Duke Engineering Students Planning to Build "Smart House"

December 9, 2003

What better way to learn about design than to live in what you create? After a year of planning, Duke University engineering students hope to see their ideas come to life in a “smart house” expected to house 10 upperclass students each year.

In the spring of 2004, if plans are approved by Duke's Board of Trustees, Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering will break ground on a combination undergraduate research laboratory, residence and engineering outreach project called the DELTA Smart House Project. In a smart house, technology is used to anticipate residents’ needs (from security to shower temperature to surround sound stereo), minimize waste and enhance quality of life.

Short for Duke Engineering Living Technology Advancement, the DELTA Project is dedicated to three E’s: energy and efficiency, environment and health, and entertainment and communications. Additionally, the student design team has committed to meeting LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building standards.

“The laboratory is the house,” said project leader Mark Younger, a 2003 Pratt engineering graduate. “Built on campus, the house will let students fully experience the successes and pitfalls of the advanced systems they create.”

Meeting the project goals requires cross-disciplinary engineering teams that include biomedical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering students. Younger also plans to include environmental science students from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and computer science majors from Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

For students working on the project, learning to thrive on teams of people with different backgrounds is crucial to the learning experience. And students will get the chance to follow the step-by-step process engineers take to conceptualize, design, prototype and finally build an environmentally sensitive home.

The smart house concept grew out of a conversation between Younger and Pratt Dean Kristina Johnson. Younger spent a semester planning a smart house project as an independent study course topic, and then launched a 20-student design project in the spring of 2003 that continues to grow.

Now hired on as project manager, Younger will continue to mentor student teams and oversee construction, serving as the primary liaison between Duke and the architectural and construction teams.

“Duke’s DELTA House differentiates itself from other university smart house projects in two fundamental ways,” Younger said. “First, students actually live in the house while developing the systems in and around it. Second, the DELTA Project’s broad cross-disciplinary nature gives students invaluable interaction with engineers specializing in fields other than their own as they prepare for the real world.”

Though an outside architectural firm will ultimately create the construction-ready plans, students will have worked with the architects to conceptualize, design and prepare cost estimates for the house and its systems. For example, the team plans to conserve water and minimize liquid waste as much as possible by using a recycling system that reclaims and purifies wastewater for repeated use. They also plan to incorporate passive energy heating, ventilation and cooling as much as possible, and add some high-tech features like voice recognition and home automation.

Student research will continue long after construction is completed. “The house will be a living system, ever changing and updating, and even after the structure is built, it could take on any number of directions as technology progresses and new interests surface,” Younger said.

“We plan to take an active role in showing the community that a smart house is not some far-off dream of the future,” he added. “Homeowners, engineers, architects and builders alike need to know how they can improve their homes to make them more environmentally sustainable, efficient and technologically advanced in their own right.”

This project is being funded in large part by individual donors and Pratt School of Engineering alumni. The students hoper to begin living in the five-bedroom house on the corner of Powe and Faber streets, on Duke’s Central Campus, in 2005.

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For more information about LEED green building standards, see http://www.usgbc.org/leed/leed_main.asp

To watch the DELTA project progress, visit the Pratt Web site at http://delta.pratt.duke.edu/pages/home.html