Unity House

By Cindy Thomashow | Oct 17, 2010

It is mid-October in Maine. Mitchell and I are living in the new 'zero carbon' solar house designed and built for Unity College by Bensonwood Designs in N.H.  We've been in the house for about six weeks. The leaves are off the trees and frost covers the ground most mornings.

The temperature this time of the year ranges from about 29F degrees at night to about 50F 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 6 a.m. 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 250 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 Web site. 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.

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