Unity House | A Leed Platinum Sustainable House

The president’s house at Unity College is no grand Georgian manor in the New England tradition. The walls are bare of ivy, and the portico, such as it is, shades the entrance with corrugated polycarbonate panels and trains morning-glory vines along its […]

By Annie Graves

Feb 20 2013

Steve Milkey with His Wife Michele Leavitt
Photo Credit : Bell, Trent

The president’s house at Unity College is no grand Georgian manor in the New England tradition. The walls are bare of ivy, and the portico, such as it is, shades the entrance with corrugated polycarbonate panels and trains morning-glory vines along its vertical wires. Up above, a blaze of solar panels tilt skyward. They encase the roof so completely that it seems not to be there at all, making this first glimpse somewhat surreal. The building rises into the raw, chilly air like a statement and a question: Can solar power be done? Here, of all places?

Tucked some 40 miles inland from coastal Camden, Maine–or just 25 miles from Belfast–Unity College sprawls across the hillside, a farm converted to an institute of higher learning. Chickens no longer roost in its U-shaped barn; today, it shelters the president’s office and a cafeteria for nearly 600 students. Courses range from solar basics to adventure-based education to environmental law; in theory, a Unity grad can head into the world knowing how to radio-collar a black bear and prosecute polluters.

It’s light-years from lobsters and lighthouses–closer to Maine’s rugged agricultural backbone. Farms sprout in nearby Liberty, Hope, and Freedom, flanked by the towns of Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe. Every September, Unity (population 2,100) flaunts its name and draws 50,000 visitors to the Common Ground Country Fair, hosted by Maine’s organic farmers and gardeners.

And then winter sets in. There are few other places in New England where a house needs to work so hard to keep itself warm.

The story of Unity House begins in 2006, when Mitch and Cindy Thomashow left their home in Dublin, New Hampshire, for a five-year stint in Maine. With deep roots as environmental educators at Antioch University New England in Keene, the couple hoped to use their know-how to raise Unity College’s national presence during Mitch’s tenure there as president.

On a visit to Unity, they walked the campus with friend and builder Tedd Benson, of Bensonwood Homes, based in Walpole, New Hampshire. The college had no house for its president, and all parties concluded that it was time. “Mitch wanted to get a sense of how the campus itself could become a laboratory for sustainability,” Cindy explains. “Tedd was eager to go in that direction with his company, too.”

They imagined a house that would produce as much energy as it used–“net-zero,” in greenspeak–and could earn Platinum LEED status, the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. It would have to tackle the perfect storm of climate challenges flung at it, too: long Maine winters, short days, and cloudy skies, not to mention fierce winds sliding off the hillside. A model for sustainability–because if it could work here …

Memories of those early planning days come back to Cindy quickly, although the Thomashows have since moved on, returning to Dublin in 2011. “It was a brand-new prototype,” she recalls. “Everyone thinks that sustainability means sacrifice. Bottom line, we wanted a place where people would walk in and catch their breath because it was so beautiful.”

The devil’s in the details, as they say, and the details in this 1,930-square-foot house are unswervingly net-zero. “Insulation is key,” Cindy explains. “If Unity House hadn’t been incredibly well insulated, we would never have achieved LEED Platinum.” More obvious is that massive solar grid, masquerading as a roof, providing the house’s electricity and heat (via forced hot air).

“That’s about $65,000 worth of photovoltaic panels sitting up there, I’m told,” says Steve Mulkey, Unity’s newest president. Afternoon shadows scud across the last bits of winter snow on an early March day, and he’s nursing the tail end of a cold that’s been blowing through campus like a nor’easter. After decades spent in Central and South America as a forest ecologist, Steve is passionate about climate change, and together with his wife, Michele Leavitt, intends to steer the school’s curriculum firmly toward the growing field of sustainability science.

“The most profound impact comes from the solar panels,” he continues, “and the fact that everything in the house is based on electricity.” On sunny days, the house racks up credit on the Central Maine Power grid. When clouds roll in, the house draws on the surplus it has accumulated–like a solar savings bank. A smaller array of solar thermal panels over the master bedroom powers the hot-water system. No fossil fuels are burned.

Passive solar is also key, with an expanse of triple-glazed, south-facing windows in the living room. Michele also points out the “you’ll-never-believe-it’s-concrete” terra-cotta-tinted floor tiles, which retain heat in winter and cool the house in summer. Thanks to each feature, the house consistently banks more electricity than it uses.

When asked whether there was a learning curve when they moved in, Steve laughs: “We just live in it. If I’m curious, I can watch the panel [on the kitchen wall] to see how many microvolts and photons per meter squared per second are flowing in the solar panels.”

Visitors, too, are invited to inspect the kitchen panel and bask in the sunny living room. The house hosts conferences, town selectmen, students, and parents. Michele even holds a weekly poetry workshop in the living room. Overhead, her students can read the words of John Ruskin, carved into a thick wooden beam: When we build, let us think we build forever.

In the end, it’s not just about the science and technology of Unity House. It’s something deeper, more mysterious, warmer–and it can’t be measured in BTUs. You hear it in Cindy Thomashow’s voice when she says, proudly, “We learned a tremendous amount about sustainability. It was the easiest house to maintain–incredibly comfortable and friendly.” You hear it when Steve Mulkey talks about this house that he’s inherited and the statement it makes: that it can be done, “that you can build a structure, here in the middle of Maine, that is operationally carbon neutral–that generates more energy than it consumes.”

And finally, it’s there in this new president’s vision for his school and for the future. “You get up in the morning,” he says, “and realize that this is the world, that there’s still great beauty and passion and elegance and poetry and music. Nature itself is worth getting up for.” It’s a house built by passion and sustained by it. We’re humans; we tinker. And we can be our own worst enemies. But we can also do great things.

Steve pauses to scratch Keeper’s ears. This scrappy little dog of questionable origin is joined, moments later, by Heather, his elegant golden-retriever friend, and together they slip through the south-facing sliding-glass door, which looks up the hill toward Unity’s newest building, TerraHaus, an 80-percent passive-solar dorm designed by GO Logic of Belfast, Maine. Then they’re off, racing toward the main campus of this small private college with a very big agenda.

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