Monday, February 23, 2009

Unity House Rated PLATINUM LEED

Platinum LEED

Last week, we received a thrilling email from the US Green Building Council that our new residence, The Unity House, received the highest rating as an energy efficient, zero carbon dwelling. LEED Platinum is a significant accomplishment for Unity College.

The Unity House is one of 200+ residences nationwide rated LEED Platinum. (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) We have one of four Platinum-rated buildings in Maine. We are the first college President’s residence in the country to be rated Platinum. We are proud of this accomplishment. This outstanding rating will draw national attention to Unity’s sustainability efforts.

I’m sitting in the Unity House on a sunny day in February, listening to the whir of the solar inverter as the sun shines down on the photovoltaic array. It feels good to be producing so much energy on a day when the wind is blowing at 20+ mph and the thermometer reading -5 degrees F. The cement floor is absorbing sun as well, helping to warm the air to a toasty 70 degrees by noon. The heat pump hasn’t clicked on since 7am.

As conscious as we are of the high performance aspects of this building, the actual comfort and efficiency never cease to amaze me. This house is a masterpiece of intentional integration…the ways in which each part supports the other is the secret to its success.

The passive solar heat captured when the sun is out depends on the thermal envelope to securely hold the heat inside. The heated air and the thermal envelope are aided by the thermal mass of the house, which is designed to absorb heat and slowly radiate it out into the rooms after the sun goes down. The 8 inches of insulation, in tandem with designated ‘chases’ that hold plumbing, wiring and heating mechanics, eliminate thermal bridging in the walls…air cannot seep or creep into the house along wires or mechanical devices. (if you put your hand in front of a light socket on an outside wall in another building…you’ll usually feel cold air.)

My favorite thing about the house is having visitors come into the space for the first time. One of the Unity professors just brought her Environmental Citizen classes over for an introductory tour. 26 young minds opened to the concept of living comfortably in a sustainable house. Their initial reservations about ‘sacrifice and rationing’ shifted to embrace the benefits of the passive and active solar gain, the warm wood-paneled (100% recycled) interior, the ‘secret-life’ of the high-performance elements, life-cycle innovations of material use and the aesthetics. Planting ideas in this new generation of leaders will lead the way to a greener future.

Some students dropped to the floor to touch the cement and wonder at its warmth – assuming that cement will be cold in winter. They shake their heads at the use of Advantech (oriented strand board made from ‘junk’ wood) as paneling in the living room, which is usually is hidden from view in attics or used as sub-flooring. In this house, it is sanded and oiled to look like marbleized wood. The black kitchen counters draw attention for their elegance, hiding the fact that ‘paper-stone’ is 100% post-consumer recycled paper. There are many surprises in this house that all add up to a wonderful aesthetic. Living in the Green House is all about opening minds to new ways of using materials – living virtuously and frugally while in great comfort!

The mechanical room grabbed the interest of many as they investigated the solar inverter and the solar hot water heater. At first hesitant to wander around ‘the home of the president’, the students were soon exploring each aspect with vigor and amazement. We increased our prospects for Platinum LEED certification with our willingness to open the house for educational events. Each element of the house is designed to engage educational inquiry and the students actively engaged and asked excellent questions – leaving with a very different sense of how we might all live in a ‘green’ house. Living in the Green House is all about opening minds to new ways of using materials, producing energy and living lightly on the planet – in great comfort!

Cindy Thomashow