This Is How They Did It

Reassembly at the Decathlon site begins just before midnight on a Tuesday. The late hour adds to the urgency of the task ahead. Klieg lights illuminate the National Mall’s West Potomac Park like a crime scene. A convoy of semis snarls traffic along the river. In all the chaos—the swirling hazard lights, the blaze-orange vests, the shrill alarm of heavy machinery, the sight of men running in work boots—leveling the house’s steel-girder foundation feels like a Marine operation.

A few days later, and just five days before competition begins, half the roof is missing. Self-Reliance’s eastern gables are still sitting under a rain-soaked tarp in a Middlebury parking lot, and the master bedroom has an impressive—and unintentional—skylight where its ceiling should be.

The assembly crew are clambering up ladders and sitting atop walls, trying to secure a makeshift awning. The wind is blowing something awful, and they might as well be flying a kite.

Alex Jopek ’11, construction lead and logistics guru, is on his nth terse phone call with a trucking company. The wayward roof modules contain the better part of the home’s mechanical guts—expensive, carefully wired gadgets. They should be in place already—no, they should have been in place yesterday.

A 120-ton crane with a $2,500 per diem idles onsite, chugging diesel, nothing to lift. Before long, the leaden sky begins to spit drizzle.

Ben Brown ’11, an EMT and the team’s safety officer, takes one look at my Cole Haan ankle boots and bicycle helmet and tells me to come back with steel-toes and a hard hat. Officials will suspend work at the entire site for any violation of a Decathlon rule, and—this being the Fed—there are literally hundreds. Brown’s job is to quote them like scripture. (From rule 3-3(c): “The bottoms of the pant legs shall, at a minimum, touch the top of the boots when standing.”) With forklifts zipping in all directions and ladders propped against every roof, splinters aren’t the worst that can happen.

I take a walk around the village with Jesse Catalano ’11, one of Middlebury’s guiding voices and a graphic design demon. He talks architecture with quiet confidence. After months of studying the other teams’ blueprints online, he’s seeing them take shape for the first time.

The skeleton of Belgium’s two-story cube looks like an Erector Set creation. China has fused three glossy black shipping containers into a Y, lending their house a punkish, industrial look. Canada’s roof is bulging eggshell. New Zealand’s sports a pair of canted wings and looks like it might take flight at any moment. Less so New Jersey’s, a brutalist slab of concrete, which looks like it might crush the slender stanchions holding it aloft and flatten everyone inside. Purdue’s home is nearly complete. Massachusetts’s is still a patch of grass.


Summer 2009
With the College showing serious interest in entering the competition, Addison Godine spent July and August courting teammates. He first turned to Joe Baisch ’11 and Alex Jopek ’11, two friends from an introductory course in architectural design, asking if they would serve as lead architect and lead builder, respectively. Next he approached his fellow cofounder of the Green Engineers, Chester Curme ’11, who signed on to help with the mechanicals.

In late August, just before the start of classes, Kerz-Murray and her colleagues returned to 3 South Street, this time with Godine, Baisch, and Jopek for an extended lunch meeting. The group discussed fund-raising, a workspace, and curricular integration. “A project like this has a lot of moving parts,” Noah Graham, the physics professor, said. “That was the strength of a small school. We could have a meeting with the president, with the deans, with all the people who could make things happen.”

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