When The New School applied to take part in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon 2011, a sustainable building competition, winning an award was not the ultimate goal. Instead, the interdisciplinary team, including more than 200 students from the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy and Parsons School of Design, set its sights on designing an energy-efficient entry that could become a permanent two-family home. To carry out its ambitious plan, the team—calling itself and its competition home Empowerhouse—partnered with Habitat for Humanity and government and nonprofit groups in Washington, DC. Almost two years after the project’s inception, students welcomed the public and press to tour their model home, displayed on the National Mall.
The Empowerhouse uses what are called Passive House principles, which cut household heating and cooling costs by 90 percent. Other energy needs are supplied by a few solar panels mounted on the roof. The design dramatically minimized the house’s expense: Empowerhouse cost only $240,000; in contrast, the previous Solar Decathlon winner came in at about $800,000. This achievement allowed the Empowerhouse team to win the first-ever Affordability contest. As a result, the DC-area Habitat for Humanity incorporated the Milano School students’ financial model for Empowerhouse into its own practices, making sustainable homes more affordable for Habitat home owners. After the Solar Decathlon, Empowerhouse was moved from the National Mall to Deanwood, a neighborhood across the Anacostia River. There, Habitat developed the house into a two-story, two-family duplex. Now, as Empowerhouse’s first inhabitants prepare to move in, Milano students are gearing up to monitor the financial and environmental impact of their house. Empowerhouse is just one example of a Schools of Public Engagement project conceived in an academic setting and developed in the real world. Every academic program offers students opportunities to initiate projects and participate in civic engagement.The Empowerhouse story does not end here: Habitat for Humanity DC has permits to built a half dozen more Passive House homes in the DC area, and the Empowerhouse team and Habitat for Humanity are collaborating on a similar house in Philadelphia.