Empowerhouse, the 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, were named the winners of the first contest announced in the Solar Decathlon competition in the category of affordability. The team tied with Purdue University in the contest, with both teams achieving construction costs of under $250,000.
Empowerhouse achieved the lowest construction costs of all 19 teams, at $229,890, which was due in large part to the team's partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Washington, DC, and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. From the start, the students were focused on creating a new model for affordable, energy-efficient housing for DC Habitat, which resulted in a home that will be ultimately sited in the underserved DC neighborhood of Deanwood. A Habitat family was recently selected to live in the house, a single mother with three young children, who visited the house for the first time at the start of the Decathlon.
Architecture and engineering students, working with students in the Community Development Finance Project at the Milano School, and with representatives at DC Habitat, constantly refined the design to make certain it would meet the budget goals. One of the key ways in which the team kept the budget under the $250,000 mark was through the use of Passive House principles, one of the leading international energy standards.
A virtually air-tight and well-insulated house featuring cellulose insulation, triple-paned windows, and micro-mechanical and smart electrical systems, minimize the need for solar energy. This resulted in Empowerhouse having one of the smallest solar arrays in the competition, which normally represent one of the largest expenses in green construction. In addition, keeping in mind DC Habitat's needs, the house was constructed and features many off-the shelf materials and appliances.
"These 2011 teams have shown that solar houses can be affordable while still being innovative," commented Matt Hansen, Affordability Contest juror. "Empowerhouse truly exemplified the can-do attitude. The house is based on the affordability needs of the team's target market in an urban context: low initial costs, low maintenance costs, and low utility costs."