This Is How They Did It

When it comes to residential architecture, conventional wisdom holds that no one in her right mind would ever want to live in a 997-square-foot, solar-powered house. But what if the house felt familiar? The team now imagined a home that could generate hot water on the roof, grow herbs in a kitchen greenhouse, and still fit a full bathtub. “We wanted something that people would actually want to live in,” said Jopek. And they wanted to bang it together—solar panels, furniture, everything—for $250,000.

Middlebury’s proposal for the “Solar Homestead,” a “house that addresses the issue of health in the modern day—both the health of human beings and the health of the natural environment with which they are inextricably tied”—went out the door in early November. And then, as adviser Kerz-Murray put it, “We waited. And waited. No word.”

As the DOE ground its gears, the College agreed to move ahead with the project, regardless of whether the team was accepted into the Decathlon.

“Of course we wanted to be accepted,” Liebowitz later said, “but we were going to proceed [no matter what the DOE decided]. I firmly believe that we are at a watershed moment right now in higher education, and this project was a golden opportunity to get in front of the curve and define boldly what a liberal arts education, both curricular and cocurricular, could offer students.”

With the administrative backing, the curriculum committee approved three courses—two for winter term, one for spring—dedicated to design and engineering, team-taught by professionals. Six more courses would eventually follow. Solar Decathlon essentially became its own minor.

In January, DOE officials seemed to agree when they notified the Middlebury team that they’d been shortlisted for one of 20 spots. A triptych poster, scale model, and written distillation of the concept were now due in March. The spring studio and lab course—taught by Winooski engineer Wayne Nelson, of L.N. Consulting, and Burlington architect Steve Smith, of SAS Architects, both of whom helped design the College’s biomass facility and leed-certified Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest—hammered out a submission. “I’ve never seen students so dedicated to a project,” said Kerz-Murray. “Ever.” In a photo taken a few days before the deadline, seven bleary-eyed students beam at the camera. Godine holds a pastel sketch of the house. The clock behind their heads reads 5:06 a.m.

Finally, on April 6, word from Washington. Middlebury was in—the Solar Decathlon’s first un-partnered liberal arts college.


September 21, 2011
It’s Media Preview Day and Abe Bendheim is leading a group of bespectacled architects from Perkins+Will—Architect magazine’s number-one design firm—through the house.

“We began thinking about design with regard to landscape,” he says. “The New England farmstead is a building vocabulary designed for use.” The gable form sheds precipitation, prevents ice dams, and maximizes interior space. The east-west axis provides an ideal platform for a PV array. The layout allows for both interior and exterior growing space.

The deck we’re standing on is white oak, harvested in northern Vermont. It’s naturally insect and rot resistant. The siding, warm to the touch under the midmorning sun, is white cedar, stained the color of charcoal with linseed oil. Classic New England barns are dark with age, or because farmers sometimes dispose of motor oil by tossing it against the walls. The chemicals help preserve the wood. Middlebury worked with a Canadian stain company to achieve the same effect, without the toxicity.

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