Michèle Leaman

Michèle works with faculty, administrators, and students to change complex institutional systems to become more supportive environments for social entrepreneurship and changemaking.

Getting the grade: the solar decathlon, sustainability, and social impact

A few weeks ago, I caught up with John Clinton, Associate Professor and Director of Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy to talk about The New School’s participation in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon that is taking place this week on the national mall in Washington D.C.
The New School, an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, has teamed up with students and faculty across many different schools – Parsons The New School for Design, Milano School of International Affairs, and the Stevens Institute of Technology – to participate in the real-world challenge to design, build, and operate a solar-powered house that is cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.
Hundreds of schools have competed in this challenge, where they design and build a house, take it apart and reassemble it on the national mall in Washington, DC. The decathlon includes ten contests over ten days, with challenges such as “architecture,” “market appeal,” “affordability,” or the home entertainment contest. In this last contest, each house hosts a dinner party to measure how energy efficient the house is. There are now 19 finalists, with the New School’s “Empowerhouse” currently in fourth place (view full scoring details here).
How did you develop the team for Empowerhouse?
    “The whole project started out as a curriculum-based initiative, where students initially become involved through course work. Over the last two years, around two dozen courses across the three schools were offered that helped to further the solar decathlon project. Much of this led to inter-professional collaborations, cross-pollination between departmental silos, and continued collaboration among students, faculty and staff. A truly interdisciplinary real-world challenge!”

    The New School/Stevens Institute team made the decision early on to focus on social impact, even though social impact dimensions are not included in the competition’s judging criteria. Many of the solar decathlon houses are rigorously designed but never lived in. The Empowerhouse team partnered with Habitat for Humanity and secured an empty lot in the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington, DC for a permanent location of Empowerhouse.
What were some of the challenges that accompanied your choice to focus on social impact?
    “It became critical to the success of the project to connect with the community on-site. We held a symposium titled “reflections on being able to afford sustainability.” Through this event, we gained a broader perspective on the challenges of adapting to and maintaining a sustainable home for a low-income community. We learned so much more than just how to build an energy-efficient house. The challenges to sustainability have critical human elements. It was a fascinating learning experience. The project started in the architecture, design, and engineering schools and quickly broadened to include the participation of urban policy, management, and sustainability programs.”
What are some unexpected skills that are gained by participating in the solar decathlon?
    “There are many entrepreneurial dimensions of the project. We partnered with the New School’s Community Development Finance Project to develop a scalable business model for DC Habitat for Humanity given the stakeholders it serves. And we often asked ourselves, how can we make a house like this one attractive to investors and home owners?”
For you, what was the most meaningful part of participating in the project?
    “I would say standing on-site with people from the community to hear their stories and why this house matters to them. The team met frequently with community stakeholders, Deanwood residents, and the Deanwood advisory neighborhood commissioner to better understand the neighborhood and residential needs. In the end what made this project possible was the passion team members had to create real-world impact and the relationships with the people on the ground.”
The solar decathlon is coming to a close in a few days. What’s next?
    “From the very beginning, we saw the competition as only the starting point. We want to continue to do this in other cities.”