Giant Step, Small Footprint

Cheers of support—and maybe even some of surprise—could be heard around the campus earlier this month when the College received the official word that Team Middlebury has been selected against the odds to compete in the Solar Decathlon 2011.

Sponsored by the United States Department of Energy, the Solar Decathlon challenges 20 teams of committed and ambitious college and university students to design, build, and operate the most affordable, attractive, and energy-efficient solar-powered house. The competition takes place on the National Mall of Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2011, where the finished homes are built and displayed for judging.

Middlebury is a true underdog in this race, going up against larger colleges and universities, many with professional programs and schools in architecture and engineering. The 2011 competition is the first that Middlebury has entered, and its team is from one of the few liberal arts colleges ever to compete.

More than 50 Middlebury students pitched in to develop the proposal, and the team’s Web site features a core group of members whose majors range from architecture studies and environmental studies to art history, music, and film and media culture.

This diverse group is led by junior architecture studies major Addison Godine. When he and his teammates showcased their plan at the College’s recent student symposium, an unshaven Godine looked comfortably pleased in his rumpled brown blazer and horrendously bright orange trucker’s cap. He claimed not to have slept a full night in quite some time, but once he began talking about the project, his uncontained enthusiasm belied any fatigue.

“Our biggest issue with the 2009 competitors was that they had designed solar-powered houses that were highly technological but just didn’t seem like the kind of place a family wants to live,” said Godine. “We’ve designed a house for the Vermont climate that combines the best aspects of a traditional New England farmhouse with the demanding sustainability criteria of the competition.”

Godine also pointed out that because “a very expensive house is not a sustainable solution,” the DOE has made affordability part of the competition this year, and that will be an important feature of the Middlebury project.

“Design by committee is never an easy thing,” added architecture and environmental studies major and fellow teammate Abe Bendheim. “But we’ve all worked together on this. It’s a great example of collaboration between students, faculty and the administration, as well as community professionals.”

The Solar Decathlon was established in 2002, with subsequent competitions in 2005, 2007, and 2009. True to its name, the event consists of 10 contests designed to gauge the environmental performance and livability of each team’s submission. The contests cover everything from architecture, market appeal, and engineering to comfort level, appliances, and home entertainment. One of the key criteria for the winning team is that each home produces as much or more energy than it consumes.

Team Middlebury plans to begin building their virtual and physical models next fall, with construction of the actual home the following spring. In October 2011, they will transport their creation to Washington, D.C., and then in November return it to Vermont to set up permanent residence. MiddMag will be following their progress over the next 18 months, so stay tuned.

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