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The Light Millennium
Date: May 2, 2011

"The house will prompt residents to remain aware of their connections to the larger system,
their reliance on that system, and their impact on it, as well.”

As an alumna of The New School University (1999), I attended their annual reunion at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center on Saturday April 16, 2011.

The university’s new president, Dr. David E. Van Zandt, moderated a panel entitled “The Role of Higher Education in Innovation,” which consisted of academic leaders representing The New School for Social Research Milano, The New School for Management and Urban Policy, and The New School for General Studies.

President Van Zandt led a discussion with Executive Dean David Scobey, Dr. Vyjayanthi Rao, assistant professor of anthropology, and Dr. John Clinton, associate professor of environmental policy and sustainability management, about the vital role higher education plays in stimulating social change. The New School is at the forefront of these efforts. The main topics included Professor Clinton's work on “EmPowerhouse,” the Parsons/Milano entry in the Solar Decathlon, and Professor Rao's work in urban density in Mumbai.

The panel, interactive session, and reception reconnected the attendees with The New School and revitalized relationships. More importantly, through the panel and discussion, the attendees were brought up to date with challenging ongoing projects such as Dr. Rao's anthropological research, with its visual components on the highly populated city of Mumbai, and Dr. Clinton's presentation of his multilevel team project, EmPowerhouse, for the 2011 Solar Decathlon. Following the panel, I approached Dr. Clinton and proposed an interview for The Light Millennium TV based on his presentation, which offered hope and a new vision. He was very supportive, and said he would be happy to be interviewed. We are honored to present this exclusive interview with Dr. John Clinton. On behalf of The Light Millennium, I am grateful for his collaboration and support. B.Ü.

1) PHOTO Credits: The New School Alumni Association, Annual Reunion Event - April 16, 2011.
2) Selected images from Dr. John Clinton's Power Point presentation.
Note: Another version of this interview will be presented in two parts under the LMTV Series at QPTV in September 2011.

An exclusive interview with:
John CLINTON, Associate Professor, Lead Faculty
Environmental Policy & Sustainability Management
Milano The New School University

Interviewed by:

Bircan ÜNVER, Lightmillennium.Org
“We want to promote “development”—as that term is used in the international context—in a way that exerts much lower environmental impact. In this project, technology plays a vital role. But not the only role: in the end, the outcome depends on whether and how the people who live in this house—and others like it—examine and modify their behaviors, and whether that sends a positive message and example that influences many, many others.” - Dr. John CLINTON

“They are “pioneers” in a way: that they are more aware of their impact on the natural environment,
of their relationship to their community as part of an urban ecosystem.”

The Light Millennium - LM. How did you become involved with the 2011 Solar Decathlon project?

Dr. John CLINTON: In summer 2009, I was contacted by my colleague Laura Briggs, an architecture professor. Laura is on the faculty of Parsons The New School for Design, one of the schools that make up my university—The New School—where I am on the faculty of Milano the New School for Management and Urban Policy. Laura and I had worked together a few years earlier on a faculty task force on sustainable design and construction. She asked me to recommend several Milano students who would be interested in an exciting project starting at Parsons that fall. Before long, she also asked me to become involved as a faculty member.

LM: What is your background and role in the “solar empowered” house project? Who is the author of the original idea?

Dr. CLINTON: After I joined the faculty team, Laura and I and another Parsons colleague, Alison Mears, discussed the contributions that could be made to the project by my school, Milano. The New School was approaching the Solar Decathlon in a very different way: we would not just build a highly-energy-efficient house, as past competition schools had done. We would build a house that would be ready for actual people to live in a community. The goal would be to encourage the proliferation of such houses-houses that would be BOTH sustainable AND affordable. That meant the project would have many community engagement dimensions, that the house would be conceived as part of an urban ecosystem, that the project would require financial analysis, and would pay attention to the challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration in order to get such work done. While Parsons, the design and architecture school, would focus primarily on design issues, Milano faculty and students would address this other array of issues. I was asked to help bring in Milano as a partner. So, for the past two years, I have been persuading Milano faculty, students, deans, and board members to commit to this exciting but very challenging project. I also designed several courses on the project that I taught myself, serve as a co-leader of the overall project, and, with Laura Briggs, as a researcher on the educational aspects of the project.

Professor Briggs and Parsons Executive Dean Joel Towers had first explored the idea of entering the Solar Decathlon about four years ago for a previous cycle of the competition. This time, they felt ready to proceed.

From the beginning, a partnership was created that not only included Parsons and Milano, but also the Stevens Institute of Technology engineering School and Habitat for Humanity of Washington, DC and other NGO and government partners—I will explain these important additional partnerships that are a critical component of the way we have approached the project.

LM: What courses do you teach? Which one is the most popular? Are all of your students directly involved with the 2011 Solar Decathlon?

Dr. CLINTON: Dozens of courses have been offered at the three schools. In fact, at Milano alone, more than a dozen over the past two years have included a Solar Decathlon component. The courses I have myself taught are the Solar Decathlon Practicum—because students spend the semester actually working, in practical ways, with our many partners—and the sustainable Urban communities Research Seminar, which provides students an opportunity to develop in-depth research in relevant areas such: as urban sustainability indexes, sustainability and political will, designing urban storm-water systems, urban food ‘deserts’ and other topics that help inform our practical work.

LM: What is the history of the Solar Decathlon, and who runs it?

Prof. CLINTON: The Solar Decathlon is a competition among colleges and universities. It is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and began in 2002 on a two-year cycle. We are now in the fifth competition, and there are 20 teams. The goal, as the DOE puts it, is “to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.”

The finalist houses are displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in September, at the conclusion of the two-year process of design and construction. Last year, the houses drew more than 300,000 visits and the related website has had millions of visits. The project is intended to demonstrate that cost-effective houses that are also energy-efficient in respect to their construction and in combination with their appliances and renewable energy systems are possible using current technology.

This message especially targets the construction industry as well as the general public, and the project is displayed at many major builder conferences and a day of the Mall competition is devoted to providing information to the design and construction industry.

The competition is above all a student project, with the actual design and engineering performed by the students.

LM: How did you choose the title of the project? What does the EmPowerhouse Collaborative project offer in terms of innovation, affordability, and energy efficiency compared with earlier winners of the competition?

Dr. CLINTON: The competition requires that every team have a name. For a while, we tried several different names in an attempt to capture the essence of our approach. Finally, I think it was a group of students who suggested EmPowerhouse since it is a very nice play on words, combining the focus on powering the house (through alternative energy) and empowering the residents by providing greater energy independence—and an entirely more sustainable lifestyle, since our students in many design fields are creating sustainable products, interiors, lighting, even clothing—through the fashion design department—to make living in the house more environmentally sustainable, as we take a holistic—or ‘whole life’ approach to the project.

LM: Who are the partners and collaborators of the EmPowerhouse project? Could you briefly identify your partners, as well as their role and contribution to the project?

Dr. CLINTON: Our university partners are Parsons, Milano, and Stevens. Parsons is a design school, so its students focus on all facets of the design of the house: architectural, interiors, lighting, fashion, communication, and other forms of design that go beyond the house and into the community.

Stevens provides engineering expertise for the various heating, cooling, and other systems of the house.

Milano is a graduate school of public policy and management. Our students are enrolled in one of five programs: Nonprofit Management, Urban Policy, Organizational Change Management, International Affairs, Environmental Policy & Sustainability Management. The last is the program I lead, and was just launched this year. Given these competencies, our students have worked on community relations, government relations, group process, project management, fundraising, financial analysis, and policy implications.

LM: What is each collaborator's main responsibility, contribution, and role in the project? How did these partnerships evolve and emerge in terms of "initial,” “second level,” and “partners in development?"

Dr. CLINTON: In addition to the universities, our partners include:
Habitat for Humanity of Washington, DC. Habitat is currently the eighth largest new home builder in the US, and is known for creating housing for low-income residents who are selected or the house based on many factors such as financial need and also their “sweat equity” contribution. Habitat for Humanity of Washington, DC is participating in order to modify their approach so that they create housing that is both affordable AND sustainable—they will use the technology we have employed to create a very high degree of energy efficiency. They also want us to help them modify their selection process so the family will be chosen in collaboration with the community and based on their willingness to adopt sustainable living practices suited to the systems of the house.

LM: In your Power Point presentation, one of the headlines reads: "EMPOWERHOUSE CAN INFLUENCE POLICY." How can it influence policy?

Dr. CLINTON: Our students are developing relevant training protocols and materials. As well, students in our Community Development Finance Lab, which has been very successful for years in assisting social-benefit clients, has conducted an analysis of what it would take to “go to scale” from building one such house to 50 per year in DC. And students in another class, in finance are analyzing the costs of building the house using different approaches and how to provide investor incentives. We will work with real estate developers to refine and disseminate that information.

Milano students are also working with the DC Department of Housing and Community Development, which provided the lot on which the second house will be built in the Deadwood neighborhood, and the DC Department of the Environment, to promote “green” building and home-improvement standards throughout the district, and with other government and community agencies and NGOs—especially the Advisory Neighborhood commissioner for Ward 7, where Deadwood is located.

Our experience with this project—and my experience over the years of work on such initiatives—has shown that sometimes various government agencies are constrained from working with each other—or even talking with each other (at least, officially) when they are attempting to address different pieces of the same puzzle. That is, their mandate, or their mission, focuses on one issue; another agency focuses on a different issue. The two issues are integrally related, but the agencies are not likely to have occasion to work together, to integrate their efforts, to address the whole. Universities—even though they too are often “siloed”— can help serve as a convener or facilitator so agencies can examine regulations or practices that may not complement each other—and may even contradict—the overall policy goals. We have been told that our role has helped foster inter-agency collaboration to see the linkages between affordability and sustainability, community development and environmental enhancement, energy efficiency and neighborhood identity.

LM: What does the U.S. Department of Energy contribute to this project?

Dr. CLINTON: The U.S. Department of Energy awards a $100,000 contract to the finalists to help defray some of their costs. We are meanwhile engaged in raising over $1 million from sponsoring organizations, including foundations, companies that manufacture relevant products, generous individual donors and through other means. The university has donated roughly three-quarters of a million dollars as in-kind contributions. It is an expensive project since we are building two cutting-edge houses, transporting one of them from the NYC area to DC, supporting project research and developing a curriculum that spans dozens of courses involving some 200 students over two years.

Of course, the U.S. Department of Energy also provides tremendous visibility and public support in a way no other entity can.

LM: Is there an international aspect to the EmPowerhouse project? Is there international participation in the 2011 Solar Decathlon?

Dr. CLINTON: There is certainly an important international aspect: entries this year come from New Zealand, Canada, Belgium, and China, and recently a European version was launched and now a competition in China has been announced.

For The New School, the international aspect is on the back burner for now. But we see it as an important part of the project by the time we complete the competition itself in the fall. I have discussed the possibilities with some of our international affairs faculty, and we expect to discuss with suitable NGOs in the near future.

“Our house will be ‘net-zero,’ meaning it will use no more energy than it generates.”
empowerhouse2 save_energy

LM: How does emPowerhouse and the 2011 Solar Decathlon break new ground? For instance, how will your “empowered house” generate energy, and what is the definition of the "low-energy house" and "passive house"?

Dr. CLINTON: Our house will be a low energy or “net-zero” house, meaning it will use no more energy than it generates: the overall amount of energy consumed will not exceed what it generates or captures.

This is primarily because we use a very successful technique called “Passive House.”

Passive House technology relies upon very robust insulation and an air-tight building “envelope.” Many houses lose heat through drafts and poor insulation. That is especially problematic with older housing stock, and translates into unnecessary and costly energy expense and CO2 emissions. Passive House was pioneered in Germany in the 1990s, is widely used in northern Europe but until recently was hardly known at all in the US. Only a few hundred houses in this country employ Passive House, yet it can reduce energy use typically by about 85%. Our house will capture energy through photovoltaic cells—solar panels—and will use that energy for purposes OTHER than heating and cooling since so much less will be required for those purposes—unlike a typical house where heating bills are such a large portion of energy consumption.

As I suggested earlier, another groundbreaking aspect of the house is the integration of all design elements and resident behaviors to achieve sustainable living.

LM: Could you please elaborate further on the concept of ‘integration of all design elements and resident behaviors to achieve sustainable living?’

Dr. CLINTON: We approach the house as a system, and conceive of its residents as deeply connected to that system. That is true of any house—if you turn on the water tap, you do so because you are connected to a much larger system than may be apparent from where you stand in your kitchen. When you throw out your trash, again you are functioning in connection to a much larger system. But we don’t often think of our daily behaviors that way. Rather, we see them as isolated actions. The house will prompt residents to remain aware of their connections to the larger system, their reliance on that system, and their impact on it, as well. That is what we mean by integrating design and behaviors: achieving ecological awareness that influences behavior toward greater environmental sustainability.

“General awareness necessary to enhance the feasibility of alternative energy.”

“The competition is above all a student project, with the actual design and engineering performed by the students.”
1) Architecture; 2) Market Viability; 3) Engineering; 4) Lighting Design; 5) Communications; 6) Comfort Zone; 7) Hot Water;
8) Appliances; 9) Home Entertainment; 10) Net Metering

LM: Among the ten criteria, what are the EmPowerhouse project's strengths and challenges?

Dr. CLINTON: As you can see from a slide that lists the 10 criteria judged over ten days—hence, the name “decathlon”—many factors influence the competition.

We hope and expect to do well in all categories. At the same time, we have set ourselves many goals that go well beyond the competition itself—and might even influence future competitions—and we feel this is a major contribution.

LM: What will be the difference between the National Mall and the Deanwood EmPowerhouse in DC in terms of design, capacity, energy efficiency, new lifestyle proposals, adjustments, and environmental features? How will these two EmPowerhouses be merged later on, and who will be living there?

Dr. CLINTON: The two houses will be designed in very much the same way, since they will in time be joined together in Deanwood after the competition. They will be compatible aesthetically, systemically, and in other ways, and two families will live in them. As I stated, Habitat will choose the residents—which is their practice—and in this case that selection will include additional criteria.

LM: Why do you use rooftop gardens instead of traditional gardens?

Prof. CLINTON: In part, to assure that we do not run into any issues with soil toxicity, which can be common in urban settings –there may be no issues with this lot or even the neighborhood, but this is a precaution. But in addition, rooftop gardens are increasingly important for urban design, and we hope to learn some lessons in innovating their integration into the design of the house and its systems.

LM: What is the role of the "Lederer Youth Garden" in this project?

Prof. CLINTON: We are working with the garden—a project that includes the DC Parks and Recreation department—we are also working with other such urban gardening groups in DC—to learn from each other and engage young people in this project.

LM: The project definition states the following: "In the spirit of acting locally but thinking globally, Empowerhouse will set a new standard for affordable and sustainable housing that can be replicated around the world." Could you elaborate on this?

Dr. CLINTON: We believe the concept of a holistic, systems approach to home design that resonates with the community in which a house is sited, and the application of Passive House technology and other design features of our house will provide a very useful model for planners, developers, and community advocates—as well as designers and engineers. Our goal is to engage with all these parties as we go forward in order to advance the state of knowledge and practice that I related these fields of design urban planning, housing and other relevant public policy, so that affordability and sustainability—which, too often, are seen as incompatible—become complementary goals of development for communities in the US and elsewhere.

LM: What are the estimated costs for potential buyers? What is the definition of the "low income family" that will enable them buy a "solar energy empowered" house?

Prof. CLINTON: These are still to be determined working with our various partners.

LM: How will the concept "acting locally but thinking globally" be implemented in terms of climate, geography, and economic factors both in the US and internationally?

Dr. CLINTON: It is premature to discuss this since the international aspect is still some way in the future, but we look forward to this phase of the work, perhaps next year.

LM: The project definition states: "Central to this goal is a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, which operates in more than 100 countries and builds more than of 20,000 homes each year." Does this mean that Habitat for Humanity will be implementing this project in 100 countries?

For now, we are working with Habitat of DC and they hope to convey their learnings to other Habitat organizations.

LM: What is the envisioned timeline of the EmPowerhouse’s availability for the general public in the U.S. and internationally?

Dr. CLINTON: We do not at this time propose to develop additional houses ourselves, but rather to engage with such parties as developers, investors, planners, and NGOs to discuss how the project can be helpful to their efforts to promote affordable-sustainable housing. We would like to do that as soon as possible, and already have begun such discussions.

LM: What is your opinion of the projects at University of Hawaii, China's Tongji University, and the University of Illinois? University of Hawaii’s project seems aesthetically very interesting, but it is essentially a summer house so I wonder if it would be functional in different climates. I would also like to hear your comments on China’s project.

Dr. CLINTON: I am not sufficiently familiar with the other projects to comment on their specific components or strategies. I can say that all these projects contribute importantly to raising the visibility of sustainability and devising technology that advances the general awareness necessary to enhance the feasibility of alternative energy.

LM: Does your project require a specific climate?

Dr. CLINTON: We have designed it for the climate of Washington, DC but this technology has been used in many different climates.

LM: What will be the 1st place award? Are there going to be 2nd and 3rd place winners as well?

Dr. CLINTON: Each of the ten competitions is won separately. I am unsure of what the DOE plans are for judging a possible 2nd and 3rd place winner. In the past, I believe trophies have been presented.

LM: Do you mean that out of 20 teams, 10 will be awarded according to each 10-competition criterion?

Dr. CLINTON: No, each of the 20 teams competes in all ten “contests.” A different contest is conducted each of the ten days. A team could, possibly, win ALL of these ten, as they are judged separately, and by different jurors whose expertise relates to the particular contest.

LM: Could you tell me EmPowerhouse's new interior design features, such as the library, study, home office, and closets. This aspect of the project wasn't clear in the video introduction and power point presentation. Also, what is the average size of each house in terms of number of bedrooms and size of the living room and kitchen?

Dr. CLINTON: I am not sufficiently familiar with the current state of the interior and product design work, which continues to evolve in the later stages of the project.

“With a Passive House design and the internal systems we propose,
that cost can be cut even more dramatically: to about $400 per year.”
john_clinton_passive_house national_mall

LM: You have mentioned “passive house technology.” How do you compare the energy efficiency of the EmPowerhouse with the conventional energy such as natural gas or electricity? And how much will a household save annually, if they are living in the EmPowerhouse versus a conventional house?

Dr. CLINTON: The savings are very substantial compared to conventional energy sources such as natural gas or electricity from the grid (and also much “cleaner” in environmental impact and CO2 emissions). A house in Deanwood typically requires about $2,300 per year in home energy costs; with improvements like solar panels, better insulation, more energy-efficient appliances, that can be reduced significantly to abut $1,050. But with a Passive House design and the internal systems we propose, that cost can be cut even more dramatically: to about $400 per year.

LM: How would you envision daily life in an EmPowerhouse? Do you see it as a model for a healthy life and environment – one that will inspire others to change their way of living?

Dr. CLINTON: That is a fascinating question. I imagine the answer will vary greatly depending upon the residents.

But I would venture to say that residents will find some important sources of satisfaction in knowing that they are “pioneers” in a way: that they are more aware of their impact on the natural environment, of their relationship to their community as part of an urban ecosystem. That some of their food comes from someplace they know, that they are making an effort to use less energy, that they can help their neighbors understand what they are doing, and why.

LM: I imagine there are some key issues that I haven’t addressed. What would you like to add to this interview that will encourage readers to demand that their governments make solar housing more readily available?

Dr. CLINTON: If I can relate one piece of personal experience: I lived for a year “off the grid” in a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains using solar panels, waste composting systems, a gravity-fed water source, and so forth. I mention this in order to say that I learned a great deal about daily living during that year that I could not have learned otherwise. When I tell this story to some of my students, they say, “Oh sure, I was in the Peace Corps—we did the same thing.” I think that is important to remember: much of the world lives “off the grid.” We need to better understand the implications of the great imbalance between life standards and impact in the developing world (or—to a different degree--in lower-income urban communities in the U.S.), and those conditions and impacts we take for granted in more affluent parts of the world.

And that is so with this project: we want to promote “development”--as that term is used in the international context--in a way that exerts much lower environmental impact. In this project, technology plays a vital role. But not the only role: in the end, the outcome depends on whether and how the people who live in this house—and others like it--examine and modify their behaviors, and whether that sends a positive message and example that influences many, many others.

LM: Who can attend the 2011 Solar Decathlon? What are the basic requirements and cost?

Dr. CLINTON: I believe the public displays are open to all at no cost.

LM: That’s great. In that case, I would like to attend.

Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.


A Biography of John CLINTON, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management
Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy

John Clinton (BA, University of Michigan; MA, Northwestern University; PhD, Fordham University) is Associate Professor and program director, Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management, Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy—a graduate school of the New School in New York City. The New School was founded by such figures as John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, and Charles Beard in 1919, and its “University-in-Exile” was home to many leading intellectuals in flight from Germany during the Nazi era, and became the New School for Social Research. Today, it also includes the Parsons School of Design, Eugene Lang College, and the Mannes School of Music.

Clinton has served as corporation senior consultant on social responsibility at MetLife, senior vice president of Lighthouse International—the vision research and service NGO, and as an administrator at New York University, Fordham University, and Hartwick College.

While at The Foundation Center, Clinton led research on the philanthropic response to AIDS and subsequently advised the World Health Organization’s Global Program on AIDS.

His study of international AIDS philanthropy was conducted for Funders Concerned About AIDS on behalf of the Ford Foundation. As a member of the steering committee of the National Interprofessional Education and Training Network, he worked with 200 professional schools to refocus professional education. Clinton was vice chairman of the Contributions Advisory Group, a network of major corporate philanthropic programs.

At The New School, Professor Clinton has led the development of the new Milano program in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management and a new professional certificate in Sustainability Strategies, and has served as acting chair of the Human Resource Management Program. He has served on the university faculty senate, chaired its Academic Policy Committee, and serves on the grant proposal review board of the university Green Fund. He has served as faculty adviser to several student organizations, including Net Impact and the Sustainability Club. Professor Clinton currently teaches Corporate Philanthropy and Social Responsibility, Sustainability Perspectives and Practice, and Sustainable Urban Communities. He is the Milano faculty lead and principal investigator for The New School finalist entry in the Solar Decathlon, an international competition sponsored by the US Department of Energy to design and build a model house that is environmentally, socially, and financially sustainable. His research has focused on interprofessional collaboration for community engagement and on corporate sustainability and social responsibility. He writes a blog for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

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Special Thanks to: Emily Joyce for editing this interview.

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Thank you, B.Ü.

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