractive solar-powered houses in the country. Laid out on the National Mall, the homes are the product of the biennial Solar Decathlon, a competition organized by the Department of Energy that challenges college students to design and build liveable homes that don't overtax the wallet or the planet's resources.

One of the houses on display—dubbed the Empowerhouse—is a joint entry from the Parsons The New School for Design, the Milano School  for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, and the Stevens Institute for Technology. The house is not only doing well in the competition, but is set to make an impact beyond the event. Once the Solar Decathlon closes this Sunday, the team will reassemble the two-family house on land owned by Habitat for Humanity, in the Deanwood area of the city. And the hope is that eventually the Empowerhouse will serve as a model for affordable, self-sufficient dwellings elsewhere in the country.

This week, the Empowerhouse won the Solar Decathlon's affordability contest (there are 10 contests in all, plus a main prize), coming in with a price tag of $229,890.26. The house is stacking up on positive environmental marks, too. It uses 90% less energy than a standard U.S. home, and 40% less than a modern, high-efficiency one. That's partly because of its low leakage, which the designers achieve by using densely packed cellulose as insulation and as few windows as comfortably possible.

Most importantly for the students, parts of the design is already being used by Habitat in new units it is building in the D.C. area."We didn't want to design just one house, but something that Habitat for Humanity could replicate. So we used simple materials, and simple building methods that they would be able to use," says Steve Scribner, a project leader, and one of 200 students working on the project.

"The most exciting thing for all the students was to make a difference beyond the competition, and we have found beyond our wildest dreams that that is happening." Despite its few windows, Scribner, a recent masters graduate in architecture from Parsons, says he would like to keep the house. "We had to make compromises for the competition and Habitat for Humanity, but I would genuinely want to live there. The living space and kitchen area are just amazing to be in."

It is hard to vouch for that without visiting the Empowerhouse. But it does seem the project, like the competition, is making a positive contribution—both in Washington and elsewhere.

[Image: Vasilis Kyriacou]

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  • Kevin Schreiber

    I toured the Empowerhouse yesterday- it is aesthetically pleasing, modern, comfortable, clean, and functional.

    It certainly wasn't the only house though- where's the love for Maryland's stunning WaterShed, which was centered around an integrated wetland ecosystem for storm and greywater management?  Or Appalaichan State's Solar Homestead, whose bifacial solar array collects light from both above and below?  Or Caltech's CHIP, which is probably the first and only home to be designed with insulation on the outside?

    The Solar Decathlon was chock full of cutting-edge, innovative ideas in efficient housing.  It was well worth the visit.  You could hear the enthusiasm in students' voices as they talked about their work.  I'm super stoked to be part of the 2013 competition.  Wherever it is held, if you are at all interested in sustainability, you should come check it out. 

    Not to take away from Parsons' fantastic achievement, but it's a shame that Fast Company only felt it appropriate to cover one team's entry.