SJ: We are so lucky to have had the opportunity to go on an overnight field trip to the Flagstaff Hut (thanks to everyone who made it happen)! At a self-contained facility like this one, you are confronted directly with the reality of what it takes in terms of energy and infrastructure to heat a home. A big (albeit hidden) feature of the hut was the radiant heating system, which heats the building by circulating hot water through pipes under the stone floors. We saw some interesting connections between the hut’s wood boiler (named “Suzie”) and Colby’s biomass plant. Wood is considered a sustainable fuel in this area, which is supported by MHT’s commitment to keeping money in the local economy. The bathrooms were really interesting; instead of a traditional septic system, the hut has composting toilets. The human waste that enters the system is converted into a mere two wheelbarrows-full of compost every 4-5 years!
Overall, I was really struck by the ingenuity of the systems and the tradeoffs associated with each one (e.g. initial costs, space, etc.). It would be really interesting to calculate the payback period for the hut, like we’ve done in class for a car loan and a mortgage.
GB: For our first snowshoe hike into Maine Huts and Trail, I was breath-taken by the pristine beauty of the forest. The light glimmering through the trees and bouncing off the fresh snow was amazing! When we arrived at the Hut we went to watch the sun set and I loved the reflection of the sky against the frozen lake; the sun looked like it was burning through the horizon because of all the white surroundings.
After our delicious dinner we received an energy tour of the hut. In the first talk I was most struck by the amount of thought and consideration that went into building and decorating every inch of the hut. Every aspect of the hut had be designed with intent, such as the solar windows that warmed the floor, extra insulation to keep in the heat, special ceiling design for better acoustics, and “sky light” lights. In the second talk where we learned about the heating and energy systems, I really enjoyed learning about the Clivus composting toilet. It was such an ingenious design and I thought it was remarkable they had only dumped the compost once in 5 years! Especially compared to flushing over a gallon of water every time a single person goes to the bathroom!
In general the tour really made me think about how inefficient and unsustainable house building and energy systems are, but how difficult it is to break the norm. In order to create the hut so much extra time and effort needed to be put in, just because our economy allocates so much money and already has so many systems in place for the typical energy and plumbing systems. The cost of alternative energy and heating systems are so high in part because there isn’t enough demand for them and the loophole that people have to jump through to live more sustainably is so large that it prevents those who even have the money from investing in these new, more efficient, more sustainable systems. The ingenuity of design of the Hut combined with the exquisite outdoor surroundings cemented for me the importance of continually funding, researching, and investing in alternative energy and increasing awareness about the simple acts people can do to decrease the amount of energy they use and waste they produce.
KM: On our recent adventure to the Flagstaff Lake Hut, I was first amazed by the shear beauty of the location at which we were staying. I have never seen a more beautiful sunset, or in such a short amount of time, felt that cold in my life (subzero temps and 40 mile per hour wind just about froze my nose off in the 15 minutes when we watched the sunset). Aside from the aesthetic aspect, the educational value of going to the hut was also incredible. First, learning about the passive solar mechanisms, the compostable toilets, the water heating methods, and the solar electricity was great, because we got to see how a very secluded place could survive completely off the grid. The follow-up conversations about the economic efficiencies of each mechanism was also fascinating, especially since we determined that they have essentially made the best economic and environmental decisions possible. What an amazing trip! I look forward to going back!
AL: Although I’m still trying to grasp all the technical terms and system processes that I’ve been learning in class, it was really interesting to get a behind the scenes view at the sustainable hut. We were given an energy tour and learned about the different ways that Maine Huts and Trails pushes to make their huts as sustainable as possible (solar panels, backup generators, energy tanks, and composting toilets were among those efforts). I was particularly impressed by their effort to contribute to the local economy by purchasing their supplies within a 50 mile radius.
FB: As far as the energy and economics of our trip goes, here are the details: I thought that the Flagstaff hut was incredibly well thought out and designed. The amount of thought that went into literally each board of the hut is quite impressive. If we start with the things that are working well, they have taken full advantage of natural sunlight, found the most efficient and green way to dispose of waste, and they have a done a great job at storing energy all while using local resources and keeping a cozy feel. However, if I were to discuss the things that are lacking in the hut, I believe it only further highlights the fact that with bigger numbers of people, comes bigger consumption. As efficient and eco friendly as the hut was, the sheer fact it needed to house dozens of people on any given night severely limited the effectiveness of the technologies put in place.
On the tour, it was clear that we were asking questions about the hut that really got down to the real nitty-gritty details. It’s one thing to just appreciate their energy systems, but it’s another to grill them right down to where every bit of energy comes from around the clock. And, when we did probe further, there were flaws. The hut uses older technology, which has them operating at lower efficiencies sometimes, and they are housing numbers so large that their energy needs cannot solely be supported through solar power or their wood furnace.
Ultimately, I believe that seeing the places where the hut cannot always succeed shows us how energy dependent we are as a population. I believe that it makes us more aware of how much we consume. But it also is inspiring to see old technology as successful as it is. It makes me curious about how much more improvement and how much more efficiency we could get from the newer systems today.
As far as the money goes, I am still skeptical. The hut even 5 years after construction is only recovering 50% of their expenses annually. There are many factors that play into what this hut costs, however, it does make you question if on a larger scale, these energy systems would ever be economically plausible.
JB: I found the whole idea of the hut system very cool, I think that it is a great way of giving people access to nature and flagstaff lake. It also seems like something that brings many more people to the area, having a positive impact on the local economy. The fact that many of the resources that they use area also from the area also help with this.
It’s very interesting to see a business exist off the grid, when we were there it was cool to see the green elements of the hut balanced with their financial feasibility. Seeing the composting system totally changed my perception of those kinds of things. All the architectural pieces of the hut that enhanced the hut energy saving capabilities were also very cool.
GV: Taking a trip to the Flagstaff Hut this past weekend has got me thinking about how effective it is to live off the grid. Economically, should it be the best option it would require some significant separation from town centers, making for expensive utility bills. What interested me was that while the hut was powered by solar panels, the need for another source of energy was prevalent during the winter months when it is necessary to heat the bunk houses. The passive house design seemed to be very effective at insulating the hut, although there were areas where architectural influence took precedence over efficiency. Overall I was impressed with the systems employed there, while understanding that there is still more that could be done to increase the efficiency of the energy use.
ER: Our professors really knocked it out of the park with this one – what better way to spend a Friday night than with good company, beautiful accommodations, and the great outdoors? After a peaceful snowshoe in and one of the most breath-taking (literally – almost too cold to breathe) sunsets I’ve ever experienced, we dove right into the good stuff: renewable energy and composting toilets.
As many of my classmates have mentioned, the facility generates most of its electricity from south-facing solar PV panels on the roof of the lodge, and stores extra power in large batteries. It was interesting to see the deployment of small-scale renewable energy projects as the primary source of electricity generation, because it is often argued that intermittent sources of power like solar panels and wind energy must be paired with a more flexible energy source to succeed, but while the facility does use propane as a back-up source of power, using solar PV as a primary energy source was fairly reliable because they could predict how many days of sun they would get each year.
The heating system was especially well planned. The lodge relies on biomass from local logging companies – this then would reduce the carbon footprint in transporting the fuel, as well as feed money back into the local economy. This heating system was combined with a very thorough passive solar system, which relied on the thermal mass of the materials used, the proper insulation, and effectively placed windows to allow sunlight to seep in and warm naturally. I was impressed to see the level of detail that the engineers and architects took in creating this system. The inputs used to create this hut had both aesthetic and practical use, reminding me of how true sustainability focuses not only on the environmental footprint of a facility, but the social benefits and economic feasibility. I hope the hut continues to flourish for many years to come!
DB: The Flagstaff Hut lab was so much fun and we learned a lot about the measures that are required in order to be a more sustainable facility. There is a lot of investment that is needed to go against the grain as far as energy usage in the United States. The craziest thing I learned was about how much energy and water it takes to flush toilets. I’m not sure why more drastic measures haven’t been taken by more institutions….redesigning toilets has a huge payback! These energy-saving measures should be taken on a larger scale across the US.
SM: Sustainability is an interesting thing, its very subjective. Being off the grid is a qualification that can be done quite easily, if all you do is submit to buying hundreds of gallons of propane each year. To be sustainable and off the grid, however, takes innovation not commonly found. Every aspect of the Flagstaff Hut brought efficiency into consideration, from double doors to composting toilets. The radiant floor heating allows adjustable heating, and can be retrofitted with any type of heat source for the boiler.
AB: It is truly amazing and also inspiring, that L.L. Bean understands the importance of sustainability. They donated vast amounts of money to ensure that at the time of construction, the hut would have state of the art equipment. When we first arrived at the trail head, it was evident that being environmentally responsible was the number one priority. There was a latrine set up, which is part of a composting system. As we snow shoed to the hut, it was clear that much of the dedicated land had been untouched.
When we first arrived at the site, we noticed the solar panel arrays. We entered the hut and noticed the energy efficient light bulbs in each light socket. The shower limit was 6 minutes, much shorter than a typical Colby student shower, here on campus. We were fortunate enough to get a “behind the scenes” tour of the different energy saving systems the hut used. Everything from the roof design, to the type of floor tiles used, was carefully thought out, to be as energy efficient as possible. The R-value of the ceiling was 62, which is very high compared to the average ceiling R-value. As we ventured into the basement, the real cool, machines began to appear. The composting system was so efficient, that 4 years’ worth of waste was easily transported away in 2 wheel barrows. The wood burning stoker, transferred the chemical energy of the wood into thermal energy which was then stored in water, and ultimately distributed throughout the house. On opposites sides of the basement, were batteries that store the energy from the solar arrays. The DC current had to be converted to AC current, which lost about 20% of the energy, mainly because the system is outdated. When the sun doesn’t provide enough energy, the backup propane system is triggered. One interesting fact, was that the major electricity draw was from the well pump that is used to draw drinking and cooking water up from the ground and into the hut. This field trip was truly unique, and I doubt I will be able to enjoy the outdoors, while learning,simultaneously.
DZ: The most attractive thing must be the beautiful view of the frozen lake. It is also an amazing experience to go through snowy forest with snow boots. It was really cold but I still kept taking picture because I wanted to share my unbelievable experience with my family and friends. About the course, there were a lot of clever design in the huts. The heating system is highly complex and efficient. It makes the huts much hotter than our dorm with limited biomass. Maybe Colby can improve the heating system to increase the efficiency.
However there is still something I cannot understand, like the meaning of the composting system. Maybe the biggest reason to use it is to avoid the pollution and odor of human’s waste. There might be easier way to solve this problem.
EL: The first thing that struck me about the hut was how comfortable it was. It was really cool to see a hut (really a small hotel) which was off the grid, environmentally friendly, and sacrificed few creature comforts. I also realized that the Maine woods provide a great natural lab for environmentally friendly sustainable systems. I say natural lab because the constraints of the location make a lot of the systems economically feasible. For example, the Clivus system is great for the environment but also makes economic sense because without it an expensive leach field system would be needed. The solar panels likely made economic sense because it would be extremely expensive to connect the hut to the grid. Further, the hut relies on its pristine surrounding to attract visitors and as such is incentivized to preserve that pristine environment.
The hut itself was really comfortable. I like how it was designed with a lot of consideration and thoughts. From choosing which toilet or heating system to use to building solar windows in the main lounge to provide extra warmth or putting round windows in the hallways for sky light. Another nice thought is how the staffs try to use as much local resources as possible, such as the logs from Maine for the heating system. The fact that they use solar panels to produce electricity and the Clivus toilet system to minimize usage of water really impressed me. However, although their intention is to be more environmental-friendly and self-sustainable while minimizing the cost, I think the efficiency of the plan is greatly affected because of the outdated system that they use to produce energy. It was clear that the heating system was not very cost-efficient and that they had to change form DC to AC ( which creates electricity loss). I know it’s not possible to improve or change this system at the moment, and I do think that they have done a great job so far, but I hope that they could get more donations in the long run to reach their sustainability goal.