College fourth in national solar contest

MIDDLEBURY — Members of the Middlebury College Solar Decathlon team spent two years designing, constructing and presenting their 1,000-square-foot, solar-powered, super energy efficient house in preparation for the U.S. Department of Energy’s international competition.
The students who participated on the team, and the faculty and local experts who added their energy and expertise, can count the contest, which wrapped up last Friday, a success. Middlebury’s entry won first place in three of the 10 contests — communications, home entertainment and market appeal — and fourth place overall.
Among the 20 teams, Middlebury was the only liberal arts school.
“Pretty good for a liberal arts college without professional programs in architecture or engineering,” said Andrea Murray, a local architect who has been involved with the project since its inception. “We surprised everyone with a sweet little house that was thoughtfully designed and constructed.”
The goal of the competition was to build houses that don’t use any more electricity than they produce (called “net zero”), while still being attractive, affordable and entirely solar-powered. Teams built their houses, then moved them to Washington, D.C., where they were on display on the National Mall for two weeks.
The Middlebury College entry is called Self-Reliance, after Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay that encourages people to challenge the status quo.
“Our students have done this themselves every step of the way. They have challenged everything from the way a family feeds itself to typical construction methodologies,” Murray said. “Self-Reliance features local, natural materials, a well-insulated building envelope, and a greenhouse wall in the kitchen where a family may grow its own herbs and vegetables year round.”
The students were justifiably proud of their accomplishments.
“We’re the first liberal arts team to make it into the finals on our own,” said Katie Romanov.
Self-Reliance was up against some of the largest engineering schools in the country, like Purdue University, and international competition from New Zealand and China.
“Coming from a liberal arts background let us think across disciplines,” said Addison Godine, an architecture major at Middlebury. “We designed around people, not just efficiency. You can build a very efficient house that isn’t appealing to live in. We took a very human approach to the design.”
Godine received the Best Decathlete Award from the DOE, for his participation in the measured contests and his “embodiment of the innovative spirit of the competition.”
“We’re very happy with the results,” he said. “We could have done better in the energy balance category, but even there, we were only an hour and a half away from net zero.”
Godine also speculated on improvements to their building and moving process.
“We could have used fewer petroleum products in the construction, and found a more sustainable way to transport the house than by truck.”
The Middlebury team will truck their house back to town next week, and will set it down off Porter Field Road, where t will be used as student housing and as an educational resource.
Back in Middlebury, where geothermal boreholes have been drilled on a grassy berm between Porter Field Road and Chipman Park, there has been some disagreement over Self-Reliance’s final location. In a meeting of the Development Review Board last summer, several residents of Chipman Park have opposed putting building near the berm. For its part, the college claims that Self-Reliance will maintain the 100-foot setback required in its town-approved master plan, and that landscaping and plantings will fully screen it from Chipman Park.  
“When the college came out with its master plan, there was nothing more specific than maintaining buffers and green spaces,” said Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington. “Good buffers make good neighbors, to borrow a phrase from Frost, and it will be better for the college to engage the neighbors that than subject them to the building.”
John Barstow, former Planning Commission chair, has his reservations about the siting of the house.
“Planting is a poor substitute for planning,” he said.
Dunnington maintains that this process is an organized conversation between the college and the public, and has nothing to do with the solar components of the house. In fact, Middlebury’s zoning encourages private solar installations by exempting them from regulation.
“This is basically to keep the question open on how much flexibility there is vis-à-vis the master plan,” he said.
When the house does return, in two floor pieces and six roof pieces, it will be reassembled as student housing and as an environmental outreach center. Self-Reliance isn’t a large structure — only 996 square feet — but it includes an indoor greenhouse space, shower, and full kitchen. Its design is a distillation of a New England farmhouse, with a gable roof and a spacious porch.
“We look forward to opening up the house to the public in the weeks ahead,” local architect and college faculty Ashar Nelson said. “There are so many cost-effective and energy-saving strategies in Self-Reliance that we could all apply to our homes. It will be great to share that with our community.”
Romanov agrees.
“It was incredible sharing our home with over 15,000 visitors on the National Mall,” she said. “Now it’s time to bring the house home, where it will continue to be an educational tool that demonstrates the livability and affordability of solar-powered homes.”

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