This Is How They Did It
On VIP day, Vermont’s congressional delegation stops by. “You don’t win rhetorical battles about science in Congress,” says Representative Peter Welch. “This is the way we’re going to make progress.” Jesse Catalano emerges from another room with a foreign television crew behind him; he’s wearing a lapel mic and speaking rapid Italian. A few days later, Energy Secretary Steven Chu stops by to see the place, Secret Service in tow.
Weekdays, hundreds of waist-high elementary school students arrive, worksheets in hand, questions at the ready. A six-year-old pauses to ask Kris Williams ’11, lead fund-raiser, “What intellectual skills were you able to identify with this project?” A covey of middle school girls begs Phil Gordon ’11 to perform his verse from “Midd Kid,” which they watched, like a million times, on YouTube.
After being accepted into the Decathlon in April, the team moved from concept and ideation to the blocky drawings to life. “We had the potential to cost the College a lot of money,” said Jopek. “And the potential to make ourselves look silly.”
Spring term ended, but a dozen of the team’s core stayed on for the summer, moving into the Homer Harris Farmhouse and bringing with them a mélange of cheap furniture (as well as a kitten named Frizby Bixby). They decorated the walls with trace-paper drawings and sprawling to-do lists. Back rooms became computer labs and editing studios. Laptops and coffee-stained blueprints covered every available workspace. A single window AC unit labored valiantly in the midsummer humidity.
The tasks were daunting—design a website from scratch, launch a $500,000 fund-raising appeal, draw up a safety manual—and the learning curve steep. As the students learned to navigate advanced architectural software, write solicitation letters to major donors, and parse schematics for thermal-comfort systems, victories could feel small and frustrations massive. Too, the team needed a new name. Appalachian State University had also called their design the Solar Homestead, and Middlebury had agreed to rename its entry.
It wasn’t until an after-work dip at a local swimming hole that the team hit on the idea of “self-reliance,” which seemed to capture both the home’s traditional roots and the team’s do-it-yourself ethos. “Insist on yourself; never imitate,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in an 1841 essay on that very subject. “Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare?” Think independently. Reject blind conformity. Challenge convention. The name stuck.
Before the summer was out, the team had finalized Self-Reliance’s floor plan and intricately joined post-and-beam structure. Going into the fall semester, with plans due to be delivered to the DOE just before Thanksgiving, the team needed only to translate their decisions into a set of blueprints and a construction manual.
And then, less than three weeks before the November 23 deadline, a year’s worth of collaborative work was turned on its head. Just before class on a Tuesday, Godine, along with lead architects Baisch and Wyatt Komarin ’12, asked to speak with Kerz-Murray and Nelson privately. “We were just hitting certain details that we couldn’t figure out,” Baisch told me. Godine had realized that, owing to “first-idea inertia,” the house was facing major structural problems, engineering impossibilities, and massive cost overruns. The bedrooms were closet-sized. The hydrothermal array was shoehorned in. And the post-and-beam structure that they’d designed would need to be broken into 20 pieces for transport.
The architecture leads had come up with a radical remedy, but Kerz-Murray and Nelson insisted they propose the idea to the entire class, “which could have gone either way.”
When the team got together, the room was tense; tempers and frustrations were running hot. The group project now felt like anything but. Katie Romanov ’11, communications lead, recalled, “People were like, ‘What do you mean? Where was I when this decision was made? And how do you possibly expect that we can finish all of this in time for the submission?’ It was a real struggle.”
One student, Godine saw, had titled his notes, “Meeting from Hell.” Details that had been labored over for months were now irrelevant. Shane Scranton ’12 and Eric Fendik ’12, the lead modelers, had nearly finished creating blueprints for the original design. Much of their work would be scrapped. “It put a lot of work on their shoulders,” said Baisch. “But it simplified so much that Shane said, ‘Go for it. It’s going to be easier to rebuild a new house than to push forward.’”