By Ann Kenda, Mount Holyoke College - January 9, 2015
Assistant Professor of Physics Alexi Arango has been telling students in his Renewable Energy class for years about a little house in Maine that's so energy efficient that it heats itself without a furnace.
"I love the reaction," he said of students in the physics and environmental studies course, which is open to all majors. "There's disbelief, and the concept almost seems magical. Then you go through it and talk about the physics, and it's really not some wild idea."
Arango, whose research focuses on highly efficient solar energy systems, now is bringing the course's lessons home, in the true sense of the word. He recently built and moved into a 1,000-square-foot "Passivhaus," or "passive house," in Amherst, which operates entirely by solar power.
Arango, who writes a blog about the house, uses the real-life example to illustrate physics and environmental science concepts in the classroom. While students are originally "incredulous," most have become enthusiastic about the project.
"It's unconventional to do what I did," Arango acknowledged, but noted that passive houses are almost mainstream in Germany. "Culturally, we may be a little behind the times in how we think about our buildings."