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Cropping Up in DC, Net-Zero Student-Designed Homes

In It's Not Easy Being Green, Curbed pulls back the curtain on cutting-edge, environmentally friendly design, from urban passive houses to green tweaks on suburban living. Have a suggestion for an upcoming column? Pass it along.

Every two years, the U.S. Department of Energy hosts the Solar Decathlon, a program that challenges 20 groups of college students to build solar-powered homes that are both energy-efficient and easy on the eyes. Teams trek from across the country to show off their creations on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where they're are lauded for their innovative, creative, world-saving, blah blah blah, super powers. Then, usually, the students file away the experience for later years, graduate, and move on to other projects. Well, the team behind 2011's Empowerhouse did more, working to get their green home built for, well, actual people. Having recruited students and faculty from a broad range of studies—including public policy, communication design, finance, and non-profit management—the first property deed was soon in the hands of a low-income family in Deanwood, Washington, D.C., and Habitat for Humanity plans to build at least six more in the same neighborhood. Consuming 80 percent less primary energy than a conventional home, Empowerhouse independently harvests as much energy as it uses. This net-zero approach means, according to the project's website, the home will completely erase costs of power and heating. More below.

To keep indoor temperature comfortable without sucking up a lot energy, Empowerhouse incorporates the staple strategies of passive homes, including 12-inch-thick, cellulose-stuffed layers of insulation; high-performance windows and doors; and sheathing and moisture barriers, which all help the home retain its temperature. "You don't need 50 solar panels," says Orlando Velez, the project's director of operations, in an interview with Co.Exist. "Just use the materials really efficiently."

Because such a diverse group of students—both from The New School in NYC and Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.—had a hand in the home's design, Empowerhouse "fosters a whole-life approach to sustainability," with non-architectural eco-friendly elements like sustainable furnishings, a rain garden that collects and filters storm-water, and a worm bin for urban compost. What's more, the project was created in close cooperation with Deanwood community leaders, so the design reflects neighborhood values—a strong porch culture and emphasis on home-cooked meals is reflected in the design, which includes an open, contemporary veranda and centrally located kitchen. Want to know more and/or help them out? Empowerhouse's official website, right this way.

· Inside The Empowerhouse, A Gorgeous $250,000 Passive Home [Co.Exist]
· The Empowerhouse [Official Site]
· All It's Not Easy Being Green posts [Curbed National]