Wednesday, December 24, 2008


The Unity House is facing it's first major challenge—the depths of winter! Over the last three weeks, we've had about three days of sunshine, a 20 inch snow storm (with 40 mile per hour winds), an ice storm, snow showers, sub-zero cold, and the shortest days of the year.

For the first time since we've moved in, we have used more electricity from the grid then we've generated from the solar panels. We expected this would happen. Remember that zero-carbon is our year-round total. Based on our observations thus far I think we'll easily come out ahead with our annual carbon accounting.

On the few brilliantly sunny days we've had, even when the temperature never climbed above 15 degrees Farenheit outside, passive solar gain heated the house to about 68 degrees F and we didn't use the electric heat pump at all. The house kept the heat well and it dropped to 63 degrees F just as we were about to go to sleep. On those sunny days, we generated as much electricity as we used. So the challenge is to get through the clouds and snow.

Even on the day of the almost-blizzard, the house is so tight that we never felt any drafts.

That's our report from the first few weeks of solstice winter.

Mitchell and Cindy

Monday, December 1, 2008

"Campus into Canvas" with the Art of Stewardship

Earlier this month, we had a conference on the Unity College campus called the Art of Stewardship. 55 people braved the damp November weather to help us turn ‘campus into canvas’…identifying ways to use art as a medium to engage residents and visitors in thinking about stewardship and sustainability. The Unity House was their first destination and our first big event in this public/private space…a test of its versatility and function.

The designers gave specific attention to “optimizing the thermal envelope and minimizing the space needed to accommodate various sized groups of people” creating transformable spaces within the house. The wall between the guest room and the gathering space/living room folds up, providing another 270 square feet for entertaining. We didn’t use it this time…opting to use the guest room as an entry area in the wet weather. But, the flexibility of the interior got a real workout – passing with flying colors.

The intimate living place, where we sit each night and play board games, was easily converted into an amphitheater as 55 folding chairs filled the space. We had a catering table, a registration table and a whole lot of bodies comfortably gathered for the beginning of this wonderful event. The house served as a focal point for discussions about sustainability and comfort…about possibilities of merging beauty with functional green design. The details within the space are lovely and never cease to surprise visitors who expect sustainability to equal stark, ascetic simplicity.

The interior is warm and inviting for many reasons that include both the technical and the aesthetic. The colors are a warm collection of brown tones with big timbered beams and high ceilings. The floor is a brown acid-stained concrete that looks so soft that people frequently bend down to feel the texture. The technical aspects include the thermal envelope that amasses warmth from the sun in the walls, floor and ceiling. Heat radiates back into the room from these ‘collectors’ without leaving cold spots… inhabitants feel comfortable even on cloudy days. I watched the temperature rise during the morning session. 55 bodies throw off a lot of heat! The temperature rose about seven degrees during the two hours, which kept us from turning on the heat for two days. Thermal mass and an insulating R value of 43.85 makes an enormous difference in the quality of heat we experience here.

I thought I would miss the ‘hot spot’ that a wood stove provides. And, most of the people during the event asked whether we did miss the central heat force in our lives. We spent 30 years using wood as our main fuel source. We thought about adding a masonry wood stove to this design but our goal of ‘net-zero’ would have suffered. So, we went with a passive design, which includes about 24 feet of glass on the south side of the house and concrete floors. Our roof has a 5.4 KW PV array and solar domestic hot water system to insure our supply of electricity should we need to turn on the Hallowell heat pump. So far, we are still producing more energy than we use on a daily basis. We will see what winter in Maine brings…but I have faith in our ability to budget our energy use wisely. If we can do it in Maine, it is probably possible anywhere!

Cindy and Mitchell Thomashow

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Daily Discovery -- Unity House, the Experience of a Lifetime

It is early November in Maine. Mitchell and I are living in the new ‘zero carbon’ solar house designed and built for Unity College by Bensonwood Designs in NH. We’ve been in the house for about 6 weeks. The leaves are off the trees and frost covers the ground most mornings. The temperature this time of the year ranges from about 29 degrees at night to about 50 on a sunny day. We have yet to use our heat. This high performance house is designed to hold heat and to produce it passively. The south-facing wall is made up of big sliding triple-paned glass doors. The sun shines in on stained concrete floors. The mass of concrete holds enough heat from a day of sun to radiate warmth through the house all night long. We go to sleep with the house at about 67 degrees and when we wake up it is the same. We also have a significant array of solar panels on the roof.

At about 6am every morning the back door opens and I hear Mitchell’s feet crunching across the stones on his way to the electric meters. He dutifully records the kilowatts produced by our solar panels and compares them to the electric energy coming in to the house from the grid at night when the sun is down. I hear an excited whisper…"we are still way ahead!" I already know that from the inside monitor but, he is a purist…the outside meter records the amount of energy we have produced after the house takes its share and before it goes back to the grid. It shows the extra energy we are producing – after we have spent electricity cooking, cleaning, playing music and computing.

Every morning, I look at the meter hanging in the living room. It is in plain view for every visitor to see as an educational experience. Building this house and living in it is a commitment to change. Both Mitchell and I believe that all of us need to rethink how we use resources, how we participate in conservation and how each person responds to the challenges of climate change.

In addition to the kilowatt-hours we have produced, the inside meter provides a record of the money saved by the solar panels and records how many pounds of carbon we have kept out of the atmosphere. This information is very satisfying. Today, for example, we produced 33 kilowatt hours, saved four dollars on our electric bill and kept 42 pounds of carbon from being released in to the atmosphere…not a bad day’s work! The last electric bill showed a nine dollar service call and a substantial credit.

About once a week, someone drives down the driveway drawn in by the solar array that is visible from the road. As my office is in the Unity House, I greet them and offer information about the house. This house is of great interest to people who are trying to find a way to become independent of Oil and are frustrated by high oil bills for winter heating. We are committed to educating the public about this style of living.

As one visitor said, “Everyone should be living like this!” and went on to publish the attributes of the house on his website. He is right. We all should be living like this…it is easy and right. The current state of the planet demands that we rethink our lifestyles. Mitchell and I are comfortable, warm and surrounded by aesthetic beauty in this high performance building…no sacrifices…only amazement at how comfortable living in a zero-carbon, zero-oil environment can be.

Cindy Thomashow, Director, Center for Environmental Education Online

Unity House. More than a sustainable solution, it's an educational opportunity

At Unity College we believe that climate change, threats to biodiversity, and habitat fragmentation are the most important challenges of our era. Our “environmental security” has ramifications for the global economy, international policy, and the quality of life. We believe that our colleges and universities must respond to this crisis by promoting sustainable alternatives at every level of campus life. This makes both ecological and economic sense.

We are challenged, inspired, and motivated by the emerging level of national commitment to sustainable solutions. In particular, we note how American colleges and universities are taking a leadership effort. Unity College is a charter signatory of the
North American Colleges and University Presidents Climate Commitment.

This organization is mobilizing campuses around America to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint, promote sustainability education, and develop partnerships that promote the business of sustainability.

Similarly we are buoyed by the extraordinary efforts of the
American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education which supports sustainable solutions for campuses, businesses, and institutions.

In our view, nothing could be more relevant for University Business than serving to promote, broker, and encourage this important movement.

One month ago, my wife Cindy and I moved into The Unity House, a zero-carbon solar residence. In partnership with Bensonwood Homes and the MIT School of Architecture, this home is the second project of the
Open Prototype Initiative.

This extraordinary effort seeks nothing less than to change the future of American housing by producing modestly priced, comfortable, ecologically sound homes that are durable, resilient, and beautiful. Please check out the
Bensonwood website to learn more about the technical aspects of the house or to learn more about their cost and availability.

We’ve been living in The Unity House for about six weeks. The really, really, good news, is that the house is performing brilliantly and it is an absolute pleasure to live in. We don’t have to wait for the future of housing. It’s here right now! We can’t think of a better way to simultaneously solve the housing crisis and reduce our carbon footprint. Let’s build (and retrofit) houses that are truly ecologically sustainable and very affordable!

Two and a half years ago, just before I took the job as the president of Unity College, another college president gave me some reassuring and inspirational advice. Helen Giles-Gee, the President of Keene State College told me that “being a college president will be the greatest opportunity you will ever have to be an educator.”

The Unity House is more than just a sustainable solution. It’s a wonderful educational opportunity. We are hoping that the countless visitors to the house will be impressed, inspired, and motivated to live similarly. We hope that they contact Bensonwood if they wish to live in a similar home, or try their hand at their own designs, or provide us with suggestions about how we can improve our own ecological and energy habits. We encourage you to read
Tedd Benson’s blog as well.

In the weeks to come, Cindy and I will discuss various aspects of living in The Unity House. I will focus on some of the broad philosophical challenges related to sustainability and higher education. Cindy will write about the day to day experience of living in The Unity House—how it changes our energy habits, how it makes us more aware of our footprint, how it makes us better learners and teachers. And we will have some guest appearances from some of our visitors. Please do participate with your comments and questions. That’s the point of a blog—to promote discussion, controversy, and dialogue!

Mitchell Thomashow, President, Unity College

Friday, August 15, 2008

Living Green in the Unity House

There are a lot of questions about the new President’s Residence on the Unity College campus. We hear them everyday - both directly and indirectly. This blog will answer some of the questions and it will, hopefully, inspire others….so please ask questions and we will find answers for you.

We want this blog to spark conversation about the green innovations embedded in the Unity House. This new residence represents a college commitment to sustainability and green building. It is the first step in the 2020 Master Plan created by a diverse and representative group of students, faculty, staff and community for a fully sustainable campus. This residence shows the world that Unity College believes in practical responses to climate change and environmental quality.

What makes this house special?
This new house has a small ecological footprint. It is built on previously impacted land. The landscape will feature a mostly edible or permaculture design. The energy system is completely solar and feeds energy back to the electric ‘grid’. It has a ‘green roof’ and will trap rainwater for landscape needs. Unity College made a choice to build a ‘net zero’ house, which means that we will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions as we heat, cook, cool and light our living space. The house will not produce any carbon emissions. The materials used in construction are recycled, local or renewable and it was produced with zero waste. All the appliances are rated Energy Star at the highest level.

Who built the house?
Bensonwood B
uilders in Walpole, N.H. designed, produced and built the house. Tedd Benson, who gave the commencement speech at Unity graduation in 2008, designs and builds energy-efficient, low-maintenance timber frame homes that are built to last for centuries. He has named this prototype The Unity House, which will become available for sale on the broader market.

Any outside contractors came from the local area when available. For example, the ‘teardrop’ cul-de-sac landscape was designed by a Unity student, Brad Ecklund. He is working with Brian Gaudet and Moonshine Gardens, a Unity based firm, to install the patio and edible plantings.

What does the Unity House cost?
Unity College has contributed $200 a square foot to the cost of the house. The actual cost of this particular house is higher than that because of all of the research and design work that has gone into it. Any additional cost is being carried by Bensonwood and represents a philanthropic contribution to the college. This is a prototype (the first of its kind) and each new innovation had to be tested and evaluated before it was considered or installed.

However, none of these cost figures are representative of what a house such as this will eventually cost. Bensonwood is hoping to bring the costs down considerably below the $200 per square foot figure once they can construct these homes at the appropriate scale of production.

The project has involved many different ‘green’ companies. Our solar array and metering mechanics come from by Grow Solar from Vermont. Our air-source heat pump is a new energy efficient design produced by Hallowell of Maine. This building is the result of a team effort that included carpenters, plumbers, electricians, scientists, architects, alternative energy experts, and LEED evaluators – all curious about alternative energy and new green building design.

Is it true that the siting and landscaping costs have driven up the total price of the cost?
As with constructing any new house, predicting the final cost is difficult. The siting costs for the house have been more than we originally anticipated because there is a lot of ledge on the site. We do not have the final figures yet on all of the siting costs. When we have them we will make them available. However, the site is being “developed” with ecological and edible landscaping and will be a very attractive space for Unity College.

Does the house belong to Mitchell and Cindy?
No. The house is a President’s Residence for the college. It belongs to the college. The Unity House is both a private residence and a public showcase. It is a role model for what is to come in new house construction. We will be using the house as a private living space and will also use it as an educational tool. Each aspect of the house will be interpreted so that people who visit can learn about its innovative approach to energy, water use, indoor air quality, landscaping, material use, and more.

How is the cost of the Unity House financed? Where does the money come from?
None of the expenditures for The Unity House come from the Unity College operating budget. The down payment for the house comes from the plant fund. The siting costs are paid for by the plant fund as well. Unity College borrows the rest of the money. The monthly payment for the house (repaying the loan) is equivalent to the president’s housing allowance. Hence The Unity
House doesn’t increase the debt load of the college in a significant way and doesn’t impact our ability to proceed with future construction projects. Finally, the impact on the plant fund doesn’t impede our ability to proceed with deferred maintenance and other short term capital expenditures.

Who buys the furniture and other amenities?
The President’s Residence is both a public and a private dwelling. The Gathering Room (living and dining area) will host some meetings and fundraising events for the college. The kitchen is designed to both accommodate small private dinners and very large groups. The guest room has a moveable wall that collapses to give us flexibility when entertaining large numbers of people. When the wall is extended, the guest room becomes a private space for certain guests of the college to reside.

For the Gathering room, the college has purchased beautiful green furniture that will last for decades. All of the wood is local to Maine and sustainable. The fabrics are organic. The floor coverings are from Anderson, a company dedicated to carbon neutrality and environmental health. This is the room that will entertain visitors and it must be a showcase.

The kitchen appliances have the highest rated Energy Star certification (and they all came from Sears in Belfast!). The other furnishings (private bedroom and guestroom) will be a mix of Thomashow purchased (but then also owned by them) and college purchased furniture. Essentially anything that is private belongs to the Thomashows and anything that is public belongs to the college.

What are some of the philanthropic opportunites offered by the house?
For starters, the LEED certification and unique sustainable aspects of this house give Unity
College some wonderful press coverage. The house has received a great deal of attention in many Maine newspapers, we were covered by The Chronicle of Higher Education, University Business, and other national publications, and we expect much more national coverage. This coverage keeps Unity College in the news creating interest in the college and reminding people of our interesting mission. Every news story is a chance to tell the Unity College story. We have only seen the beginning of the press coverage.

More importantly, it gives the Unity College president an opportunity to invite interesting visitors to the college, a place to entertain/educate/and house them, and a way to talk about the college. The point of the house is to tell the story of Unity College.

What is the big deal with the LEED rating?
A LEED rating will give the Unity House credibility and authority as the best green building possible. LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED encourages the global adoption of sustainable green building practices through the creation and implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria. Our house is evaluated by a third-party organization that uses the LEED criteria to score its environmental performance. The evaluation does have costs attached to it but they are not currently available.

Our goal for this house is a Platinum rating, the highest rating a house can achieve.
LEED measures a building’s performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. If we say our house is Platinum, we mean that it uses less energy, water and natural resources; it creates less waste; and it is healthier and more comfortable. As a result, we will have lower energy bills, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and have less exposure to mold, mildew and other indoor toxins.

Green homes are healthier, more durable and more cost-effective.

Will we get to see the house in action?
In October, Mitchell and I will post several Open House dates so that the campus community and people in the local area can see the house and how it works. If you have other questions about this new building on campus, let us know by posting a question below.