How the Duke Smart Home Works

The Smart Home is much more than just a residence hall. See more green science pictures.
Photo courtesy of Duke Smart Home Program

The students at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering aren't the only smart ones on the Durham, N.C., campus. Duke's Smart Home is also there -- a 6,000 square foot (557 square meter) residence hall that's also an example of sustainable living through technology, energy efficiency and green lifestyle choices.

The concept of the Smart Home dates back to 2003 when then-undergrad engineering student Mark Younger introduced the idea in his senior thesis. The house, also known as the Home Depot Smart Home because of the company's $2 million sponsorship over the construction period, opened in November 2007. The first residents moved in during the January 2008 semester.


The Smart Home is not only a residence hall, though. It's a live-in laboratory and test bed -- a principle piece of a larger smarter living program at Duke. More than 100 students, mostly undergrads from a variety of academic disciplines, are carrying out research on what it means to live smartly.

So what does "smart" living mean? It doesn't mean applying the hottest new gadget or technology to the problem at hand. At the Duke Smart Home it instead means finding the smartest solution to a problem with adaptable and sustainable answers and technologies. (Even if those answers and technologies may not exist yet.) While one team of students in the program may study a topic such as a microbial bioreactor for hydrogen production (yes, that's a real project), another team might choose to research the cost/benefit of sustainable tech design. This research allows students hands-on exploration and discovery of innovative ways to use technology in the Smart Home.

The research laboratory offers students applied experience not only in green living but also in project management, team building, dynamics and practical design.

Features of the Duke Smart Home

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

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.

Smart Home LEED Certification and Awards

Smart Home became the first LEED Platinum rated residence hall in the world.
Smart Home became the first LEED Platinum rated residence hall in the world.
Photo courtesy of Duke Smart Home Program

While one goal of the Smart Home's construction was to bring awareness, significance and reality to green living, the home also targeted meeting the standards for Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the United States Green Building Council. LEED standards measure green building design, construction, operations and maintenance and can be applied to a building or a community. To achieve certification, a building is measured on how it performs in regard to energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, level of indoor environmental quality and use of sustainable resources. LEED certified buildings use less energy, water and other natural resources, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Certification levels, from low to high, include: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. In 2008, the Smart Home became the first LEED Platinum rated residence hall in the world.

Also in 2008, the Triangle Business Journal selected the Duke Smart Home Program as the Green Nonprofit Program of the Year.


What's next for the Smart Home? As students continue to explore new technologies and research progresses, more prototypes are implemented into the home, such as the Smart Doorbell that allows residents to lock and unlock the Smart Home's front door with a cell phone or computer. And who says all this work can't be fun? Smart Pool can help you improve your pool table skills, with a projector, camera and mathematical modeling for vectors and balls in the game.

What's developed for the Smart Home isn't only for course credit; these ideas have the potential to revolutionize the way we live in our homes. Duke is building a bridge between thinking about green living and actually living it. Students involved in the Smart Home project are leaders not only in technology but in community outreach as well, showing us how smart living is actually done.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


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