ECO-STRUCTURE recently spoke with Joseph Baisch, class of 2011 at Middlebury College in Middelbury, Vt., and architecture co-lead of Team Middlebury for the U.S. Department of Energy's 2011 Solar Decathlon.

How is your solar paneling unique?
We use Sunpower 225 panels that attach directly to our standing-seam metal roof. They’re efficient and elegantly designed. We’re the only team to use Sunpower's "signature black" panels—instead of the typical blue grid of solar cells, these are a smooth black plane. Our array is also tilted at the same angle as our gabled roof. We’ve oriented our house along an east-west axis, so the gable provides the best angle for the photovoltaic array to perform efficiently.

What other sustainable features have you incorporated into your design?
We have a green wall along the southern-facing glazing in the kitchen and living space. Vermont's agrarian landscape inspired us to provide the home's occupants with an immediate source of fresh vegetables and greens throughout the colder months.

Our house is also responsive to the environment. Vermont has a cold climate, which requires sturdy homes with passive solar capabilities. In turn, our house, Self-Reliance, has a significant amount of glazing on the south-facing surfaces to allow for natural daylight and heating, but has minimal glazing and small windows on the north, east, and west sides to minimize heat loss. We've also insulated the home with 11-inch-thick walls and 21-inch-thick ceilings, filled with cellulose insulation, to fight the cold winters. It is our tight building envelope that makes our house so efficient.

Our house extensively utilizes durable, local, natural materials. We harvested sugar maple from Middlebury College forests and had the maple milled locally. To get the maximum amount of boards out of each tree, and minimize the number of trees harvested, we use multiple-width boards in our floor and include boards with some natural discoloration. The maple, which also runs up the east and west walls of our home, adds a sense of quality to the interior space.

What was the inspiration of your design, and does it display any regional influences?
Self Reliance was inspired by the qualities of historic New England farmhouses, and from this building typology we’ve taken the gable form. It connects our design directly to Vermont vernacular architecture—it’s a powerful form universally understood as a home. Though we haven’t reproduced a traditional farmhouse, we’ve captured the characteristics that make old farmhouses so desirable—utility, durability, natural materials, rhythm and order defined by timber structure, and response to the landscape—and expressed them in a contemporary architectural language. We accentuate the crisp, pure gable form, producing a container that wraps the interior spaces. The solidity of volume reads immediately as shelter—a home's most basic function.

We’ve also created a comfortable home for a family of four. Square footage was maximized by creating two distinct zones in our house—separating the public from the private. The result is an east-west division, in which the west entry and mudroom open up into a large, public living space while the bedrooms and bathroom more private. 

How has the new affordability criteria affected the design of your house?
Our design wasn’t drastically affected by the affordability contest; it’s always been our goal to create a home that is widely accessible and affordable. We did this by employing simple forms and by adapting traditional construction techniques for energy-efficient building. For example, we feature an alternating stud wall, which creates a deep cavity for our cellulose insulation, but is built in the same manner as a typical stud wall. What will happen to the house after the competition?
Our home will return to Middlebury campus in Vermont. Boreholes have already been drilled for a geothermal system and the permanent foundation is currently under construction. The college plans to use the house for special-interest housing, where students will apply to live on a per-semester basis. It will also serve as an environmental outreach center for dinners, speakers, and educational events.