Middlebury team selected for Solar Decathlon

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Middlebury team selected for Solar Decathlon

July 1, 2010

By Wyatt Komarin '12

When my professor shared with our class that we had made the final cut for the 2011 Solar Decathlon, my immediate reaction was total and utter shock. Then the magnitude of this achievement began to sink in. Never had a small liberal arts college like Middlebury been selected for the Solar Decathlon. Now we were actually going to build the solar-powered house we had been designing for months!

The Solar Decathlon is a biennial competition sponsored by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) that challenges colleges and universities from around the world to design and build the most efficient and innovative solar-powered house. Only 20 teams are selected to build their house on the National Mall in D.C., where their performance is judged by a panel of esteemed architects, engineers, and environmentalists.

Middlebury’s involvement started this past September when Addison Godine ’11.5 recruited students to form a Middlebury Solar Decathlon team. We knew the odds of success were stacked against us. The competition attracts dozens of big schools with graduate level architecture and engineering programs, along with thousands of students specializing in every field imaginable, and the DOE only selects 20 teams to participate. Fortunately that did not dissuade us, for what we lacked in size and resources we made up for with creativity, campus community support, and a unique worldview that puts problem solving and sustainability first.

To get the creative juices flowing, the Middlebury team held weekly brainstorming sessions throughout September. Then in October we brought together Middlebury students and local professionals for a design charrette where we honed in on our concept and approach for designing a solar-powered house. The concept we developed was a modern New England farmhouse embodying the spirit of Yankee ingenuity and self-reliance, but updated for a 21st-century world.

We sent off our written proposal in November and waited nervously. No reply came, so our team continued the design and research process with two classes taught during winter term. In these classes students began turning our written proposal into a design concept. When a reply from the DOE finally arrived, it brought both good news and bad. We weren’t out of the running, but we weren’t yet in it. They asked each team to submit an additional conceptual design proposal in order to make their final decisions.

We tackled this task in a spring semester course team-taught by local architect Steve Smith and local engineer Wayne Nelson. After going through many different designs and having numerous conversations and passionate debates, we finally settled on the post and beam design. The design stays true to our concept of a modern New England farmhouse built for sustainability and efficiency. It uses structural insulated panels for a tight thermal envelope, provides passive cooling through a monitor, and incorporates a greenhouse into the kitchen, which will produce year-round food. Additionally, we are hoping to sustainably harvest wood for the structural frame of the house from College lands, and local materials like Vermont slate will be featured throughout the house.

After many late nights putting together the scale model and poster for the DOE’s final spring deadline, we were very excited to be selected for the 2011 competition. Invigorated by the reality of actually building our house, our class took field trips this spring and heard from various green professionals to get inspired and educated on the task ahead of us.

I am thrilled to be a member of the Middlebury Solar Decathlon team. While it has been a challenging road thus far, the experience is sure to be absolutely amazing. Our design work continues over the summer, and it won’t stop until September 2011 when we roll into Washington, D.C., our sustainable house proudly in tow.