This Is How They Did It

While a rotation of work crews cycled through the build site, the communications, fund-raising, and design teams were working feverishly, procuring appliances, drafting shop drawings for custom furniture, producing elaborate videos, and preparing the logistics of the Decathlon itself, now just three months away. Team members worked with College executive chef Bo Cleveland to rehearse the meals they would serve at the two competition dinner parties. (Sample menu: grilled lamb burgers stuffed with goat cheese, golden beets with lemon butter, strawberry soup with chocolate-dipped mint leaves, rhubarb iced tea.) Even after an anonymous gift of $150,000 and the dedication of the 2011 Senior Class Gift, the team still needed to raise more than $100,000 to stay on budget.

By the beginning of July, the solar panels were up and wired, the cellulose insulation pumped into every square inch of wall space.

Two weeks later, the windows and doors arrived from Germany. The installation instructions called for the use of foam—a petroleum-based product that Middlebury had so far taken great pains to avoid—to seal the area around the casing.

“Addison said, ‘We’ve gone for so long, why use foam now?’” Gordon recalled. “Andrea suggested sheep’s wool instead. We went down to Sheep Farm Road that same day.” He packed the seams tightly, using a wooden shim.

Soon, the house had a heating, ventilation, and cooling system and a roof. Maple covered the exposed sheetrock walls. Tile was laid, then flooring. Every day brought a new delivery: cedar siding, hydrothermal tubes, the slate countertop. In late July, the lights in the house flickered on for the first time, and the crew began to work late into the night.

As the summer wore on and the construction work turned technical, the team relied heavily on partnerships with outside specialists. Hilary Cunningham ’13, design coordinator, described working with cabinetmaker Randy Taplin to design and build the home’s bookcases and kitchen fixtures.

Taplin is a master woodsmith, now retired and living in Warren, Vermont. His custom installations are well-known (“He basically made cherry cabinets big in New York City,” Cunningham said), and for five weeks, Cunningham and her three-person crew spent time in Taplin’s workshop, learning the basics of the trade.

For the cabinets, they used slabs of ash—often undervalued because of its two-toned coloring. As they planed and joined, he imparted bits of earned wisdom. “He taught us that the best pieces are the imperfect ones,” Cunningham said.

Taplin and his wife Nancy, an artist, were so smitten with the students, that Nancy agreed to paint and donate two works of art—Without a Sound and Overcast Blue—for the house’s master bedroom.


SD Hands Out SeedsSeptember 28, 2011
Midweek, I ride with Kerz-Murray over to Capitol Hill, where the architecture awards are being announced. “I thought they might eliminate us because we’re a liberal arts school without architecture or engineering,” Kerz-Murray tells me, reflecting on the submission process. “It’s been a very different kind of teaching experience. I quickly realized that the students were going to develop their own syllabus.”

Inside the auditorium, Catalano says he has no idea how Self-Reliance is going to score. Middlebury has one of the most restrained homes in the competition. Its strong container and conventional floor plan stand in sharp contrast to California’s wormlike rhomboid, with no interior walls and a thick vinyl shell.

Appalachian State, Maryland, and New Zealand take the top three spots. The team waits in anxious silence as Baisch approaches the stage after the ceremony and receives a spreadsheet of the full results. He takes a step, pumps his fist, and raises four fingers—the team finished just one point out of third place and has jumped to sixth place in the overall standings.

Before Self-Reliance gets to hear results from the two competitions it’s most eagerly awaiting—communications and market appeal—it must suffer through the ones it would rather not. Engineering, for example. “If they go for the passive idea, then we’ll do pretty well,” says Cunningham, as she leans against the porch rail after a long day of tours. “If they’re looking for active and technological, then maybe not so well.”

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