This Is How They Did It

For months, she had been reading about U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics. She was intrigued by his efforts to break out of the paralyzing effects of partisan politics by aligning the nation’s need for energy policy innovation with a call for dramatic advances in energy-related sciences and in their practical applications. And so she came upon the Solar Decathlon.

The brainchild of Department of Energy veteran Richard King, the first Solar Decathlon was held in 2002 and has occurred biennially since then. The DOE selects 20 collegiate teams from around the world to compete in designing, building, and operating solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. Once built, the houses are displayed in Washington and put through 10 individual contests, each worth 100 points. Juried contests—in such areas as architecture, engineering, and communications—are judged by industry pros on a scale of 0 to 100. Measured contests—such as the house’s ability to control the climate, run kitchen appliances, and generate power—are monitored and quantified daily, under cloudy skies and clear.

It’s not enough to simply build the house, though, because the winners must also prove they can write persuasively, host dinner parties in their house, and code websites that explain and promote their project. And at the end of competition, each house must have produced more energy than it consumed; it must be “net zero.”

And for the 2011 Decathlon, King was introducing an affordability contest. The buildings had to cost $250,000 or less—slightly below the price of an average new home. He gave affordability equal weight to architecture and energy balance to ensure that the teams wouldn’t be tempted to solve engineering problems by throwing money at them.

Jessica Liebowitz was convinced that Middlebury students would have the passion and commitment to acquire the skills they needed to pursue such an opportunity, and she persisted in convincing the initially dubious president that this was something Middlebury students could tackle.

Ron Liebowitz’s initial skepticism was not without merit. Previously, the Solar Decathlon had attracted candidates from the world’s leading architecture and engineering schools and programs; a liberal arts school had never been accepted for the competition. So, for good reason, the first thing Middlebury’s president had to do was set aside any concerns that the Decathlon would automatically exclude a liberal arts school like Middlebury.

“I was absolutely intrigued from the very beginning. I thought it was a great idea, but at the same time I had to think, ‘It is borderline absurd that the judges will consider an entry from a liberal arts school,’” he said, recalling his initial reaction. But then, he thought, following those persistent words of encouragement from his wife, “while we can’t control what the judges do or don’t do, we can control what we do.”

On June 21, he sent out a query to a collection of big thinkers, faculty and staff in environmental studies and physics, at the College: Nan Jenks-Jay, dean of environmental affairs; Rich Wolfson and Noah Graham, physics professors; Stephen Trombulak, professor of environmental studies; Bill McKibben, Schumann Distinguished Scholar; and Jack Byrne, director of sustainability integration. “Why can’t we do this?” he asked.

Wolfson wrote back within hours: “No reason we can’t!” Graham called the idea “fantastic.” “It was a little daunting,” he later told me. “But it reinforces something we say a lot: ‘We give you the basic training, and you can take it in whatever direction.’ That’s our view in the liberal arts. This forced us to ask, ‘How much do we really believe that?’”

Jenks-Jay suggested asking the College’s facilities team for some “sound advice” on construction. As for faculty, Jenks-Jay proposed Andrea Kerz-Murray, a local architect and visiting lecturer in the history of art and architecture department.

At the same time that Jenks-Jay was recommending Kerz-Murray, the architect received an e-mail—about the Solar Decathlon—from one of her students. It was actually the fourth time in three years that someone had asked her about putting together a team for the event. Those earlier requests never went further than Kerz-Murray, but the latest query, from Addison Godine ’11, seemed different.

A restless overachiever from Boston, Godine already had a reputation as an inquirer, a tinkerer, an entrepreneur. As a sophomore, he cofounded the Green Engineers club, which reconfigured a stationary bike to produce hydrogen (how else are you going to fuel your hydrogen-powered tractor?) and invented “the Goose,” a simple, low-cost wind turbine.

Kerz-Murray was intrigued and floated the proposal by her colleagues.

While she and others in her department were first beginning to entertain Godine’s idea, a dinner invitation from President Liebowitz appeared in her inbox: Would she come to 3 South Street and join a discussion about getting involved in the Decathlon? “I thought to myself, ‘Oh, expletive,’” Kerz-Murray said. “What have I gotten myself into?”


September 15, 2011
The house, named Self-Reliance, leaves campus for the nation’s capital in eight pieces. There are other ways to transport a 22-foot-wide load 483 miles, but they require police escorts and a permit to shut down the freeway, and who has time for that kind of paperwork?

The roof breaks apart into six triangles, like sandwiches cut the clever way; a crane operator with an easy touch loads them onto flatbed trailers. Furnishings—from the dryer to the kitchen table—parade out the front door and into the back of a Ryder truck. The floor splits cleanly down the middle so that the living room parts ways with the kitchen for several days. Shrink-wrapped in bright blue vinyl and ratcheted down with heavy belts, each module looks like it might contain some large, dangerous animal on its way to a zoo.

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