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