Solar Decathlon Contest Refocuses on Affordability of New Homes


WASHINGTON | In addition to more space for her family, Lakiya Culley’s new home in Southeast Washington, D.C., comes with another big benefit: miniscule power bills.

Culley will be living in the Empowerhouse. The house came together with the help of The Parsons New School for Design, the Stevens Institute of Technology, Milano School at The New School, Habitat for Humanity and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development for the 2011 Solar Decathlon.

The Solar Decathlon, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy, challenges 20 teams from universities to design, build and operate solar-powered houses. These teams work for two years on houses showcased on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The homes that won previous competitions weren’t cheap: Some cost more than $800,000. This year for the first time, cost is a key consideration in the competition. “We instituted affordability to make these houses more affordable for the average American but yet it’s a contest and these teams are trying to perform so you’ve got to trade off between affordability and high performance.” says Richard King, director of the Solar Decathlon.

The Empowerhouse had to remain within Habitat for humanity’s budget. Estimated total cost of construction and design: less than $230,000, which won it first place in the affordability contest.

“I think that there is a misperception that green design and energy efficiency has to be expensive and I think what’s important is to bring this forward to everyone because it’s not just elitist and for those of us who have money.” says Parsons New School of Design architecture student Amanda Waal.

Most of the energy for the Empowerhouse comes from the sun but that doesn’t just mean solar panels on the roof. Lakiya Culley will also be saving money with what’s known as passive solar. Unlike active solar systems, passive solar looks to design elements of a house rather than mechanical systems to collect, store and distribute solar energy.

Amanda Waal explains that at the core of passive solar design are thick highly insulated walls that are airtight with windows carefully placed to allow sunlight to come in during the winter but also provide shade during cooler months. It can save a homeowner up to 80 to 90 percent in their utility bills over the course of the year.

And with about 20 percent of the nation’s energy expended in homes, that kind of efficiency is crucial in addressing America’s energy crisis.

The passive system also means that Empowerhouse uses fewer solar panels. The solar panels on the roof are just half the size and cost of most arrays used by houses in the competition.

Engineering student Daniel Tipaldo says becoming solar efficient has to tackle both the supply of energy coming into a house and how much it uses. Tipaldo says that while the Empowerhouse makes less energy than other homes in the competition, they consume less and are using the appliances and house as efficiently as possible.

The technology has to work beyond just the the decathlon exhibition. The real goal, says Tipaldo, is to make it livable.”The house has been stress tested basically. We have to do a wash load, a dryer load, a dishwasher load, simulate taking a shower, keep the lights on for X amount of hours, so we simulate a family living in there. The reality is we’re making this home for a family.”

Culley says her neighbors in Southeast Washington, D.C., didn’t know much about solar energy, but after hearing about her future electricity bills, they’re eager to learn more, “They’re excited. They’re like, ‘A solar house, what’s that?’ So they’re asking me questions about it: ‘So you’re not going to have an electric bill? How does that work? Can I get one of those?'”

The overall winner of the solar decathlon will be announced Saturday, and the Empowerhouse will be transferred to a Habitat for Humanity site in Washington.