Let the Sun Shine In | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Education

Let the Sun Shine In

Middlebury and Norwich students design solar-powered houses for a national competition


Published September 28, 2011 at 8:37 a.m.

Last week in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Energy opened its Solar Decathlon, a biennial collegiate competition to design and build completely solar-powered houses. Twenty finalists from universities all over the world trucked their creations to the Mall and reassembled them into a futuristic neighborhood that’s open to the public for a week. A panel is currently judging the houses on a variety of measures, including market appeal, engineering and — new this year — affordability.

The big news for Vermont is that Middlebury College made the cut. The team is currently exhibiting Self-Reliance, a 1000-square-foot dwelling styled in a streamlined version of the Vermont farmhouse vernacular, with a 7.2-kilowatt solar array on its gabled roof.

Construction costs came in at just over $250,000, which will earn the house nearly full points in the affordability category. Featured on PBS’ “Nightly Business Report” this summer, Midd’s creation is rightly getting serious national attention.

Meanwhile, a different solar house is coming to life on the Norwich University campus in Northfield, and not getting nearly as much press. The private military institution has a master’s in architecture program — the only nationally accredited one in Vermont, Maine or New Hampshire — but Norwich’s solar house, like Midd’s, is an undergraduate project.

Sited on a back field, the unfinished structure is all flat roofs and industrial-chic design. Narrow-cut, rough-sawn pine boards sheathe a rectangular core. Two smaller modules attached to either side are clad in corrugated sheets of galvanized metal. Solar panels, when they are installed, will look entirely appropriate. Even the house’s name has an edgy, industrial feel: RAE[V]. Pronounced “rave,” the acronym stands for Renewable Adaptable Eco-Housing [Vermont].

RAE[V]’s first iteration didn’t make it into the 2011 Decathlon, so in November, the university team will resubmit it for the 2013 competition. Whether or not it ends up on the Mall that year, however, the house is noteworthy for calling into question the DOE’s definition of “affordable.”

“This is not real estate. This is realistic estate,” says architecture professor Danny Sagan with a grin. He and two colleagues in the department, fellow assistant prof Matt Lutz and adjunct Steve Kredell, have met on site to give a tour. The architects are among a panoply of professors across disciplines, including Edwin Schmeckpeper in engineering and Michael Puddicombe in business and management, who are advising the democratically-led student team, which consists of architecture, engineering, construction-engineering-management and even public-policy majors. RAE[V] may not look “quintessentially Vermont,” the architects note, but it’s being designed and constructed down to the last detail with Vermonters — and their budgets — in mind.

Bolstering this point, Lutz starts the tour by producing a copy of the “2010 Vermont Housing Needs Assessment.” The report, drawn up by the Vermont Housing and Finance Agency, focuses on Vermont’s 55,000 “lower-income” households — that is, households of renters or owners who make less than $41,000 a year.

According to the report, these families’ housing costs eat up an untenable portion of their income: a third to, in 20,000 cases, half. As Gina Fantoni, a junior architecture major who worked on RAE[V] this summer, estimates, “about half of Vermont residents can’t afford their housing.” Whatever the stats, it’s clear that many Vermonters can’t afford a $250,000 home, no matter how much it saves on energy costs.

Enter RAE[V], a house that embraces a different Vermont vernacular. That corrugated metal is ubiquitous on area barns and sheds, and it’s inexpensive. Plus, it has no maintenance costs. The rough-sawn pine is 50 cents a board foot at a nearby lumber supplier, according to Sagan. The two “plug-in modules” attach to either side of the house’s core with $10 lag bolts. Though the students are currently rethinking the modules for greater adaptability, the idea is that they can be added, subtracted or switched around as the family within grows or shrinks.

With the plug-ins, the house is 1000 square feet, the maximum for Decathlon houses. It’s being designed to cost $150,000, which includes the cost of a four-kilowatt solar array, Lutz says.

Like all competition houses, RAE[V] connects to the grid, but energy costs will be low. Heat will come from an electric pump, but, given the soy-based spray-foam insulation and heat-recovery ventilation unit, residents won’t need much. Excess energy produced during peak solar times will be fed back to the grid, resulting in net-zero, or better, energy use. That could even happen on sunny winter days, when south-facing insulated glass doors and windows reduce the need for heating.

RAE[V]’s core was designed with an integrated wooden chassis that further reduces costs. The hidden frame allows the house to be erected on a minimal foundation: eight helical piers, rather than the standard, fairly pricey, poured-concrete base. And, at 14 by 52 feet, the core can be transported by truck without the costly special permit required by the Department of Transportation for loads any wider. (In the inaugural Decathlon, Lutz, then at Virginia Tech, helped lead a much more unwieldy solar house to 4th place.)

The competition requires that solar features are building-integrated rather than, say, pole-mounted beside the house. But fixed roof panels ignore the angle of the sun, which changes seasonally, and not all sites have an optimal south-facing configuration, Lutz points out. So the team is looking into adjustable mounted panels that follow the sun by hand cranking instead of using electrical power.

Asked if the DIY touch might earn RAE[V] fewer market-appeal points, Lutz demurs. “You’ve got your coffee mug in one hand, and you go out and turn the handle one revolution each morning,” he says. “It’s a way for people to think about the power they use.”

Choosing accessible, affordable materials hasn’t meant compromising on aesthetics. On close inspection, for example, one notices that the pine boards don’t overlap but separately line an outer exterior skin. Each board’s beveled top edge is painted brick red in contrast with the wood’s natural color. From a distance, the detail heightens the impression of texture. And, against their professors’ recommendations, the students voted to spend countless hours mitering the corners where the boards meet rather than joining them with L-brackets — an easier but less elegant looking technique.

For a mass-produced version of the structure, though, such labors of love will have to be eliminated in order to keep costs under $150,000 a house. The team has identified three local builders who are willing to make a bid on the house, minus mitering and painted edges, for actual mass production once construction plans are finalized.

RAE[V]’s metal details signal more attention to aesthetics. The windows’ minimal metal frames on the wood-clad core were left unsealed because the students liked the look of rust-colored runoff from rain. And instead of a mundane downspout to drain the slightly tilted roof, students chose a truncated metal spout that empties water at the roofline, where it travels down the side of the house in an exposed metal channel.

“The ‘Vermont vernacular’ is gables for some,” Kredell offers. “We think it’s more about craft and heightening the beauty of local materials and products.”

Craft — not just design — is integral to architecture undergraduates’ training at Norwich. The program is known for its hands-on approach. “We learned all kinds of power tools; we basically learned how a house goes together,” Fantoni says of her work on RAE[V]. The field experience gives students “a new appreciation for materiality,” says Kredell. “And water,” Sagan adds wryly: An earlier version of the roof leaked.

If RAE[V] doesn’t make it to the next Decathlon, its destiny is similarly practical: It will be given to a local family. In case they live off grid, the house is being designed to take a wood-burning stove that would require no more than a cord of wood a year, according to the students’ heat-loss calculations.

The Norwich solar team’s mission of true affordability resonates with Lutz’s own experience of moving to Vermont in 2007. The sole income earner in a family of four, Lutz found that he was able to afford a 950-square-foot house in Calais only because he had refurbished and made a profit on his previous house in Virginia. Without that stroke of luck, he says, “there’s no way we would have been able to afford this place.

“I sort of feel like, gosh, I’m a university professor and I can’t afford a 950-square-foot house,” he adds. “How does a worker … making $14 an hour afford anything? It just makes it a little easier for me to see it.”