This Is How They Did It
Persnickety electronics aside, spirits are high. The jury tours go just as rehearsed. The architects seem taken with the materiality of the home. When an engineer asks Chester Curme about a piece of hardware, he rattles off the exact model number, “PEADA36AA,” without blinking. And as a market-appeal judge passes Catalano on her way out the door, she whispers, “Nailed it.”
The Decathlon is designed for high drama. Five of the contests are announced one afternoon, in drawn-out ceremonies that generate considerably more screaming than the Oscars. The public leader board is impossible to ignore. A spreadsheet of data is refreshed every 15 minutes, so teams can watch their positions rise or fall by thousandths of points. And the contest tasks are relentless—every evening there is a load of towels to be dried, a pot of water to be boiled, or a movie to be screened.
In the moment, it’s easy to forget that one evening of a broken heat pump might cost the team 3.75 points out of 1,000. Even so, Middlebury gets off to an inauspicious start. When the affordability contest results are announced, the team is dismayed to find that the professional cost estimators have priced their home at $314,000—well over their own estimates and the Decathlon’s $250,000 target. Expensive structural steel, which allowed Self-Reliance to be modular, added to the build cost.
The penalty is minimal, less than seven points, but the decision stings. From the outset, the goal was to design a home that a typical Vermont family could afford, to show that cost needn’t inhibit sustainability. The team drops to seventh in the standings, and heads back to the hotel in a sour mood.
Construction on Self-Reliance began over spring break, and the crew of 10 who forwent warmer climes in order to pound nails in the parking lot behind the recycling center got in a full four days of work before a snowstorm brought building to a halt.
By graduation, though, the walls had been raised and the roof trusses were waiting to be craned into place. Many of the graduating seniors walked on Sunday and by early Tuesday were back on the job site. Exams had set the team back several weeks, and Jopek knew he’d need every minute of daylight between then and August to get the house assembled.
“The College had faith that even if we didn’t do it perfectly, we’d try to do it right,” he said. “And if we didn’t do it right, we’d learn from our mistakes.”
Earlier in the winter, following the “Great Revision,” Godine had stepped aside as team manager, but continued to work full time on design and construction. Meanwhile, the team looked to Segil—a meticulous organizer who brought a quiet strength to the most frenzied meetings—to step up as team leader.
With the leadership role vacant, “there were these loose ends flying all over the place,” she said later. “I was just scared that there were all of these things that weren’t happening. I just sort of raised my hand.”
Others gave lie to her modesty. “We needed her, far more than she’ll ever admit,” one student told me.