This Is How They Did It

Before we step through the front door, Bendheim holds up a cutaway section of the house. Most homes are built with single stud walls, five-and-a-half inches deep, insulated with foam or fiberglass. Middlebury’s is built with double stud walls, he explains, 11 inches deep, insulated with cellulose—recycled newspaper. To prevent the kind of heat loss known as “thermal bridging,” the studs are offset. The inner and outer walls never touch. The ceiling, 21 inches thick, is built the same way. No petroleum-based insulation; no noxious chemicals.

The house’s floors are sugar maple, nine trees exactly, harvested on College lands just a short haul from campus by Middlebury forester Stephen Weber and Stanis Moody-Roberts ’11. The honeyed planks are irregular widths, to ensure the least amount of waste, and run the length of the house, tying together living spaces, lending continuity and flow.

To our right is a wall of triple-paned, south-facing windows. Like every door and window in the house, they’re thick as dictionaries and heavy as tank hatches. They open and close with the precision of Swiss timepieces and perform tricks most windows could never dream of—like gaining more heat than they lose. Filling the window are shelves of potted plants, basil, fennel, marjoram, oregano, parsley, and sage. Outside, in planters, are the more charismatic megaflorae: tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, scallions, and peppers. They share the deck with patio furniture made from recycled Coke bottles.

An enormous slab of heathermoor slate, quarried in Poultney and honed in Fair Haven, delineates living and cooking quarters. Generous counter space, a full-size refrigerator and dishwasher, and an induction cook top—which heats pots via magnetism, rather than flames—make the kitchen feel rather luxurious; although, the ceramic ware from Simon Pearce, in Quechee, Vermont, doesn’t hurt any. Canned vegetables line the pantry. And in the dining nook, a custom-made maple table expands to seat eight.

Opposite the kitchen lies the living room, with all the requisite toys: HDTV, Apple MacBook, and an iPad for monitoring the house’s electrical systems. This being 2011, the bookcase has built-in outlets for charging a Kindle. More than the modish Eco Foam couch, it’s the sheepskin rug, from Duclos Farm, in Weybridge, and apple-crate side table, courtesy of Sunrise Orchard, in Cornwall, that make the place feel like home. Small, north-facing windows minimize heat loss. A long, well-lit desk lines the back wall, inviting youngsters to do their homework after dinner. It, too, is made from College maple. Tap holes are still visible in the wood. The waste bin below is—what else?—a tin sap bucket.

We head down the hall. The vaulted ceiling suddenly drops, and the architecture feels more intimate. We’ve left the home’s public spaces and entered its private ones.

The central bathroom feels spacious and sane. The sink is clad in EcoTop, a bamboo and fiber composite that can be cut and joined like wood. A low-flow showerhead makes efficient use of the water being pre-warmed by a rooftop hydrothermal array. A dual-flush toilet teaches conservation.

In the mechanical closet, the home’s heartbeat registers on an eMonitor, which measures the power draw of individual circuits in the house. An inverter, which converts the solar panels’ DC into everyday AC, shows electricity production. An energy recovery ventilator transfers the heat and moisture from conditioned air to outdoor air as it’s brought in for circulation, and a heat exchanger warms and cools the home; in a creative bit of engineering, condensation that forms on the unit is collected and piped to a spigot in the kitchen, where it can be used to water the herbs. When Bendheim refers to holistic, “cradle to cradle” design, this is the kind of inspired thinking he’s talking about.

Finally, at the eastern end of the home, past an ersatz barn door that slides open to reveal a stacked washer and dryer, are two bedrooms. The vaulted ceilings return, leaving plenty of space in the children’s room for a whimsical, green-apple bunk bed by Modern Design, in Burlington. Across the hall, featuring a spacious closet, private back porch, and gorgeous southern exposure, is a room for the parents.

The architects exit through the east door, back into the muggy morning heat. Bendheim hands each of them a packet of basil seeds. “Can I answer any questions?”

This tour, and it takes about 10 minutes, happens 15,000 times over the next 10 days. Owing to a theatrical regimen prescribed by Peter DiPrinzio ’13, the team is well drilled on its talking points. After the house left campus, the students taped out the floor plan in a dance studio and practiced delivering the script, which comes with an exhaustive, 19-page FAQ.

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