Sustainability: Start Local

Solar Decathlon 2011 - Middlebury

Solar Decathlon 2011 – Middlebury

While at the 2011 Solar Decathlon in Washington D.C. last month, I was able to sit down with Melissa Segil and Wyatt Komerin of the Middlebury College team and ask them about their entry. Melissa served as a team manager, while Wyatt was the architecture co-lead. They both gave thoughtful answers that reflected the values of this Vermont team.

We talked about the sustainability and design goals of the project, and how the team prioritized the various considerations that go into building a Solar Decathlon house. Melissa touched on the fact that they aimed for many goals: a home for a family that was built from healthy, local materials. She detailed out what that meant for the team:
First and foremost we wanted to design a home for a family. In doing that, we needed to make the home practical and affordable. Another thing that was important to us was making it a healthy home. So we chose local, durable, natural materials just to reduce the impact that transporting all the materials would have. Also, one of the biggest decisions we had to make was whether to use spray foam as the insulation, or SIPs, or something else. We had a team of chemistry  students who did materials research for us, and they said, “if you want a healthy material, don’t use foam.” So that’s why we decided to insulate with dense packed cellulose. We’re very happy we did that because our walls are 11 inches thick, and our R value is about 42 in those, and the ceiling is at 73. It was important that in every decision we made, we had to find a balance for our main design goals: for a family, healthy, local, sustainable, environmentally friendly. But ‘environmentally friendly’ is tricky; does that mean local or low embodied energy? ‘Sustainable’ can  mean a lot of different things. The other issue we had to confront was cost. You can get environmentally friendly furniture but its almost prohibitively expensive because there aren’t that many firms making it and the ones that do are high end. That’s one of the pitfalls of the environmental movement in general; it seems like it’s only for very wealthy people that can afford it. So we hope that we really struck a balance in this house with it being affordable.
Affordability was a huge topic at the 2011 Solar Decathlon, as it was a brand-new contest that prior competitions did not include. Most teams aimed for the $250,000 mark, which would allow them to score maximum points in the affordability contest. Melissa talked with me about the team’s budget goals:
We’re hoping to come in close to $250,000. We have been going back and forth with the estimates from the Department of Energy, and sometimes we come in lower than that and then sometimes they’ve added structural steel and things in places we don’t have it. This is the first year they’ve had the affordability contest and I think its great that they’ve incorporated it. The organizers have said the houses are starting to look – not just look – but feel similar to what people are trying to achieve for themselves.
Solar Decathlon 2011 - Middlebury

Solar Decathlon 2011 – Middlebury

There was a big difference in terms of design aesthetics between the 2011 Solar Decathlon homes and prior years, mostly due to the new affordability contest. I asked Melissa if she thought the more familiar designs would cause a bigger impact on the public.

Definitely because one of the first questions we get from every single visitor is ‘how much does this cost?’. It’s not a design challenge to make a solar house if you have an unlimited budget. It is a design challenge to try to do it for under $250,000 and still appeal to your market and everything. The other thing about this competition is it doesn’t take into account that one material might be more expensive because it’s much more durable or because it’s local, or because it’s sustainably manufactured in a healthy environment. So it’s a little bit flawed still.
Middlebury’s house was filled with high-end finishes like wood floors and slate counters. While their budget was crafted to allow for these choices, it wasn’t just about aesthetics. The fact that the team was going to construct the whole project meant that each product became a very personal choice. Melissa gave me more insight as to how they made decisions on which products to use:
Well, we used all natural paints and all natural coatings on the floor, and the exterior as well. The exterior coating was probably more expensive than just a traditional siding stain or paint, but we were doing all the construction, so we were thinking about it even from our own point of view. For example, do I want to be using something with low VOC when I’m doing the painting myself? Yeah! Definitely, because its my own health.
Besides the high end interiors, the exterior finishes were striking as well: black siding below the gable roof. I asked Melissa about this unusual color choice for their home.
The cedar siding is pretty traditional of Vermont barns. Our main design was inspired by the
Vermont farmstead. This house would definitely fit in with that landscape and certainly wouldn’t be an eyesore. And that roof is a timeless form in that area. A lot of Vermont barns that are this dark color were originally stained with motor oil (to prevent damage from pests, etc.). But we obviously were not going to do that so, we got all natural water based finish with linseed extract.
I asked both Melissa and Wyatt about the challenges they faced while undertaking such a huge responsibility. For Melissa, coordination was a big concern.
In any sort of creative design process its hard to find a balance that makes everyone happy. It isn’t unique to this competition. The opportunity to work together and overcome a lot of challenges together was very difficult at times. We’re full time students with a heavy course load, so students are often overachievers coming from sports practice, or running off to a different meeting. So we can be over committed at times. It was difficult to balance everything we were involved in.
For Wyatt, convincing team mates to pursue specific design decisions was the hardest part.
It’s hard to convince – even your own teammates – that certain decisions will be the right one to go with in the long run. So even though our particular design is familiar, we’re still challenging a lot of conventions. Each step of the way, you have to convince the group that the architectural decision you’re making, or the materials decision you’re making is in the best interest of the project. For example, we went with high end German windows. We wanted to work with an American manufacturer, since that would be local and potentially less expensive, but we couldn’t find any that met both our performance specifications and our architectural requirements. We couldn’t get the glass sizes we wanted from the American manufacturer, so we went with the German windows. They don’t use any foam to insulate their windows, but instead they use cork. That actually went along with our decision to use cellulose for our wall insulation. We put the windows into our energy model, and that justified the extra expense. They were so much more efficient than the other windows we were planning to use.
Solar Decathlon 2011 - Middlebury

Solar Decathlon 2011 – Middlebury

I found it interesting that none of the teams brought up the difficulties imposed by the site change from the National Mall to West Potomac park just months away from the event date. I asked Melissa if this change of plans caused any problems for her team.

We still had to get the house to Washington DC. It would have been really different if changing sites caused us to get more money to get it to California or something. We were disappointed to not be on the National Mall because it is such a prominent place and people ‘accidentally’ come to see us. You really have to seek out this site. I understand it was difficult for the organizers as well. I think in the future it will be neat to have other cities make bids. It will be good to share the event with a more diverse audience over time.
Though the challenges for the teams were apparent, many consumers are faced with the challenge of how to implement sustainable practices in their own homes; especially if they are in older houses that don’t boast the latest sustainable technologies. I asked Wyatt how consumers could begin to implement sustainable practices without building a new house.
I’d say the number one thing is to consider cellulose insulation. A lot of people retrofit their current houses, so they can insulate their attics with cellulose instead of spray foam. I’d say that’s something they should consider.
For colleges and universities that are interested in participating in the Solar Decathlon, I asked Wyatt about how they should prepare for the event.
The first thing to do is to come to the Solar Decathlon. That’s what we did. We came in 2009 and visited the houses to get inspired. We thought to ourselves, ‘are we really committed to doing this?’. It really is a two year commitment of your life if you are really deeply involved in it, as many of us were. So really evaluate how committed you’re willing to be for the next two years for producing the house.
Solar Decathlon 2011 - Middlebury

Solar Decathlon 2011 – Middlebury

It was apparent that every participant at the event came away with new knowledge and a fresh perspective. I asked Wyatt how the competition prepared him for a career.

I think of it like each team is a start up company and we’ve got this two year mission and our final product is this house we bring to Washington. We learn in so many ways: working on a team efficiently, communicating, compromising, fundraising, budgeting, planning, and designing – all these different things come together in this project to succeed. I feel more prepared now than if I had just been in class rather than involved in a hands-on, real world project.

It was a pleasure to talk with Melissa and Wyatt. Middlebury clearly defined their sustainable goals and they were able to achieve them while conveying their values through a beautiful design. For more photos of Middlebury’s and other team’s designs, check out these albums. For more Solar Decathlon coverage, browse through previous articles.

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