Team Middlebury takes 8th place in Solar Decathlon

MIDDLEBURY — The team of around 100 Middlebury College students who toiled for two years to conceive and construct a super-efficient, solar-powered home recently wrapped up an international design competition by earning a prominent finish vs. 20 teams — most from schools that are bigger and with more engineering-focused curricula.
Team Middlebury finished eighth at the U.S. Department of Energy’s sixth biennial Solar Decathlon; winners were announced Oct. 11 at a ceremony in Irvine, Calif.
The Solar Decathlon is a competition where teams from colleges and universities design and build solar-powered homes, emphasizing affordability, energy efficiency and aesthetic appeal. Houses are judged in 10 categories. Of these categories, Middlebury’s house, called “InSite,” finished third in affordability, communications and home entertainment.
The 956-square-foot InSite  includes a green roof, solar panels, a steel infrastructure and a mechanical chimney. The walls are 14 inches thick and are insulated with densely packed cellulose.
“This has been an amazing journey and an experience that I think everyone on the team will remember for the rest of their lives,” Middlebury student Gwen Cook, project manager and outreach coordinator, said in a post on the Team Middlebury website.
Preparation for the decathlon began in 2011, when the team presented a proposal to the college. The 20 participating teams raised money for their projects, designed the structures, planned marketing and production of their houses, then built prototypes.
Early this fall, teams came to California from all over the world — including a team from Alberta, Canada, a squad from Austria, and one from Norwich University in Northfield. Many teams came from schools with a heavy focus on engineering — like Cal Tech and the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Middlebury stood out as a small, liberal arts institution — the school doesn’t even have an architecture or engineering program.
More than 100 Middlebury students in 25 academic disciplines took part in the project. Some 70 students traveled to Irvine, taking turns displaying and explaining the house during one-week shifts.
This was the second time Middlebury competed at the Solar Decathlon. In 2011, the team came in fourth place, and took top marks in three of the categories. Despite finishing in eighth this time around, the team’s final score of 920 points (out of 1,000) in 2013 was higher than in 2011. The difference, faculty adviser Andrea Murray said, was stiffer competition from around the world.
“Houses are getting more interesting, and the competition is greater as teams learn from previous decathlons,” Murray said.
Murray also attributed higher scores to a change in venue — sunny California allowed teams’ solar output to be much greater. Previous competitions were held in Washington, D.C.
Murray and fellow faculty adviser Ashar Nelson, who are both principals at Vermont Integrated Architecture, tried to limit their role as much as possible.
“I like to say we are the guardrails on the road rather than the driver,” Murray said.
As opposed to other schools, where students were realizing the vision of a faculty member, Murray said Team Middlebury was an entirely student-led initiative.
“We didn’t dictate how they approached the design, architecture or construction,” Murray said.
While minimizing their role in the project, the advisers said watching these students tackle problems that at first seemed insurmountable was a tremendous experience.
“We’re very proud,” Nelson said. “This process is occurring as these students are making the transition from teen to adult, and this project has helped that happen.”
Praise wasn’t limited to the faculty involved.
“What an incredible accomplishment all of you have achieved over the past two years,” college President Ron Liebowitz said. “Capping it off with a superb showing in Irvine.”
For the competition, the solar house was shipped by train to Los Angeles, where it was then transported by truck to Irvine.
The house is being deconstructed and shipped back to Vermont, where it will be permanently installed on Shannon Street in Middlebury, and used as a student residence. The house from the 2011 competition was reconstructed on Porter Field Road.
Cook wrote that other students who compete in future Solar Decathlons will face many challenges and late nights working on their house, just like the current Team Middlebury has. But she said the effort would be worth it.
“Not only will you have had many amazing experiences and the satisfaction of building something real and tangible, but you will also be inspiring thousands of people to think differently about the way in which they live their lives,” she wrote.
See more about Team Middlebury’s InSite project online at http://sd13.middlebury.edu.

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