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Jessica Barnhouse, one of the female student architects of the award-winning Empowerhouse designed for the 2011 Solar Decathlon has been making houses since she was six.  ‘I’ve always wanted to be an architect,’ she said.   The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is an award-winning program that challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.   This year’s Solar Decathlonran from September 23 through October 1 on the National Mall’s West Potomac Park.

Jessica Barnhouse

Empowerhouse, which Barnhouse helped design and build, as part of the 45-person team from Parsons New School for Design and the Stevens Institute of Technology, not only won the competition’s affordability award but will also become a home for a Habitat for Humanity family in DC’s Northeast neighborhood of Deanwood.  Empowerhouse is a site net zero energy home using as much energy as it produces, eliminating electricity bills for its Deanwood occupants.  The home is designed to occupy just 1,000 square feet and cost less than $230,000 to construct. Learn more about the energy efficient design of the house. The house is one of 20 built by Solar Decathlon competitors and the only one ever to remain in DC.

The Empowerhouse team worked in partnership with the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, Groundwork Anacostia and Habitat for Humanity of Washington D.C. a volunteer – led non-profit working to build affordable, energy and resource –efficient homes for people in need.

‘We partnered with Habitat for Humanity, because we wanted to push green energy forward. Habitat for Humanity is interested in changing the way they build to incorporate more Passive House standards,’ Barnhouse commented.

Empowerhouse - Back Porch View

The collaboration with the non-profit organization and the Deanwood community added a layer of complexity to an already demanding project.  ‘We came to Washington several times to meet with community stakeholders and incorporate their input into the design of the house. As a result of community feedback the Parson’s students added a north porch facing the street that invites residents and neighbors to congregate as well as private south porch with composting and a cooking surface. The team knew they had to be extremely practical with their design and building approach, Barnhouse said. ‘We as students had to physically build the house and Habitat volunteers had to be able to build it.’  Working with the organization was ‘an inspiration,’ according to Barnhouse.

The project was not without its challenges, she said. The Decathlon required students at times to work outside of their comfort zones. ‘Architects rarely do the actual construction on what they design,’ she said.  ‘As students we didn’t all come to the project knowing how to install sprinkler systems or every detail of electrical codes, but we taught ourselves. If we can do it than others can do it.’

In fact, one of the best parts of the competition to Barnhouse was stretching herself. ‘Personally, I’ve gotten interested in civil engineering as a result of the competition,’ she said.   The energy efficient house is scheduled to be moved to the Deanwood neighborhood later this month where the Parsons team hopes ‘it will serve as an educational tool to inspire community members to incorporate affordable green practices into their everyday lives.  For Barnhouse, it’s now back to the books. She anticipates finishing her Master’s degree with Parsons in 2012.