Photo by xbettyx on Flickr.

The Solar Decathlon is largely about using cutting-edge technology and materials to create homes that draw no net energy from the power grid. For one team, though, it’s also about providing housing to the community.

The “Empowerhouse” was designed by a team comprised of Parsons The New School for Design, Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School, and Stevens Institute of Technology. They worked together to build a home that will eventually end up in Ward 7’s Deanwood community, housing a family. The team has developed a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Washington and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development.

The Decathlon is organized by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and combines traditional architecture along with cutting-edge building materials to create net zero-energy homes.

Richard King, the director of this year’s event, said he wants to educate the students and the public about the many cost-saving opportunities presented by clean-energy products. “This event demonstrates to the public that renewable energy is possible, and all that you might pay up front evens out on the back end,” he said.

He also pointed out that the capital costs of these sustainable features are dropping.  “What you normally pay on average now, more than likely isn’t what you’re going to pay in five, 10, 20 years,” King said.

"One of our key successes with the project is our relationship with D.C. government.  We are very happy and exited to have support across the board; not only from our partner, the Department of Housing and Community Development, but agencies like DDOT, DDOE, and DCRA.  All across the board people have come together, because of our project, and sat at the same table when they normally would not have that conversation,” said Heather Zanoni, student and media contact for the Parsons Team. 

In July ground was broken for the project to be placed in Deanwood. Administrative personnel from Parsons, Milano, Stevens Habitat for Humanity of DC, and Deanwood ANC commissioner Sylvia Brown participated. 

For team member Amanda Waal, “bringing Deanwood and Habitat for Humanity into the discussions surrounding the Solar Decathlon has been very important to us.”

Zanoni hopes to see DC government use the home as a model in establishing new policies with building codes for future homes around the District.  The team is excited about moving the energy efficient home across town because even transporting the home will be sustainable. Not much energy will be used to transport it.

Zanoni added the Empowerhouse a is passive house, a very well-insulated, virtually air-tight building primarily heated by passive solar gain and internal gains from people, electrical equipment, etc. The more bodies in the building, the warmer the home gets. Energy losses are minimized and any remaining heat demand is provided by an extremely small source.

The home has won first place in the DOE’s affordability category with a final cost of $229,890.26, and is currently in 4th place overall.  Event attendee and local conservationist Gregory Simms said that knowing the home won in that category should inspire more Washingtonians to strongly consider Empowerhouse as a real model for the future.  “Passive homes hold the country’s highest energy standards and cuts heating and energy usage of any building by leaps and bounds.  The Parsons team has shown that an energy efficient home can be affordable,” he said.

A passive house is a comprehensive system. “Passive” describes well this system’s underlying receptivity and retention capacity. Working with natural resources, free solar energy is captured and applied efficiently, instead of relying predominantly on ‘active’ systems to bring a building to ‘zero’ energy. High performance triple-glazed windows, super-insulation, an airtight building shell, limitation of thermal bridging and balanced energy recovery ventilation make possible extraordinary reductions in energy use and carbon emission. 

When the Deanwood home is completed, it will actually be a duplex. A second family is still needed for the other unit. “We haven’t found the second family yet, so if anyone thinks they might be the qualifications please reach out to us,” she said.  “People should come out to Deanwood. There are great green areas there, and history, along with beautiful homes along Pennsylvania Avenue SE.”

The Decathlon continues through Sunday. If you haven’t had a chance to visit, you might want to stop by West Potomac Park this weekend.

Reginald Johnson is a transplant to the Washington, D.C. area.  He writes for, a international media agency, and additional freelance.  He attended the University of Central Arkansas. All views expressed here are his alone.