Design as We Go…an Exercise in Making the World a Better Place
A Team From Middlebury College Makes Their Way to the Solar Decathlon
By Andrea Kerz-Murray, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, Pratt Bachelor of Architecture.
Andrea is a practicing architect in Vermont, as well as Architectural Design and Architecture and the Environment Professor at Middlebury College
Issue 9 Fall 2011
To be a fly on the wall for a moment at Middlebury College in Vermont is to learn an insightful lesson in what is evolving in our education around designing the good life. Middlebury is quite a gem, two centuries old, a renowned institution, with international faculty who believe in emphasizing reflection, discussion, and intensive interactions between students and faculty. The story begins, with a partnership between students and faculty who found their way into the U.S. Solar Decathlon, an international competition for 20 educational institutions that culminates on the National Mall in Washington, DC this September. What is it like for students, eager to make a difference to each other, their communities, and the world as a whole? In this article we learn how faculty and students come together to make the world a better place, and share their vision for “the good life”.
A few years ago in my Architecture and the Environment class at Middlebury College, a student asked me, “how can we ‘make’ the world a better place?” I had spent most of the semester exposing students to the egregious consumption of energy and other resources by buildings across our country and trying to offer a glimpse of hope for the future. I attempted to enlighten them with the work of a few architects and engineers who are leading the way with efficient buildings. I included myself among those few, and even so, I droned on about the gloom and doom of climate change. But, these students did not really need me to explain the problems of climate change; they instead needed me to teach them how they could actively make a difference.
About 100 years ago, most every building in the world was net-zero in its energy consumption. In Vermont, where I live, practice, teach, and play that was certainly the case. Homesteads evolved as the result of our needing to keep warm, produce food, and simply endure our long, harsh winters. We were very connected to our landscape. We wasted nothing. We lived by the seasons and knew what resources were available and where they came from. While not necessarily luxurious, this was in so many ways a very good life. In fact, most people who move to Vermont today want to live in historic Vermont farmhouses with beautiful views, space for growing food, and barns for housing a modest amount of livestock. They want to be connected to our history and its landscape. Somehow this is again the vision of a good life.
With the advent of cheap fossil fuel, we lost our connection to nature, and we fell in love with the convenience of energy-on-demand: electric lighting, oil furnaces, air conditioning…you get the picture. We began to design buildings with these conveniences in mind and forgot about orienting ourselves to the sun, away from the wind, close to our downtowns. This did not just happen in Vermont, but around the country. The same building going up in Vermont was also being constructed in Arizona, Florida, and Oregon regardless of our dramatically different climates and heritages.
As a result of this bad planning and neglect for precious resources, we have been poisoning ourselves and our planet. We have lost respect for our various environments and forgotten that we are interdependent on nature and its systems.
So, “how can we ‘make’ the world a better place?” asked my student. And, how can we ensure a good life for everyone and everything? We need to stop being so passive. We need to take action. We need to be resourceful and inventive.
Instead of sitting around and talking about how things ought to change, we need to get out there and ‘make’ the difference. And, it occurred to me at that time that it is my students and the generations who follow them who will have to ‘make’ that difference.
Post-secondary education can be a very isolated and isolating experience. When you have the drive to do something meaningful, the last thing you want to hear is, “could you write me a 10-page paper about that?” The dialogue between student and professor is not enough. Lingering in my mind was the question, “how do we channel our students’ abundant energies, allow them to act and do, while providing them with the skills they will need in the real world to advance their environmental initiatives?”
In July of 2009, Middlebury College student Addison Godine asked me if I had ever heard of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. He also asked if I would support his efforts and those of his peers in pursuing the competition. I thought about it for a while, and then I sent an email to a few colleagues for their thoughts. Within hours, our college President was involved and called a meeting to discuss. By August, the college administration had given its permission for Addison and his rapidly growing team to prepare a proposal for the competition.
For those of you who do not know, the U.S. Solar Decathlon is an international competition “that challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency,” as noted on the official Solar Decathlon website (www.solardecathlon.org). Teams construct their homes and transport them the Washington, DC where visitors can tour the houses, gather ideas to use in their own homes, and learn how energy-saving features can help them save money without sacrificing–hopefully augmenting–their quality of life. The event will take place September 23–October 2, 2011.
What I am aching to explain is why Middlebury is competing in this competition, why it is a most exciting and excellent learning experience for all involved, and why we have what it takes to win the competition and help win this battle with climate change.
Middlebury College is a small liberal arts college in central western Vermont. Most Solar Decathlon teams hail from graduate programs at large universities with professional programs in architecture and engineering. In September 2011, Team Middlebury will showcase their house in the Solar Village in Washington, DC alongside teams like: Team China, Team California, Team Belgium, Team New Zealand, Team Maryland, Purdue, and the impressive list goes on… Humbled? …a little bit. Intimidated?…no way!
Team Founder Godine explains, “I got involved in this project for two reasons: the first is that there is a pressing problem to be solved here, and the second is that among many pressing problems in the world, I feel I am most competent at helping solve this particular one.” Addison is an Architectural Studies major with a minor in Physics.
When we visited the 2009 competition, we noticed how technically sophisticated, “engineered,” most of the houses were. They seemed to be machines, not homes. The use of space was also not so efficient, with spaces for one, maybe two people to live. Well, we are a liberal arts institution; and we teach the humanities, so we figured it was time to put the “human” element into this competition. Our house is a comfortable home for a family of four people. Its efficient, attractive design is intended to help re-define what makes a good life. It takes cues from the past while acknowledging and preparing for the reality of our future.
“Looking back on this project, most of us won’t remember the specific wood finish we selected, or the sentences we re-crafted for hours; but we will remember the challenging, yet rewarding, process of collaborating to produce a solution to one of the greatest problems of our generation: disregard for the environment,” predicts Communications Leader, Katie Romanov.
The home is deliberately and affectionately dubbed, “Self-Reliance” after Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 work that challenged Americans to evaluate society as individuals. He asked that we reject conformity for its own sake and, instead, be loyal to our own moral beliefs. Today, Emerson’s message is especially relevant. In a world fast approaching its carrying capacity, we are reevaluating the ways by which our society produces and disposes of energy and material goods, developing strategies for energy and material efficiency, and trying them out in our project.
Godine continues, “Perhaps at the root of the problem is how Americans, and others around the world who see our example, imagine success. Symbols of success in our society include but are not limited to: mansions, yachts, sports cars, and suits. It’s stuff.
Fundamental to our project is the idea that stuff doesn’t necessarily lead to the ’good life.’ Rather, we see the ’good life‘ in simpler terms:
it’s about the response to the seasons, respect for the natural environment, interaction with family and friends. We have designed and are building a house that brings these relationships to the fore.”
So, how does a liberal arts college teach its students to design, build, fundraise for, and communicate the intentions of a 1,000 square-foot house? This would be an appropriate place for me to note that while I am the lead faculty advisor to the project, my role in its development is entirely supportive. The students are doing almost all of the work. They are designing, building, fundraising for, communicating their intentions, etc. with advice and resources put forth by me and other faculty, staff, and local professional advisors. This is a student-driven, student-run, and student-executed project.
Even so, the Faculty Advisors to the project did develop, with student assistance, a hands-on curriculum paralleling our own benchmarks and the required deliverables from the Department of Energy. Our goal has been to teach resourcefulness: how to take an idea, evaluate it for effectiveness, and make a well-informed decision as to how to proceed. We have been teaching students how to act on their ideals, how to ‘make’ a difference, or ‘make’ something that will make a difference. We are teaching students how to collaborate with each other to do this ‘making,’ not alone or one-on-one with a professor. They are realizing, as James Surowiecki points out in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, that their collective wisdom is far greater than the intelligence of any single individual on the team.
So often we describe the unique learning experiences of our students, and I am clearly doing that here. But it is important to note that this has been a great learning experience for us all.
These kids have truly changed my life and my approach to my work. They have taught me that it is never too late to follow your dreams and beliefs; it is never too late to change the world; and to always, always question convention.
In fact, one of our greatest supporters, building material supplier Joe Miles noted, “What the team doesn’t know about buildings is actually its greatest asset.” My students question everything.
One example stands out. We knew that the envelope of this building would need to be incredibly well insulated in order for it to be net-zero energy and still comfortable in Vermont in January. We explored just about every insulation option out there from foams, to fiberglass, to cotton and blue jeans. Our students in charge of engineering looked at the insulating value of each material, our student chemists looked at the global warming potential and life cycle of each material, and our student builders considered affordability and constructability. While urethane foams are clearly the most effective insulators per inch and best air-sealers available, we opted for dense-pak cellulose insulation made from recycled newspaper. Why? We gathered all the information we possibly could and weighed the pros and cons. While the cellulose meant we needed a roof cavity over 21 inches thick and walls over 11 inches deep, instead of foam sections half as thick, it also meant we would have a minimal impact on global warming in terms of the product manufacture and installation—most important we would be putting a safe and healthy material into our home. So, while the obvious, conventional answer to super insulating these days is foam for immediate energy savings, the more thoughtful answer is cellulose. We discovered this thanks to these inquisitive and relentless kids.
Why is this approach to education important and effective? Student Melissa Segil, also the Team Manager, explains:
“working on the Solar Decathlon has been the most rewarding aspect of my college career. The project offers a unique opportunity to test and apply the philosophy behind so many of the principles we only discuss in the classroom. Reading and writing about the need to reduce carbon emissions is very different from actually tackling one component of the problem: residential energy waste. I’ve begun to understand firsthand why there are so many obstacles to real progress, but am also encouraged and inspired to push further after graduation. Although I may not work in the architecture or construction industry, I’m still gathering experience that will lend itself to any profession–problem solving, critical thinking, and group organization. It’s also a great opportunity to test ideas while we still have the resources that the College can offer. Our professors can guide and mentor us where the standard curriculum might not have the time or space.”
When I was asked to write for this publication, I was asked to explain how the story of our project contributes to the design of a “good life.” I believe we are helping to re-define what a good life is, and hopefully we are communicating that being energy efficient does not mean that we need to make sacrifices to that good way of life. In fact just the opposite, it suggests a life that is more comfortable, healthier, and happier for many generations to come.
Addison sums it up, “in a lecture at Middlebury this past spring, author of Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser said that identifying problems in the world is a useless practice unless we take steps to solve them. His final words to the audience were quoted from a Buddhist monk, ‘Once there is seeing there must be acting; otherwise, what’s the point of seeing?’ Among so many classes, books, lectures, and other things that open our minds to seeing, the Solar Decathlon is our opportunity to act.”
We must not simply help identify problems, but show how strategic design solutions can change the future.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Enlighten illuminate, open ones eyes to greater knowledge
Net-Zero Build using no more energy than onsite renewable energy sources provide annually
‘Make’ a Difference Devise and ensure a way to improve the environmental and social effects and affects of design
Channel Direct, guide without loosing abundant flow of natural energy.
Competing: Match up, take on a challenge and vie for the winning outcome.
Solve Answer, effectively and sustainably resolve, work out a solution.
Engineered Skillfully, artfully arranged or designed an built.
Self-Reliance Resourcefulness, the ability to rely on ones own strategy and power.
Effectiveness Successful, measure how purposeful, well-designed and sustainable the outcome is.
Seeing Uncover, reflect, discern and deduce through observation or experience.
About the Author:
Andrea Kerz-Murray AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C
Andrea is an architect, planner, and LEE D Accredited Professional who recently started her own practice in Middlebury, Vermont. Her firm, Vermont Integrated Architecture (www. vermontintegratedarchitecture.com), focuses on integrating sustainable and healthy design elements and strategies into all their buildings and their relative communities. Having grown up in Rochester, Vermont, Andrea moved home in 2003 from New York City where she worked on various projects with William McDonough + Partners, Flynn-Stott Architects, and for the City of New York. Andrea has a Bachelor Degree in English from Syracuse University and a Bachelor Degree in Architecture from the Pratt Institute. Andrea was on the Board of Directors of AIA Vermont and edited their monthly newsletter for four years, 2003-2007. Andrea lectures at conferences throughout Vermont on Integrated Design-Build and Sustainable Design. She has published several articles on similar topics and has received numerous awards for her work. In addition, Andrea has been teaching Introduction to Architectural Design and Architecture and the Environment at Middlebury College since 2007. As you can tell from her article, she is the very proud Lead Faculty Advisor to Middlebury’s 2011 Solar Decathlon team.
Please visit our website at http://www.solardecathlon.gov/past/2013/team_middlebury.html
For more information about the project or feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org .
U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Solar Decathlon
“The Wisdom of Crowds” James Surowiecki