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Unity House | A Leed Platinum Sustainable House

Unity House | A Leed Platinum Sustainable House
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“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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