Bright idea for a greener future: Solar Decathlon house

15 December 2011 | News story

Designed and constructed by college students, this project inspires with lessons for energy, a greener economy and leadership for sustainability.  CEC member Jack Byrne describes an exciting day at the house.

The following is from Jack Byrne, IUCN CEC Specialty Group Leader for Greening Campuses. Jack is the Director of Sustainability Integration at Middlebury College in Vermont, USA. He describes a key moment in a two-year project undertaken by students: the day they finished reassembling a solar-powered house they had designed and built on the Middlebury campus and trucked to Washington DC for the Solar Decathlon, an international competition sponsored by the US Department of Energy.

IUCN readers will find this of interest as these houses are designed to fully operate for a family of four in all kinds of climates without using any other energy sources than the sun. The Middlebury entry, Self Reliance, finished fourth and is back on the Middlebury Campus where it serves as student housing. This is the kind of design and construction that represents what the green economy looks like in the housing sector.

Designing and Delivering on Dreams

I just visited Team Middlebury at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) 2011 Solar Decathlon on the Mall in Washington DC. Their house, Self Reliance, is one of nineteen creations brought there by colleges and universities from around the world. These innovative residences were designed and built by teams of students from each institution starting two years ago.

They compete based on ten criteria: five qualitative - such as how well the team communicates about their entry, and five quantitative - like how much energy they produce and how much they consume. Each of the ten contests is worth 100 points, with a cumulative competition score of up to 1000 points. Each team will be ranked 1st through 19th within each contest, as well as overall.

The scene on the Mall on this warm October day was incredibly inspiring and captivating. Each house is the culmination of two years of hard work – intellectual and physical. Here’s the basic recipe students follow:

  • convince administrators and faculty that you have a chance of success
  • design an entry
  • get selected as a finalist
  • pull together the resources (intellectual, material, financial, human…)
  • redesign, redesign, redesign
  • build the house on campus and test it all out
  • disassemble it piece by piece and put pieces on planes and/or trucks to deliver to the Mall in Washington, DC 
  • reassemble it on the Mall it and get the Department of Energy’s blessing that it is good to go for competition and visitation by the public
  • show and compete for ten days starting September 22
  • disassemble the house, put it back on trucks and/or planes and get it back home

…and make sure you have two year’s worth of self-reliance, resilience, teamwork and community spirit to make it all happen.

Middlebury’s Self Reliance is notable not only for how it harmonizes with Vermont’s climate, heritage and landscape and its comfortable and homey feel with a kitchen that includes space for growing some food year round, but also for the fact that it’s a highly competitive entry by a liberal arts college with no engineering program and a budding architectural program. The 85 students who have worked on this project have come a long way since the original group of students brought a somewhat audacious proposition to the College administration - that Middlebury’s liberal arts students could enter and compete successfully with giant universities with huge engineering, design and architectural programs from around the planet.

I visited on the day before the official opening. The Midd students were buzzing around in jubilation having passed the DOE’s gauntlet of inspections (electrical, building code, public exhibit, etc.) on the first pass. They were getting ready for the media tour and still absorbing the tremendously gratifying reality that they had made it. They were very proud to be showing off a house that serves as a shining manifestation of the power of a liberal arts education and that more than adequately addresses the challenge of creating a more sustainable future.

Self Reliance is one of 19 entries this year (there were 20 but one dropped out). All the entries were designed with a high awareness of the nature and the culture of the places they came from. The Parsons School of Design had a Middlebury graduate on the team, Carly Berger, and was developed in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity with an eye toward low-cost replicability and operation for low-income families.

Almost every house I visited had a wide assortment of native plants around the perimeter, many of which played an ecological or physical role in the operation of the house. Maryland’s entry, for example, used a series of wetland and wet soil plants to filter and purify greywater from the house.

After visiting some of these other entries, I returned to Self Reliance for a breather. A group of twentysomethings from the Dutch team were engaged in a lively discussion with the Midd students about insulation materials and energy systems, solar panel performance, design approaches to sustainability, and climate change. There was a palpable spirit of good-natured competitiveness and cooperative learning in the exchange.

I imagine that these kinds of interactions will grow over the ten days into a community of advanced design and construction experts becoming some of the best solution-finders to the sustainability challenges we have created for ourselves. I couldn’t feel more confident that they’ll be successful and that we will find ourselves closer to achieving that elusive future where most people live comfortable, dignified lives in balance with nature and what it can sustainably provide us over the long run.

Jack Byrne, Director, Sustainability Integration Office, Middlebury College, Vermont, USA jmbyrne@middlebury.edu