Students gear up for Solar Decathlon

MIDDLEBURY — Last week, the Harris Farmhouse on the Middlebury College campus was strewn with papers and wooden models, and blueprints were tacked to various walls. In the main room, five Middlebury students threw around ideas for the solar-powered house that they will spend the next 14 months planning and building.
The students — Aaron Kelly, Wyatt Komarin, Joe Baisch, Kris Williams and Addison Godine — are about one-tenth of the school’s Solar Decathlon team. The team, working with local businesses and experts, are engaged in an international competition to design, build and operate a solar-powered house that is cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive.
In September of 2011, the Middlebury team, like the other 19 teams in the final round of the U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored competition will pack up their house, bring it to Washington, D.C., and set it up on the National Mall for one month.
That’s when each team will see how its final product stacks up against the others. The houses will be judged in 10 categories, including design, market appeal, energy production and use, and home entertainment. Teams will be awarded points for throwing two dinner parties for their neighbors over the course of the month.
The five Middlebury teammates gathered at their headquarters last week cheerfully admitted that, on paper, they are facing an intimidating match up. Middlebury is the only exclusively undergraduate liberal arts college in the competition — the other entrants are universities with accredited architecture or engineering programs, including four international universities, from New Zealand, Canada, Belgium and China.
But they’ve already earned a spot in the finals, out of the 45 teams that applied, and believe they are up to the task. Still, they have a lot to learn about engineering software and 3D modeling, which some of the participants from other teams have been working with for years. But the local team is already taking leaps and bounds, learning new skills and computer programs wherever necessary, and it got $100,000 from the DOE allots for consultants, travel and labor costs.
And the Middlebury teammates view their broad range of skills as a strength — among the larger 50-member team they boast 18 different majors. They said their approach is multidisciplinary, but the experts they’ve worked with so far — including their faculty advisor Andrea Murray, a visiting lecturer at the college and an architect at Bread Loaf Architects, Planners, Builders in Middlebury — have helped them get the technical angle they need as well.
“We’ve had a lot of support so far,” said Baisch, who is an architecture and environmental studies major who will graduate next May. “I think we can be pretty successful down there.”
Godine, the project’s student leader, said the concept for Middlebury’s house grew out of a trip to Washington, D.C., that he and several other students took last fall to see the houses from the last round.
“We didn’t like the very high-tech houses that didn’t really feel like places you’d want to live,” said Godine.
So after a four-hour brainstorming session in which the initial group invited input from students, teachers and industry professionals, the Solar Decathlon team came up with a plan for what they have termed the “New Vermont Farmhouse,” which they hope will combine the familiar, comfortable elements of a classic New England farmhouse with the technology of a solar house.
The design hearkens back to a time when building was done almost exclusively with local materials out of necessity.
“There’s low embodied energy (the energy that goes into producing materials and building the house) because you basically had to when you were building these farmhouses. There wasn’t mass-transportation,” said Godine.
In keeping with these traditions, the team plans to use local materials, including wood and slate, for the majority of their building — though they admitted that transporting the house to Washington and, later, back to its final home in Vermont, will add to its carbon footprint.
The house will have a standing seam roof with mounted solar panels, a monitor on top of the roof to allow for additional light and ventilation, and a south-facing greenhouse as part of the kitchen. It will have an open living space and two bedrooms — all this within strict space constraints.
“We’re hoping to make it feel spacious, even though it’s only 1,000 square feet,” said Baisch.
There were other reasons for choosing the farmhouse style.
“Looking at New England farmhouses really inspires a sense of nostalgia for people. Which is really appealing … but also marketable,” said Godine.
Marketing and communications will be an important area of focus as the team goes forward. Designing and building the house is just one aspect of the project, albeit a complicated one. Each team must also design a website for the project — the deadline for that stage is this coming Aug. 17 — and they must plan tours and materials to educate the public about how their house functions when the exhibit is opened up to the public on the Mall in Washington. The house also will be judged on market appeal: the livability of the house, its curb appeal and the ease and cost of the house’s construction.
And the team will be working double-time on fund-raising. The funds that they are awarded by the Department of Energy only fund labor, consulting, education and travel, meaning that the students must raise all of the money to pay for materials.
In the coming months, the students will be talking to local businesses about materials and funding — both locally and through college alumni networks — to pull together the money to pay for the materials. Then, in the spring of 2011, they will begin assembling the pieces.
And though it will be a long road for the team, they are looking forward to the opportunity to learn and teach the public about solar technology, and to the process of seeing the house through from beginning to end.
“One of the most important things for this project is showing people that solar technology doesn’t have to be a huge hassle, and doesn’t have to ruin the aesthetic of your house,” said Godine. “Proliferating the technology is really important to justify doing it all.”
You can follow the team’s progress on their blog at
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]

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