Building Sustainable Homes on a Budget

We’ve all heard people say that building environmentally sustainable homes is just too costly. The most recent critic to step up against zero-carbon homes is Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom. Given London’s famously dismal climate, I can’t blame the Queen for raining on sustainable energy’s parade. But this year’s Solar Decathlon has some of the best examples of sustainable tech on the cheap.

Nowhere is this advance more visible than Parsons’ “Empowerhouse.” In a competition where construction costs can run as high as $600,000, the Empowerhouse rang in at a mid-market $229,000 – about the median cost of a home in America today. That makes Empowerhouse the most affordable sustainable home in the Decathlon’s history. More importantly, that price makes Empowerhouse a viable model for sustainable neighborhoods.

Empowerhouse Solar Decathlon Market Appeal from Empowerhouse Collaborative on Vimeo.

Parsons took first place honors in the affordability category by incorporating low-cost building materials and passive energy reduction systems into a spacious, net-zero output home. The Empowerhouse is more than a low-cost concept. The Parsons’ team is actually turning several lots around Washington D.C.’s Deanwood neighborhood into Empowerhouse communities. They’ve even incorporated community gardens and water improvement projects.

Less ambitious versions of Empowerhouse’s sustainability are already rising from foundations across the country. Take green builders Sustainable Living Innovations. SLI is a leading name in sustainable campus housing and market-rate homes. SLI reduces energy and materials waste related to construction by up to 50% through the use of modular construction units. Just like Parsons, SLI noticed the viability of prefabricated frames in lowering environmental impact.

Of course, building one home isn’t the same as building a neighborhood. Most professional developers stick with the safe profit of made-to-order luxury sustainable homes. Parsons’ Empowerhouse and their similar Deanwood development provide exactly the kind of real-world marketing data developers crave. And they aren’t alone. Companies like Sustainable Living Innovations are building commercial and residential properties for around the cost of a traditional home.

The United Kingdom may have a cloudy forecast for affordable, sustainable homes, but that shouldn’t dissuade the universities and private businesses of the world from continuing to seek out innovations and breakthroughs in construction techniques. The future looks sunny.

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