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Community energizes solar home design team

MIDDLEBURY — Though Middlebury College’s month-long J-Term has a reputation for being a rather laid-back time of year, the students heading up the college’s Solar Decathlon team have been even busier than usual this January.
Just last week, several students made the trip down to Orlando, Fla., for a Solar Decathlon conference and to attend the International Builders’ Show. And on Tuesday, the team gathered to host a fund-raising event at the Middlebury night spot 51 Main.
The team, made up of scores of students, is engaged in an international competition to design, build and operate a solar-powered house that is cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive. The home they design will be on display next September with homes from 19 other teams — most from large universities — in a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.
“We’re interested in re-imagining the New England farmhouse, which is a long-standing icon of American ingenuity and commitment to family and community,” said Abe Bendheim, a key member of the Solar Decathlon team. “Our home will be family friendly, durable and affordable.”
Earlier this month, the project got a shot in the arm when Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz announced an anonymous donation of $150,000 to the project. 
“Ron Liebowitz came down to congratulate everybody and share the news. He had a huge smile on his face, and was totally psyched,” said fund-raising lead Kris Williams, a student at Middlebury College. “Including pledges, we have $310,000 now. The overall fund-raising goal is $500,000. So we’re cruising. We’re moving, but there’s a long way to go, still.”
Williams explained that the majority of the donations and pledges that the groups has received has come from alumni and trustees, though a number of local professionals have offered their help in the form of material, or in-kind donations or consulting and advice. Local businesses like Connor Homes, r.k. Miles, Bread Loaf Architects and others have offered their support.
“We’ve got a lot to do. We’re so fortunate to have the Middlebury network — it’s really true what we wrote in our original proposal: ‘Small college, big support.’ Over and over and over again, that has proved to be absolutely true,” Williams said. “I think that’s something to really highlight. The project wouldn’t be possible without all these people — hundreds and hundreds of people are coming out and putting their money where their mouth is.”
Williams explained that even though the team hopes to construct the actual house for under $250,000, there are many other costs that will creep up that the team must plan for in advance. 
“There are things like trucking this thing to wherever the competition is. If we end up going down to the National Mall, that’s a $30,000 escapade,” he said.
But as the team found out last week in Orlando, the 2011 Solar Decathlon competition may not take place on the National Mall as it has in years past. Organizers last week announced the potential change in venue.
“The National Park Service did not approve the permits for hosting the event on the National Mall,” Team Manager Melissa Segil said.
According to Segil, all of the teams were disappointed to hear the news.
“As far as all the teams are concerned, the National Mall is the perfect venue for this sort of exchanging of ideas and getting people rally around national issues,” he said. “We’re really hoping to get it overturned. If the competition is further away from D.C. we are going to incur huge costs as far as transporting the house farther away, and another issue is that we’ve been designing this house not only for the Vermont climate, but also to perform well in Washington, D.C., at the competition.”
Segil explained that part of the competition involves maintaining a certain comfort zone within the house, something that relies on both temperatures and sun angles.
“We’ve been planning for D.C. and if it’s elsewhere, we don’t know what that will mean for the house entirely,” Segil said. “We’re optimistic, but we’re not sure. They’re really scrambling to try to figure this out soon.”
Despite the bad news, team members still managed to enjoy themselves at the International Builders’ Show and to make some important contacts, according to junior Astrid Schanz-Garbassi.
“There were over 1,000 home furnishing companies who came to showcase their goods,” she said. “There were window frames, doors — it was actually really incredible.”
The Solar Decathlon competition organizers coordinated this conference for the 20 finalists so that students would have the opportunity to network with the sales people on the floor and start finding products to use within their houses.
 “We made some great connections and exchanged business cards,” Schanz-Garbassi said. “We solicited in-kind donations — it was great.”
Interactive Learning
Now that all of the team members have returned to Vermont, they are focusing on the next phases of the project, including construction, which will begin on the west end of campus in March, and on community outreach.
Communications lead and senior Katie Romanov has devoted her J-Term to drawing up lesson plans for interactive presentations and activities centered on green building. Once the spring semester is under way, Romanov and other members of the Solar Decathlon team will be inviting students and teachers from Addison County schools to stop by their project headquarters on campus, or the team will travel to the schools to lead students in fun, interactive lessons. 
“Community outreach is not a requirement, but it’s something that we strongly believe in and it’s another way that our team stands apart from the others,” Romanov said. 
According to Bendheim, much of the team’s vision for the project derives from the surrounding community. 
“We want to design a home that New Englanders can appreciate and afford,” Bendheim said. 
The name they have given their design has a new take on the traditional New England farmhouse, “Self-Reliance.” Their building plan melds affordability with green technology in a home that does not attempt to dominate its landscape, but rather, grows out of the surrounding geographical features. 
According to Williams, the contest alone is not the only motivation behind the project.
“I think one of the things that we acknowledge as a team is that this entire project is going to be meaningless, totally useless, a complete waste if we don’t share it effectively with other people,” he said. “The project centers on providing a real, sustainable solution that people can adopt and construct themselves. It’s about changing the way that residential infrastructure is constructed in the U.S. and part of that outreach is what we’re doing right now.”
The house, Williams said, has the potential to serve as an example for students and Vermonters alike. 
“This house doesn’t have to be a model for new structures, but it’s an example of how you can renovate a structure to be energy efficient. One of the best ways to retrofit old-stock American housing is by renovating these places, insulating them appropriately and sealing them appropriately,” he said. “You can save a huge amount of energy that way. And we want to prove that you can live in a net-zero house without sacrificing those amenities that most Americans have come to take for granted.”
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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