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Middlebury Students Practice 'Self-Reliance' with Solar Decathlon House

April 19, 2011 - 12:48pm

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The Self-Reliance team at their recent "wall-raising" event. | Photo Courtesy of the Middlebury Solar Decathlon team

The Self-Reliance team at their recent "wall-raising" event. | Photo Courtesy of the Middlebury Solar Decathlon team

In honor of the U.S  Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon -- which challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive -- we are profiling each of the 20 teams participating in the competition.

Located in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, with the Green Mountains to the east of campus and the Adirondacks to the west, Middlebury College seems like a naturally-suited location for a Solar Decathlon team. For decades, the school has made sustainability a priority, and launched the first environmental studies major in the nation in 1965. Since then, new buildings built on campus incorporate energy-saving features and use sustainable and recycled materials. Middlebury’s Franklin Environmental Center received a LEED Platinum award for its environmental design, and the school has committed to become carbon neutral by 2016. The campus also houses a new biomass plant, which boasts a gasification system that converts regionally grown wood chips into gas, which it then burns to provide steam for heating, cooling, hot water and cooking throughout the campus.

With all of this focus on sustainability, it should come as no surprise that two years ago, Architectural Studies major Addison Godine and 3 other students created a proposal for the Solar Decathlon competition. Since then, the team has worked long hours together and grown to a group of more than 75 students from across 18 different majors.

We spoke with Addison, the team’s Student Project Lead, and Melissa Segil, the Team Manager and an International Politics and Economics double major to find out more about the team and their design.

The house, which the team named Self-Reliance after the essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, was inspired by the design of a traditional New England farmhouse. The team is using only natural building materials, including sustainably-harvested wood from local forests, recycled insulation, and natural finishes and paints. The house also uses high-performance triple glazed windows with insulated frames that will maximize the amount of natural light allowed into the home.

The goal of the Self-Reliance team has been to produce an affordable house that is both functional and comfortable for a family of four. While the home is smaller than the average American home, the team has maximized its square footage by creating two distinct zones in the house, which separate the “public” areas from the “private.” The public space contains a greenhouse and a kitchen and dining area for food preparation for the family and their guests.  Two bedrooms are located at the more private side of the house. The home has an “as-built” budget of less than $250,000 -- an impressive feat considering the $1 million budget homes from past competitions.

A model of the Self-Reliance house | Courtesy of the Middlebury Solar Decathlon team

Addison says that the best part of the Solar Decathlon experience so far has been the ability to work with a group of students in the college atmosphere that are “dedicated to a project because they believe in it, not because they have to participate for a class.”

Melissa says she has really enjoyed the outreach that the project involved. “It’s been awesome to be able to share the process with the community,” she said. “We’ve held open houses and symposiums, and it’s been really fun to be able to tell other people about the project and hear from excited parents, grandparents and others in the Middlebury community.”

Both Addison and Melissa say the team has run across a few challenges, including the fact that the small liberal arts college is one of few in the competition without a professional architectural program. But the team has persevered: they’ve powered through a major design change and seen cycles of students come and go (many Middlebury students study abroad during their undergraduate years). Aside from the challenges, Melissa is happy to report that the team recently began construction on the house over the school’s spring break. “We’re really having a blast now that construction has started,” she said.

After the conclusion of the competition, the Self-Reliance team plans to bring the house back from Washington, D.C. to the Middlebury campus. Melissa said the house will become a residence for students and simultaneously serve as an environmental outreach center that will host events to promote sustainability.

To learn more about the Self-Reliance house and the Middlebury College team, visit their website, where you can read their blog or see videos that the team has made. See the Solar Decathlon website for more information about the competition and other teams involved in the contest.

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