This Is How They Did It

The group knew that institutional support was key. Sustainability director Jack Byrne recalled comparing notes on the project with a colleague at another small school. “She looked at me and said, ‘You know, the difference between your institution and mine is, you’re in a culture of yes.’ ”

In a critical show of support, President Liebowitz earmarked several thousand dollars in presidential discretionary funds for the fall semester. And to help the project achieve escape velocity, he would include the Decathlon in his convocation speech to more than 600 first-year students. To the president, the Solar Decathlon demonstrated what he had been talking about since his inauguration.

“This is a perfect example of an institution building upon its academic excellence, by offering an opportunity for students to apply what they are learning outside the traditional classroom,” he would later say. “These opportunities then complement—not compete with—our classroom curriculum. The Solar Decathlon shows that thinking in real terms.”

Meanwhile, the College’s facilities team resurrected from mothballs the old Homer Harris Farmhouse just west of campus on Rte. 125 and turned it over to the Decathlon team for office space. (It was the beginning of a long and profound commitment from the Middlebury staff to support the project.) Every Friday throughout the fall, Godine and the team gathered there, over pastries and laptops, to assign research topics and wade through thick dossiers of DOE requirements.

The design process took off in earnest after a Saturday morning charette—a kind of architects’ punch-up session—in early October. An open invitation went out to faculty, parents, professionals, and the merely curious. “Come one, come all,” said Godine. “That was a decision early on.”

Jim Cutler, the College’s 2009 Cameron Visiting Architect and a celebrated mind, suggested parsing concept and execution. Conceptually, “a treelike home” took hold: trees are rich with living systems, active and passive; they provide shelter and habitat; they’re rooted in communities, seasonally adaptive, self-sustaining; wood is their bone and sinew, water their blood. Think “arbortecture.”

The charette emphasized Yankee ingenuity, common sense, and do-it-yourself simplicity. Put closets against the north wall, so you’re not wasting energy to keep sweaters warm; keep window shades manual; use reclaimed wood from old barns. Questions begat questions. How do you insulate a home without petroleum-based foam? Would hay, blue jeans, or even garbage work? Could you farm algae on the walls? Capture methane from compost?

The conversation lasted five hours.


September 17, 2011
By morning, things are looking up. The storm over Washington blows itself out overnight, and the sky cracks open into a shield of blue. The missing roof modules arrive, and the water damage appears to be minimal.

Aaron Kelly ’13, Middlebury’s electrical lead, watches as the first of 30 matte black solar panels is hoisted into place. Once they’re up and plugged in, the house can start banking precious kilowatt-hours for competition. “They look pretty darn good,” he says.

Kelly is a slight, soft-spoken Texan with a studious mien and scary recall. In his junior year of high school, he rewired his Prius to run fully electric, with a 15-mile range—perfect for getting around town. As a senior, he became a certified photovoltaic installer and put a solar array on his parents’ home. “I climbed my way up the learning curve.”

Designing Self-Reliance’s electricals was somewhat more daunting. “I spent a lot of time reading the national electric code, as tough and tiring as that is.” Dean Ouellette, a College electrician and the owner of Solar Wind Solutions, and Richard Phillips, of Sherwin Electric, were on hand to give advice when the team faltered.

Middlebury sourced its panels from Sunpower, in San Jose, as did five other teams. The company manufactures some of the most efficient arrays on the market. “On a clear, sunny day,” Kelly explains, “roughly 1,000 watts of solar energy fall on a square meter of panel.” At 18.1 percent efficiency, a Sunpower panel will capture 180 of those watts. In all, Self-Reliance can produce 6.75 kilowatts of electricity. Because of the affordability contest, Kelly says, “we modeled our consumption and sized the array to our needs.”

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