Smart Living

Writer: 
June 1, 2008

 

Coming through: Smart Home residents are accustomed to the frequent tours and drop-in guests.

Coming through: Smart Home residents are accustomed to the frequent tours and drop-in guests.
Megan Morr

Tim Gu and Lee Pearson, both residents of Duke's new Home Depot Smart Home, have just finished eating lunch. The two load plates and cups into the dishwasher as, around the kitchen table, several of their housemates sit chatting. Tim's brother, Mark, heads off to his room. He returns with a textbook and notes from an engineering course and settles in for an afternoon of studying.

Though the official weekly tour was yesterday, Mark is happy to oblige.

"This happens all the time," explains junior Katie Beck, looking on as Mark launches into a spiel that has become second nature for the home's ten residents. "People come in and look around. We're used to being in our PJs and not being embarrassed." They just go about their lives.

The house's inaugural residents, who moved in the second week of January, can't blame visitors for being enthralled with their new home. After all, it boasts the latest green technologies.

The standard tour includes explanations about the home's flooring-a combination of gray carpeting, consisting largely of recycled plastic, and cork, a renewable resource; its kitchen appliances-Energy Star certified, with a flat-screen television in the refrigerator door; and its technological "wow" factor-there are 150 Internet ports in the 6,000-square-foot house.

The first stop is the media room, a smallish space with whitewashed walls with three additional flat-screen televisions, ranging in size from thirty-seven to forty-seven inches, each with a headphone jack so that viewers can watch movies or play video games without disrupting other residents. All of the televisions are LCD, which Mark notes is more energy-efficient than plasma.

He leads the visitors back out into the kitchen, with its two-story ceiling and bountiful natural light, and points out the home's two first-floor lab spaces. One visitor asks about the tiny holes in the ceilings of the labs and the media room, through which wires and pipes are easily visible. Mark says that the panels were designed so that residents/engineers can easily remove them and tinker with the house's wiring. "This is not a demo house," he explains. "It is a live-in lab."

In stocking feet, Mark pads up the front staircase, visitors in tow. From above, they look back down on the kitchen. He points out a large exhaust fan that can circulate 12,000 cubic feet of air per minute.

He leads his visitors out onto the house's small, second-floor balcony to get a close look at a few of its eighteen solar panels, mounted on a railing. The panels, glimmering black and blue in the early afternoon sunlight, provide 20 to 30 percent of the home's electricity and also heat much of its water. The visitors stand on tiptoe and look upward, hoping to get a glance at the roof planted with ten species of mosses and sedums, which provide natural insulation, cool the house in the summer through evaporation, and channel rain water into holding tanks to be used later to flush toilets and water the yard.

In addition to showcasing commercially available products like solar panels and exhaust fans, the Smart Home project shows off students' ingenuity through research and design projects. The idea for the house itself stemmed from an honors thesis on "the home of the future" written by Mark Younger '03, an electrical and computer engineering grad. When Younger presented his project in the spring of his senior year, administrators at the Pratt School of Engineering were so impressed by the idea, they decided to make it a reality. They hired Younger to oversee the project.

Currently, there are more than eighty students-the home's ten residents among them-involved in seventeen smart-home-affiliated projects.

Some are surprisingly simple. One student is monitoring the amount of organic materials the residents are composting in order to get a better idea of how much waste is being saved from the landfill. Literally speaking, he weighs residents' food waste and keeps a record of it.

Other projects are more complex. One group of students is working on a hot-water recovery system for the bathroom that would capture some of the heat from water going down the shower drain and transfer it to cold water coming in.

Adam Dixon, a junior who lives in the Smart Home, is leading another team that, as part of a design competition, is working to create a system that will do a better job of monitoring the power being generated by the house's solar panels than existing, commercially available systems. The home's current monitoring system, which retails for several thousand dollars, has some performance issues. For example, it often indicates that solar energy is being collected at night.

Dixon and his team believe that they can create a device using a few cheap sensors and a plastic casing that will monitor and transmit much more accurate data to a home computer. If their design is a success, Dixon says that he may follow the example set by Tim Gu, who last year worked with a Charlotte company to develop the solar panels that create electricity and heat water simultaneously. Gu and his collaborators are now in the process of filing for a patent and bringing the panel to market.

"The idea is to have all of these people continually working to make life in the Smart Home better or more efficient, or both," says Tom Rose '05, who took over from Younger two years ago as the Smart Home's director. Some of these projects may end up being commercially viable. But others are simply for fun. The attitude seems to be, why not try it and see what happens?

Rose says that sometimes visitors are disappointed to find that the home, while packed with neat, environmentally friendly technology, does not have what he calls "the holy grail home automation system." But that's not to say they aren't trying. One group of students is exploring the possibility of installing a microphone in the wall that, when connected to a computer, would use voice-recognition technology in order to comply with residents' spoken requests for weather forecasts, iTunes songs, and dictionary definitions.

The students who live in the house are selected, at least in part, based on the project ideas they submit during the application process. In selecting residents, Rose says that a committee tries to achieve diversity in terms of both gender and academic discipline.

The home's inaugural crop of residents consists of six men and four women. Eight are engineers. Many, like the Gus-Tim currently serves as president of the home, and Mark, a VP-have been involved in the project since they first came to campus. Others have become involved more recently. Beck, an international comparative studies and political science double-major who is working on a science and technology education project aimed at elementary and middle schools, was inspired to live in the home by her father and uncle, who both majored in engineering at Duke. Both were plugged into the Smart Home project early and talked about it frequently.

When Beck's father dropped her off at the beginning of her freshman year, she recalls, he insisted on driving down Faber Street, behind the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, and stopping near an open field at the corner of Powe Street. "This is where it's going to be," he told her in solemn tones.

The site she now calls home is a popular one, and residents are good about opening it to the public. Pearson, a senior and the Smart Home's house manager, is in charge of scheduling biweekly social events. A potluck dinner for neighbors held in mid-February was sparsely attended, but other events-a jazz concert, a fundraiser for a fellow student's foundation, several informal receptions and parties-have brought large crowds.

And then there are the tours. Various VIP groups, including the board of trustees, the Duke Alumni Association board, and visiting scholars from Saudi Arabia, have dropped in, and the house is open for official tours two hours each Saturday. And, of course, sometimes visitors have a way of just showing up unannounced.

After answering a final round of questions, Mark Gu leads his impromptu tour group down the back stairway, past the double room that he shares with his brother.

There's a load of wash spinning in the washing machine, and a heavy, sweet smell rising from the kitchen. Pearson and a friend are hunched over the counter, hard at work at an "unofficial research project"-home-brewing beer.

Mark bids his guests goodbye, and returns to his seat at the kitchen table, where he takes up his notes once again. "I've got an exam tomorrow," he says, smiling.