Water collection cisterns fill the basement of Duke's Smart Home.

Photo courtesy of Duke Smart Home Program

Features of the Duke Smart Home

The Smart Home has been student-led -- with assistance and input from faculty -- since its inception. Just as you would need to make decisions about your home's design and features if you were constructing one from the ground up, so too did the team working on the Smart Home. Student teams collaborated to decide on such things as the Smart Home's siding, roofing and every other piece of the house, but they also made contacts in the industry -- a rare opportunity for undergraduates.

Their decisions and partnerships have paid off. Let's look at some of the big ticket features: The Smart Home was constructed with sustainable and recycled materials including sustainable lumber, renewable cork flooring and paperless drywall made of moisture-resistant fiberglass. The walls are insulated with spray foam. On the outside, the house is wrapped in a waterproof vapor membrane and covered with environmentally friendly fiber cement board to form a rain screen. The external siding is constructed in a manner that allows air and water to circulate and prevents moisture from accumulating.

There are two solar power systems powering the house. A solar thermal unit helps heat water for showers and dishwashing. Photovoltaic panels mounted to the front of the house and connected to the public grid convert the sun's energy into usable electricity, enough to reduce the Smart Home's energy consumption by about 30 percent [source: North Carolina Museum of Life and Science].

The house also features a green roof, which doesn't denote the color but the type -- this roof has plants growing on it. The green roof provides year-round insulation and helps prevent the home from contributing to the urban heat island effect. Water falling on the roof is filtered by soil and ends up being reused for laundry and yard maintenance. There are also rainwater collection cisterns with 1,000-gallon (3,785 liter) storage tanks for collecting water runoff from the roof. The water is then used for flushing toilets and yard irrigation.