This Is How They Did It

The home is grid-tied, meaning it can sell excess power back onto the grid rather than storing it in batteries. In the summer, when skies are clear and days are long, Self-Reliance will produce somewhat more electricity than it can use; in winter, somewhat less. Over the calendar year, Kelly says, a family of four should have zero energy bills.

A few days later, Danny Powers ’12 is up on the roof with a ratchet. Only after all the panels went up did the team realize they were crooked. Powers has been tasked with shifting each four inches.

Inside, Ben Brown does cosmetic work with a paintbrush. “There are so many corners in this house,” he sighs. Carson Cornbrooks ’11 is on the hunt for chipped drywall and scuffed floors. “We knew there would be lots of little details to touch up,” he says. “Our big fear was what we didn’t anticipate.” Like a bad sprinkler gasket that flooded the mechanical room. Or a jostled washing machine that leaks gallons of water beneath the master bedroom floor, buckling the wood. A well-placed sheepskin rug now covers the damage.

Ashar Nelson, visiting assistant professor in architecture and, along with Kerz-Murray, Self-Reliance’s faculty co-adviser, draws up a “punch list,” a builder’s inventory of the thousand things that make up the final one percent of any project. “Small tasks for idle folks.” It spills onto two pages. The porch ramp still needs to be leveled; shower curtains hung; iPad app configured; and then, as if to prove that no house is ever really finished, there are the gussets—plywood panels that hide the home’s structural hardware. Perfecting them has been the construction crew’s chimera. After many attempts to make them look good, Cornbrooks says, “They’re still just a little bit ugly. It’s a problem we never could solve.”

Jesse Catalano pauses to figure an angle on a scrap of cardboard. Abe Bendheim ’10 agonizes over whether the window hardware—tiny metal brackets—should be painted black or white. He takes a seat on the edge of the porch, defeated. “The honeymoon phase is over,” muses Catalano. “Now we just see all the flaws.”

In 24 hours, competition will begin.


Fall 2009
With the October charette over, the fledgling team had just five weeks to translate the ideas scrawled on the white boards into a winning proposal. In 25 pages or less, the team needed to demonstrate both a holistic understanding of New England vernacular and a streak of lean-forward innovation.

Utility would be the house’s greatest virtue. Architectural flourishes, if they can’t be figured with a pencil and framing square, would be kept to a strict few. No dormers or colonnades. No cantilever balconies. Standing alone against the elements, beneath winter whiteouts and summer storms, through vernal mud and autumnal floods, the farmhouse is less a home than a testament to perseverance against all odds. Could such ethos be carried into the 21st century?

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