Members of the United States Department of Energy (DOE) named the College’s Solar Decathlon design one of 20 finalists that will compete in the 2011 national competition. With its selection, the College and its team of students became the first small, liberal arts college selected as a finalist.
Since its inception in 2002, the solar decathlon has challenged participants to design, construct and operate a house powered by solar energy that was attractive, energy-efficient and affordable, according to the DOE website. Lacking many of the specialized courses available at larger universities, the College relied on assistance from the community to produce its final submission.
President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz wrote that the team overcame extremely long odds and showcased the power of a liberal arts education.
“We were convinced that our students would undoubtedly rise to the challenge of defying the odds,” Liebowitz wrote on his blog on April 15. “[We had] to compete successfully with institutions that have undergraduate programs and professional schools in architecture, engineering, and landscape design, and that are 10 and even 20 times our size.”
To be selected as a finalist, each school submitted a 20-page proposal and a conceptual design scale model. A team of professional experts rated each entry on the basis of team organization, ability to fundraise, creativity and technical expertise. The top 20 became finalists.
“Middlebury College wrote an excellent proposal that showed an in-depth understanding of the competition and what is needed to build a competitive house,” said Director of the Solar Decathlon at DOE Richard King. “They have a wonderful design concept of a New England homestead that is very energy-efficient and affordable. The entire review panel felt the design was one of the best.”
The College’s team began over the summer when Addison Godine ’11 discovered the competition while browsing green engineering websites. He, along with Joe Baisch ’11 and Alex Jopek ’11 met with administrators in August 2009. Liebowitz supported the project from the start, in spite of the long odds against the group.
“They were extremely supportive, and excited about the competition’s multi-disciplinary potential,” Godine said. “Obviously, we knew we were an unlikely candidate. Without an engineering department or even a professional architecture program, Middlebury would have to position itself very carefully if it was to succeed.”
King praised the College for its carefully crafted proposal and advised the rest of the field to take notice of its design.
“Middlebury College may be small but their walls must overflow with energy and initiative,” King said. “The students spent hours researching and preparing themselves for entering the solar decathlon. Their proposal jumped out with excitement. With enthusiasm like that, everyone else better look out.”
Godine said news of the DOE’s selection shocked him when he received word on April 6.
“To be honest I was a little surprised we got in,” he said. “I worried that without an engineering school they might just say we weren’t qualified. But here we are.”
Baisch cited the involvement of community as one of the main reasons the College could compete with larger schools.
“One of our major advantages over large universities is our high level of support from Middlebury faculty and administrators, and from community professionals,” Baisch said. “It is because of this support that we will be able to compete with schools that have professional architecture and engineering schools.”
Faculty Advisor and Visiting Lecturer in Architecture Andrea Murray said the team added a “human” element to the competition that many larger schools lack.
“Our approach is very different from those of other teams,” Murray said. “We opted for simplicity, affordability, efficiency and everyday appeal. It’s easy to get carried away with all kinds of wild design ideas, and we certainly still have them.
But, we carefully read the initial request for proposals and identified a strategy for getting into the competition, and this was it.”
Team member Macky Franklin ’11 said the team was able to stand out because it not produce a work of modern art, but a livable home.
“We focused on designing a house that would be comfortable to live in and familiar to people but incorporated new technologies to make it run more efficiently and effectively that a traditional home,” he said. “By doing so, we created something that appeals to the majority of potential homeowners and is relatively cheap to reproduce, but is still enjoyable to look at.”
After a visit to Washington, D.C. last fall to see the 2009 submission to the competition, Baisch said the team was inspired to adopt a “unique angle” with its project.
“When we visited the 2009 competition we saw houses that were highly engineered, but lacked in livability,” he said. “We want our final product to feel more like a home than a machine for living.”
Murray thanked the community for its support of the project, and said she hopes others will become involved in the coming months.
“Since we do not have professional programs in architecture and engineering, we are reaching out to professionals, tradespeople and all other interested parties in the community to mentor our student leaders and participate in the project,” she said. “We have already involved many and are sure to include more in the coming months. We are also hoping this can be a learning experience for anyone interested in buildings and how they effect our natural environment.”
Liebowitz said the College will continue to fundraise for the team in the coming 17 months, put it in contact with alumni in fields that could lend expertise to the project and provide the group with additional space.
“The team will now receive at least $100,000 from the DOE,” he said. “We will fundraise for whatever else they need. I had committed to supporting the team in building the house even if it was not selected as one of the 20 teams by the DOE.”
With 10 individual events in addition to the overall winner, Liebowitz believes the College stands a good chance at victory.
“They have already achieved a big win,” he said. “They will have the opportunity to conceive, design and build their solar house. There is a good chance they can win a particular competition within the competition. I would never underestimate what our students can do.”
The team will now attend a series of workshops in Washington at the end of May. Throughout the summer and fall, they will build a project website, a project manual, developed drawings, a project safety plan and revised physical and computer-generated models, among others.
Godine believes the project reflects the mission of a liberal arts education by bringing together various disciplines for one common purpose.
“The Solar Decathlon will let students apply that theoretical knowledge to something practical, and in a wide variety of fields, from graphic design to computer science, architecture to fundraising,” he said. “We will learn the value of the liberal arts education, as students will both specialize and be forced to work inter-disciplinarily. Working on the Solar Decathlon will not be like a class as much as like working at a firm. If not the opportunity of a lifetime, this could certainly be a college career-defining project for anyone who wants to get deeply involved.”
Murray hopes the community will get involved with the project in the coming months.
“There is much to do, and we welcome the interest and efforts of anyone who would like to join us,” she said. “I am so glad to be participating in this project. It will certainly be one of the highlights of my career as both an architect and an educator.”