When you walk into the Empowerhouse, in the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington, D.C., the most important thing for you to understand, in Orlando Velez's opinion, is that, despite its thick walls, green design, solar panels, and super-efficient heating system, this is a house not so different than any other. It might be super sustainable, but it looks like any other home.
"We're not building the Enterprise spaceship," says Velez, who helped manage the house's construction. "We're building a house."
Today, after years of work, the home will finally be declared finished, and a family will be able to move into each of the house's two units. Originally designed and built for the federal government's 2011 Solar Decathlon competition by a team of students from New York City's The New School and New Jersey's Stevens Institute of Technology, the Empowerhouse uses 90 percent less energy than the average home for heating and cooling. Its windows maximize natural light. It has thick, insulated walls that are part of its Passive House design—a system that emphasizes minimizing buildings' energy needs. The Empowerhouse has solar panels to provide power, but because it uses so little energy, its system was smaller than any other entrant’s in the decathlon. It won the contest's first-ever affordability challenge. It was built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity.
So, yes, it's a house, not a spaceship. But it does seem like a project that comes from a more advanced future, where the buildings that we live in make as little impact as possible.
There's a lot of nonsense out there about how to live green. It's distracting. Unless people—particularly folks in countries like the United States—change the way they live their lives, average global temperatures are going to creep up and up.
A study that came out this last weekend in a major science journal found that it will be almost impossible to limit global warming to just two degrees Celsius, the threshold that international negotiators have said the world should aim for. Buying green products isn't going to stop this trend. To slow it down and then reverse it, the world is going to have to change the way it creates electricity, builds its buildings, and gets from place to place.
These are huge changes, but they're happening now. The Empowerhouse isn't a weird project from the future; it's a house that people are going to live in. But it’s also the type of house that more of us need to move into.
It's a beautiful house too. "It's always an incredible thing to go from building these models to reality," says Laura Briggs, the New School's faculty lead on the project. "The way these houses capture the light through the day—there's unbelievable light quality. And the house draws the whole park behind it right inside. It's very open to the outside."
But, more importantly, building one house like this has made it easier to build others. The Empowerhouse team worked with community leaders and government officials in D.C. to educate and train people about this type of technology. Next time someone goes into the city's permitting office, looking for the proper paperwork, the office will already have an idea how to proceed. And the team at the New School is going to take what they've learned and feed into another Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Philadelphia, Briggs says. The next go-around should be easier, faster, more familiar. These aren’t spaceships they’re building, after all. They’re houses.