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 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).