Empowerhouse Wins Affordability Contest at Decathlon, Demolishing Myth of the Passivhaus Premium


Image credit Michelle Kaufmann

Not a few noses were put out of joint two years ago when Germany won the Solar Decathlon with it's $ 2,000,000 entry that Archdaily says "screamed of flashy energy efficient technology with its skin of solar panels, yet seemed out of grasp to most potential homeowners." So this year an Affordability contest was added to encourage more practical, real-world solutions. It has been won by EmpowerHouse, from Parsons the New School for Design and Stevens Institute of Technology. It was the cheapest, built for $ 229,890. I think this is really significant; an entry built to Passive House standards is the cheapest at the Decathlon.


The Empowerhouse was designed for a real world situation (it is being installed by Habitat for Humanity in the Deanwood neighbourhood of Washington DC) using passivhaus principles:

Incredible energy savings is the result of following the principles of Passive House. These include high levels of insulation, airtight construction, high-performance windows and doors, minimized thermal bridging, and windows and shading placed to control solar heat gain.

Passive House design is usually considered to cost a lot more than conventional, but when compared to the high tech green gizmo approach that much so-called green design takes, guess what? It can be cheaper.

A year ago I wrote about the Empowerhouse and doubted it had much of a chance in the contest:

During the Solar Decathlon Europe I gushed over the University of Florida's simple design and thought the Luminhaus was over-teched; I preferred a design that I thought had real-world application. Guess which one won. Here, Parsons The New School's team is going one step further and actually building it for the real world. That is a bigger challenge than the Decathlon. It should be interesting to watch.

Introducing the Affordability category may have reduced the flash and dazzle of the Decathlon a bit, but it grounds it in a reality that it probably needed if it was going to have any real effect and impact on the world of residential design. We will see how it adds up when the other categories are judged.

purdue decathlon

Also winning full points in affordability is the Purdue Inhome, which they call an "an innovative, yet practical, house that meets the needs of a typical Midwestern consumer in today's cost-competitive residential market" and I call just about the most boring entry I have ever seen at the competition. But that's what you get when you design for "functional aesthetics."

More images at Solar Decathlon 2011: Team Purdue