D.C. Gets Its First 'Passive House'

What began as a competition entry is now a two-family home in Northeast Washington.

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Ashley Hartzell

In September 2011, Lakiya Culley's house was a school project in a competition on the National Mall. Now it's a two-family home in Deanwood, a residential neighborhood in Northeast D.C., and the District's first "passive house" -- the highest U.S. energy standard. The Empowerhouse, as it's called, will produce as much energy as it consumes.

Last year, as a joint entry of The New School and the Stevens Institute of Technology to the Department of Energy's Solar Decathalon, a biannual competition for solar-power houses, the Empowerhouse won first prizes in two of the ten categories, including affordability.

But while other entries were shipped back to the architecture and engineering labs from whence they came, the Empowerhouse moved just across the Anacostia River, tripled in size, received a Mayor's Sustainability Award, and landed a permanent site and two new owners.

"I always thought it was a shame that the houses packed up and left," says Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons The New School for Design. He remembers visiting the competition in 2009 and watching a German student show the bells and whistles of one soon-to-be-gone project -- that year's winner -- to a group of District schoolkids. "We wanted ours to stay, and that's what we did."

It was an unseasonably warm day Tuesday, perfect weather for the second-story roof deck, as Culley cut the ribbon off her front porch to conclude a ceremony marking the completion of the Empowerhouse. "I'm ready to go in the house now!"

Over a hundred people had gathered on Gault Place, the crowd, and the parade of speakers, a testament to the project's remarkable collaborative scope: a three-year, four-way collaboration between The New School, Stevens Institute of Technology, several District agencies, and Habitat for Humanity, with additional help from dozens of sponsors.

Though the Empowerhouse featured in some 50 academic courses, and involved over 200 students from across disciplines at two universities, its designers believe they've created a model for building at the intersection of affordable housing and sustainable architecture. Habitat for Humanity, which operated construction of the Empowerhouse on site, will be applying its lessons to construct six energy-efficient homes in Ivy City, near Gallaudet University in Northeast D.C. Parsons will continue working with Habitat on a similar project in Philadelphia.

"It's the type of project that should be replicated across town," said Michael Kelly, the D.C. Director of Housing and Community Development.

Top image: Ashley Hartzell; inset courtesy of The New School.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.