Energy-Efficient House, Formerly an Academic Exercise, to Join Neighborhood

Vasilis Kyriacou

Students construct a solar house at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J.
July 03, 2011

Every two years, the U.S. Department of Energy stages the Solar Decathlon, a challenge for college teams to design and construct attractive, affordable solar-powered homes. The sleek and sometimes outlandish houses sit on the National Mall for more than a week for tourists and school groups to ogle. But when the contest concludes, each intricately engineered abode returns to its respective college, where many are dismantled.

That got Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons the New School for Design, thinking: "Why are all these houses going away afterward?"

Last Wednesday in Northeast Washington, Mr. Towers announced that at least one house would be sticking around, thanks to a team of students and administrators from his own institution and from the Stevens Institute of Technology and the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at the New School. Representatives of the institutions, joined by local leaders and members of Washington's Habitat for Humanity affiliate, broke ground in Deanwood, the middle- to low-income neighborhood where the house that the team designed and built will be placed permanently as early as October to serve as affordable housing.

"We wanted to demonstrate that you can build affordable, energy-efficient, well-designed housing in collaboration with a community," Mr. Towers said, standing on the grass lot where Habitat for Humanity will construct the house's foundation. "We built something that really matters."

The solar-powered house, which students are still assembling on the Stevens campus in Hoboken, N.J., is designed according to passive-house standards: Its extensive insulation, triple-paned windows, and rainwater-collection system will result in energy costs that are 85 to 90 percent less than an average home's. Sylvia C. Brown, a Deanwood resident and local government leader, said it would be the first passive house in Washington.

In addition to the house drafted and built by "Empowerhouse," as the design team calls itself, Habitat for Humanity will build a second passive house at the same site. (Habitat is still selecting families for the two houses.)

Kent Adcock, chief executive of Habitat for Humanity of Washington, said he would like the house to become Habitat's model for affordable housing, because it saves dramatically on energy costs.

The project brought together architecture, engineering, and public-policy students, says Carly Berger, a Parsons architecture student who helped design the house. "It's very rare to work collaboratively across disciplines," she said.

While some architecture students never work on physical projects, she said, the passive house demanded weekly meetings, where students from all three schools would decide upon such design minutiae as siding and landscape options.

More than 200 students worked on the house over three semesters and two summers. That challenged professors to design a curriculum around a project that lasted far longer than a normal academic term, said Michael S. Bruno, dean of the engineering and science school at Stevens Institute of Technology. For the students, he said, "It resulted in a really extraordinary, unique education experience."