Smart Home, Social Hub

Sustainable Living Lab Draws a Crowd
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Apr 11, 2008

Living green isn't just good for the environment; it turns out to be pretty good for one's social life as well. While serving as a live-in laboratory for 10 eager undergraduates with an interest in engineering, Duke’s Smart Home has also emerged as a hot spot for kids to hang out, party and become more environmentally conscious.

“Smart Home has become one of the coolest places to hang out,” said Tim Gu, a junior in the Pratt School of Engineering. “We’ve held many activities that keep bringing people back. It’s a great conversation starter. I think this has been a positive and unintended consequence of Smart Home.”

The $2 million, 10-person "dorm" on Duke's Central Campus is a live-in laboratory of water and energy conservation, recycled materials, and spectacular new technology.

In addition to marveling at the home's technological and engineering features, like the Internet-enabled refrigerator, the students have developed a greater appreciation of everyday habits and behaviors they can change to lighten their impact on the environment. They’re making the most of the home’s novel technologies and adjusting to its quirky peculiarities.

Solar panels provide about a tenth of the home’s energy needs, and rain falling on the sedum-covered roof is filtered and stored in indoor and outdoor cisterns to be used to water the lawn, clean clothes and flush toilets. During times of heavy rain, a blessing recently for drought-stricken North Carolina, the water comes to the toilets pre-yellowed, complicating the old saw, “if it’s yellow . . .” The cause is under investigation.

Indeed, many of the technological features of the house are still being installed or tweaked. Shortly after the Home’s opening in January, Dragon, the Hal-like voice-activated computer designed to provide weather forecasts or definitions on command, would blurt out unprompted replies to unasked questions. She -- yes Dragon is a female -- is off-line now undergoing therapy, but she will be back. After all, the Home is designed to be in a state of constant updating by budding engineers with new ideas.

Almost immediately after moving in, the students realized that sounds traveled too easily within the house. One culprit is a foot-long gap between the walls and ceiling designed to allow easy access to wires or pipes for new experiments or Home upgrades. The solution? Recently, bales of what are essentially ground up denim were installed fill the gaps, so the Gu twins, who share a first-floor room next to the kitchen, won’t be so disturbed by the noisiest cycle of the gas-powered clothes dryer outside their door.

Since its opening in January, the home has hosted a blues concert to commemorate National Engineering Week, a fundraising event for fellow engineering student Josh Sommer’s cancer foundation, some parties, and student-professor dinners. Smart Home also hosted a potluck for their neighbors in surrounding private homes to show the community that the residents were just normal college kids. President Richard Brodhead also stopped by for dinner in March.

The residents, and visitors, find that the constant reminder of being in the Smart Home inspires them to make subtle, but important changes, in their habits. Melanie Blohm, a junior biology major, manages the indoor composter for use on the planned garden in the spring with housemate Jeff Schwanes. “Seventy percent of household waste can be composted, and it’s so easy. By producing less waste, composting can relieve pressure on landfills and help us grow our own food," Blohm said. "I don’t look at any kind of waste in the same way.”

Lee Pearson, a senior double-majoring in civil and environmental engineering and biomedical engineering, said that all the unique eco-friendly technology is an “in-your-face” reminder that small actions can collectively make a positive difference.

“Before moving here, I really didn’t think about those kinds of things,” Pearson said. “Now, I’m reminded of recycling and composting every day. For example, I’m careful what I buy now, making sure I get phosphate-free soaps. I think twice before using paper towels indiscriminately. I wasn’t doing that before.”

The students say they feel like members of a family, a welcome change from their previous experiences in the dorms. Instead of living individual existences, the residents cook, clean, study and do laundry together. This closeness has easily outweighed the fact that the home was designed to meet commercial, not residential, building codes.

“For example the ceilings are much higher than you’d see in a typical home, the lighting is very precise and there are illuminated exit signs,” said Tim Gu. “However, because we do things together and have become close, this is very much a home.”

Richard Merritt is senior public relations specialist in the Pratt School of Engineering

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