This Is How They Did It

They stepped outside, careful to avoid the deck’s missing boards. In the twilight, the kitchen windows glowed like an invitation to stop and stay awhile.

“The struggle has been worth it,” Bendheim says, almost to himself. “To have someone walk in here and say ‘I can live here.’”

Catalano strolled over from the farmhouse, where he was editing one of four competition videos due the next day. There had been barely enough time to finish filming before disassembly.

I asked the pair if they thought about winning in Washington.

“Oh yeah,” said Bendheim.

Now we do,” added Catalano.

“Once we built the house, we were like, Holy crap, we might have a chance.”

“At the beginning of the completion it was like, Please, just let this thing stand up.”

“Now it’s like, Wait a second.”


September 30, 2011
Godine decides to forge ahead with the final days of metered contests. “We did the math and knew it was more valuable, points-wise, to run the appliances.” Friday, the final day of competition, breaks excellent and fair. All morning, the eMonitor shows the energy balance marching steadily back toward zero.

In sweltering midafternoon heat, Segil and I walk to the tent for the communications award. “I feel like we’re going to be up on that stage,” she says.

It’s easy to see the criteria that go into the architecture award—the evidence of genius and failure are all around you when you step into a house for the first time. But the Decathlon is as much about selling a house as sketching, framing, and plumbing one, and teams are challenged to tell a story using websites, videos, and personal tours. If there is one thing Middlebury students are supposed to do well, I hear time and again, it’s tell a story. By the end of the week, it feels as if the team has less a desire to win than an obligation.

When it’s time to hand out the communications award, and the emcee announces third and second place, and powerhouse New Zealand isn’t among them, Catalano tells me later, “I thought it was all over.” Instead, the announcer calls Self-Reliance to the stage for the first time all week, and the students storm the stage. Descending from the podium awash in flashbulbs and shouts of congratulations, Catalano says, “I’m just speechless.”

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