Middlebury College students design, build solar home for national competition

MIDDLBURY — On Saturday afternoon in a lot adjacent to the Middlebury College Recycling Center, recent Middlebury graduate Cordelia Newbury led a group of students and townspeople into the poshly decorated central living space of a brand new, solar-powered house.

First, she pointed out the exposed steel frame that ran the length of the floor, wall and ceiling, which she called the house’s “rib cage.” On top of this rested the “skin” — reclaimed wood siding from a local, 150-year-old barn.

Then, without missing a beat, Newbury moved on to the wood floors made from maple trees harvested from a forest in on Middlebury’s Breadloaf campus this past spring, the living room chairs fashioned with recycled seat belts, the window sills set into the thick walls to create passive ventilation, and the centralized area for electricity-sucking appliances.

This 956-square-foot house, dubbed “InSite,” is Middlebury College’s latest entry into the biennial U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition, which challenges students at 20 colleges and universities to build affordable, attractive, energy-efficient houses that maximize efficiency and energy production.

The Middlebury team unveiled InSite to the public for the first time this past weekend. In 2011, Middlebury’s Solar Decathlon team placed 4th overall with its “Self-Reliance” house (now a student residence sited off South Main Street) in the highly selective contest. This year, Newbury and her teammates will compete once more against 19 universities from around the world in Irvine, Calif., where they will ship and reassemble the house for exhibition from Oct. 3-13. InSite will be judged in 10 different categories from design to market appeal to energy production, in addition to a category judged overall best house.

Jack Kerby-Miller, a rising senior majoring in environmental chemistry and one of the InSite project managers, savored the moment before turning to the next steps of the project.

“You tend to get your head down in it when you are working (and) dealing with daily tasks,” he said. “But having a little bit of time to have people come through and see it, you get to take a step back and be like ‘This is where we are, this is what it looks like,’ and it looks so much better than anyone had imagined.”

The process started in January of 2012 when the Solar Decathlon organizers accepted the team’s project proposal, an accomplishment in itself. The rest of 2012 was spent designing and raising funds for the $1.4 million budget. They started building the house in January of this year.

“We wanted to address a problem from the very beginning,” said Kerby-Miller, continuing to explain they settled on the issues of sprawl and disconnectedness in communities. The plan that emerged from hours of brainstorming was a house meant to fit sustainably into the community around it both physically and socially. They are billing it as “a house for local living.”

The two-bedroom home is designed to sit on a small, unused lot to create urban density, even in a relatively small town like Middlebury. In addition, the team took the solar panels that power the house’s appliances, heating and air conditioning system off of the roof to create a shaded “solar path” embellished with flower boxes. They hope this walkway will enhance awareness of solar energy in the community as well as provide a comfortable space for the neighborhood. The house will be permanently rebuilt on Shannon Street near the college after the competition.

While a core of 15 or so students have headed the project, more than 100 students from 25 academic disciplines have been involved in some aspect of the project from social media, to fundraising, to the construction itself.

Organizing this many people was no easy task for Newbury, the team manager. But, amidst a nationwide discussion on the relevancy of the liberal arts, she stands by the ability of a Middlebury education to prepare students for this sort of a hands-on work.

“We are liberal arts students with no pre-professional experience, but we think that our ability to think critically, to jump into new situations, and to look at things from a different perspective is our strength,” she said. Middlebury is the only individual liberal arts college in the competition, the rest are mostly large universities with engineering or architecture schools.

Still, even with mentorship from local design and construction professionals, the past six months of construction have not been without mishaps. Over spring break, the team barely made their deadline to complete the paneled frame of the house after encountering unexpected problems like poorly fitting parts.

Newbury says another moment of truth occurred three weeks ago when none of the walls had siding, the air conditioning was not set up, and the flooring and furniture had yet to be installed. The team had to work 60 to 70 hour weeks to finish it by the Aug. 3 unveiling, which was exhausting for all involved.

“But when it gets to the moment where you have to get into action you realize you have so many people around you supporting you, this isn’t just about you or your team, it’s about a much bigger project,” said Newbury.

“We’ve created the groundwork for people to take (InSite’s innovation with solar energy) and implement it in their own lives,” she continued. “And that’s really the purpose of the decathlon — to get people excited about these things.”

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