It won first prize in the Affordability category of the 2011 Solar Decathlon, and in December of 2012 Empowerhouse became Washington DC’s first Passive House. In a video interview just released by the US Department of Energy, its new owner describes how the house's energy-saving design means a brighter future for her family.

The US Solar Decathlon is a biannual event that challenges university teams to design and build the best energy-efficient houses judged on a set of 10 criteria. The team behind Empowerhouse partnered with Habitat for Humanity in Washington DC to further develop its model as part of the charity’s affordable housing scheme. Completed in December 2012, it became the first house in the nation's capitol to be built to Passive House standards – these are a set of guidelines on energy-efficient design and construction for residential buildings. According to the Department of Energy, homes built to Passive House standards in the US consume 90 percent less energy than typical houses.

Empowerhouse was designed and built by a team of students and faculty from Parsons the New School for Design; Milano Institute of International Affairs, Management and Urban Affairs at the New School; and Stevens Institute of Technology. The one-bedroom, 900 square-foot (83 square-meter) demonstration house was built at a cost of just under US$230,000.

After the event, which took place on the Mall in Washington DC, the home was moved to the historic Deanwood neighborhood of the city. There, in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity’s program for affordable housing, it was altered to accommodate a larger family. A second story was built, expanding it to a 1,300-square-foot (120 sq m), three-bedroom, two-bath home.

DC Habitat and its volunteers then built a matching house next door, creating a two-family duplex. Owing to the affordable construction process, DC Habitat has already begun work on six more energy-efficient townhomes that will follow the same Passive House design standards as the Empowerhouse.

In the video released on October 28th, Lakiya Culley, who moved in with her three children in early May, describes how the new house has helped her family to save money and enjoy a healthier environment.

Ms. Cully previously lived in a two-bedroom apartment where, she says, her children couldn't play outside, and trying to be energy efficient was difficult. “In the winter time in our apartment building we had to open the windows,” she says, because of overheating. Additionally, the extremes of heat and cold affected her family's health. By contrast, her current home's thermally efficient building methods, such as the “super insulation” and triple-glazed windows, keep the internal temperature stable and comfortable while the solar panels produce the necessary energy for heating and power.

Culley also cites the positive financial impact from having no energy bills, as she is now able to take her children on outings and to save for their education. Having helped to build her own house as part of the Habitat for Humanity program, she has also learned about energy use and feels that other people can be helped to save on their energy bills by developing better habits.

Lakiya’s home has “site zero” energy consumption, meaning that the solar panels supply only the amount needed for the house. This is banked with an energy affiliate and an equal amount is taken from the grid to run the house. Though her house is not supplying any extra energy to the grid, it is not using more than it banks, so in effect she is supplying all of her own energy needs.

On the future of energy-conscious building in the US, Sam Rashkin, Chief Architect of the Energy Department’s Building Technologies Office says that "Passive House is the most aggressive voluntary label for energy-efficient homes.” It has only recently been introduced in the US, and currently “represents a very niche label in the housing industry with about 150 certified homes.”

He points out however, that there are other government-backed schemes for energy-efficient housing that are more widespread, such as “over 1.5 million Energy Star Certified Homes and nearly 15,000 Builders Challenge certified homes (now the Department of Energy Challenge Home)."

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