In 1907, my great grandfather William Abner Wilson, a Houston developer, broke ground on a master planned community named Woodland Heights located just a few miles from downtown Houston. His development plan included modern infrastructure and technologies such as underground utilities that would change the way communities would be developed for the next century. The community even included its own streetcar (trolley rail) connecting Woodland Heights to downtown Houston. The community covenants were very restrictive, defining the size and specifications for the homes.
Unfortunately, he overstepped the boundaries of a visionary developer by placing restrictive covenants that not only influenced how people would live, but also who could live in Woodland Heights: only whites; he excluded blacks and other ethnic groups. It was a time of prevalent racial segregation throughout Texas.
In 1908, black families began to move to an area two miles from Woodland Heights. They appropriately named the community Independence Heights. In 1915 the community incorporated, making history as the first African American municipality in the state. The citizens of Independence Heights voted in 1929 to dissolve their city in order to become a part of Houston in hopes of receiving more services such as paved roads and better plumbing.
The result was a divided Houston, two neighborhoods separated by only two physical miles in distance, but which were worlds apart. There was the white community with its modern infrastructure (people that “have”) and the black community without it (people that “have-not”). These communities remained divided for the next century by unequal infrastructure and services.
The Next 100 Years
The economic crisis of 2008 has been described as the worst since the Great Depression. It certainly took its toll on my family, friends, and partners. The pain of this economic crisis highlighted the tremendous challenges facing people around the world. It forced us to reevaluate and question almost everything around us, including “what’s next and what is really important?” We needed to reinvent and so we created HOUZE (the "ZE" stands for zero energy) Advanced Building Science, Inc. The vision was to revolutionize the way homes and communities are built and powered to impact lives. Our strategy was to select a community that had a rich history but was ripe for change.
Almost 100 years after Houston’s Independence Heights first made history, HOUZE selected it as the pilot community to create a prototype affordable “zero-energy community.” Houston Mayor Parker, in partnership with HOUZE, unveiled the zero-energy initiative in late 2012. Prior to the launch of this program, Independence Heights had been neglected for over 50 years. HOUZE collaborated and communicated with elected officials, community leaders, teachers, students, residents, and religious leaders to shape the program and earn their support. Today, Independence Heights is an historic community of approximately 5,000 households. Having been neglected for decades, the residents were understandably suspicious of outsiders and fearful of change.
The HOUZE Zero Energy Initiative is radical. We are asking the current residents of Independence Heights to embrace a new concept that will have a direct impact on their homes, their finances, and their community. It will require a level of trust and transparency. These residents are spending a larger percentage of their income on energy than their neighbors in affluent communities (due to lack of energy efficiency, awareness, and the price of their electricity).
The Independence Heights initiative is an energy, building science, and revitalization case study and prototype that is being studied by industries, global leading companies, scientists, universities, special interest groups, charities, and other cities. The community features five net-positive energy homes/labs that each produce almost three times the electricity that they use.
The schools within Independence Heights (elementary, middle, high school, and STEM) created their own “Zero Energy Week” to expand the program. The HOUZE initiative has earned major media coverage including a major news feature on Bloomberg TV spotlighting HOUZE as the company on the “Brink” of commercializing zero-energy homes and communities.
eLAB Accelerator & Electricity Innovation
RMI selected the HOUZE Independence Heights Zero Energy Initiative as one of 13 high-impact projects from across America to participate in eLab Accelerator. With the support of expert faculty and the other collaborative teams, we identified better pathways that will allow HOUZE to more effectively engage community stakeholders and expand net-zero home adoption to additional residents in Independence Heights and communities across the United States by:
- Building a shared perspective of what success looks like for different stakeholders involved in the community redevelopment project
- Understanding whose “buy-in” will be critical to success, and at what stages in the project their buy-in will be necessary
- Exploring and weighing the options available for building net-zero communities (technical and non-technical)
- Monitoring and controls strategies
- Ownership and operation
- Energy generation and storage capabilities
- Navigating through regulatory challenges
- Defining the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats inherent in this project
- Considering the optimal scale for net zero (e.g., building level or community level), and how this affects other aspects of the neighborhood, such as generation technologies, financing, operations and management, and personal home economics
This year HOUZE entered into a partnership agreement with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to establish a long-term research and development program that will result in a Zero Energy Zone for Independence Heights. As a part of the program, the Independence Heights Zero Energy Zone will be monitored by HOUZE Labs located in the NREL Environmental Systems Integration Facility in Golden, Colorado.
As part of the Zero Energy Zone, HOUZE has partnered with global leading companies to create a smart "nano grid” that will power an entire block in Independence Heights. The nano grid project in Houston will be used as a living lab for testing, measuring and demonstrating new technologies that will help contribute to energy independence and security. The project will integrate numerous disruptive technologies in a way that:
- Potentially rewires the electrical grid
- Provides grid independence and energy security
- Creates a new financial model for electricity
- Challenges electricity regulation
- Establishes an innovation hub within an underserved affordable neighborhood
- Provides an educational platform for students
- Becomes an economic stimulus for the community
- Becomes a new energy model for communities across America and the world
In addition, HOUZE is partnering with other builders to build 30 additional homes built to the DOE Zero Energy Ready standards that serve as test homes and living labs. These homes will provide valuable data and insights to the challenges and opportunities of advanced building science, design, and technologies.
A New Revolution
Historic Independence Heights is the birthplace and home of a new revolution that could inspire a zero-energy movement across America. The Independence Heights Zero Energy Initiative has attracted visitors from around the globe to the “world’s energy capital—Houston” by being disruptive and innovative. These visitors fly to Houston, stay in hotel rooms, dine, entertain, and then share their findings within their network.
Today, the lifestyle gap remains wide between Woodland Heights and Independence Heights. However, there is an evolution of change in the works. The City of Houston and Mayor Parker are shining a spotlight on Independence Heights. This Easter, the city had plumbers fixing long overlooked infrastructure leaks under the street. AT&T has brought much needed broadband and home security to the community. Chevron, Chase, Microsoft, and The Gates Foundation have invested in the community. The Independence Heights community has hit the radar screen of global leading companies like Bosch, Siemens, BASF, and more.
And last month, my family moved two miles into a wonderful small zero-energy bungalow with a friendly front porch in a community rich in history and hope: Independence Heights.
“It always seems impossible
until it's done.”
David Goswick is co-founder and CEO of HOUZE Advanced Building Science and an Independence Heights resident. He is the great grandson of William Wilson, developer of Historic Woodland Heights, and the co-team leader of the Independence Heights Zero Energy Initiative. HOUZE is a registered trademark of HOUZE Advanced Building Science, Inc.
Image courtesy of David Goswick.