SmartHouse to arrive summer '05

After a long day of classes, senior Joe Bluedevil approaches the door of his Central Campus house and puts his thumb up to a fingerprint scanner near the entrance.

 The door swings open as he hears the automated system greet him with, "Welcome home, Joe," and announce his arrival to his housemates. The temperature in the entry room instantly adjusts to his preferred comfort level, and his favorite Dave Matthews Band album blares over the stereo system.

 Central Campus, year 2050?

 Try Central Campus, year 2005.

 What began as a conversation between then-rising-senior Mark Younger and Pratt School of Engineering Dean Kristina Johnson about independent research possibilities, is now a University-supported project called the "Duke Engineering Living Technology Advancement SmartHouse."

 A year and a half later, 25 students are working on its design under the guidance of 25 faculty members. Pending approval from the Board of Trustees, the SmartHouse will be built on Central Campus by summer 2005, the first of its kind for the University and for the country.

 "I felt like there was a need for more practical design experience and research driven by student interest. There are tons of opportunities for student to work with a professor on their projects, but it's a problem if no professors have done research on [the students'] interest," said Younger, who is now employed by the University and manages the project. "Also, students don't get design experience until junior or senior year--having to apply and design something from start to finish is valuable."

 Johnson remembers the day Younger came in to talk about research ideas and the conversation during which the SmartHouse was born. "Mark was interested in doing an independent study and looking to develop his leadership skills, which are immense. We met once a week to develop the idea of this smarthouse based around efficiency, entertainment and education," she said.

 The 3 E's, as they are called--Energy & Efficiency, Environment & Health, and Entertainment & Communications--form the foundation for the project's goals. A fourth E, Education, will be added later to teach homeowners how to reduce their electricity and water costs, through tours of the SmartHouse and online publication of all student findings. Teams are divided by these goals and are entirely comprised of undergraduates who have volunteered to work on the project due to personal interest.

 Senior Noor Atari, leader of the architectural design team, saw the SmartHouse as a unique learning opportunity, as well as a way to contribute to Duke.

 "Academic work is mostly theoretical so this is the first time you can apply, can buy equipment and put into practice the theories you've learned--and also see what you didn't learn in class and learn it then," he said. "It's also a good opportunity to make Duke stand out--a symbol of engineering."

 Atari was able to apply design skills he learned during his study abroad experience in Egypt to develop the five-bedroom, three-floor SmartHouse, like the central courtyard with a retractable roof modeled after Islamic mosques.

 Part of the difficulty with the volunteer-basis for working on the project, however, is that the SmartHouse is time-consuming and students have classwork that needs to get done as well. For junior Thomas Rawley, time management has been an obstacle his team, Energy Monitoring, needed to overcome.

 'We're still taking classes, so it's hard to get together and get things done. I think we've overcome the communication problem pretty well, but it still can be improved," Rawley said. Although most of the work on the SmartHouse was done this past summer by 12 students working 40-hour weeks, they are still needing to find time during the academic year as well. Rawley spends about an average of 8 hours a week on various aspects of the project.

 Younger recognizes this tug-of-war between wanting to be fully dedicated to the SmartHouse and also fulfilling academic commitments.

 "When it comes down to it, they're going to do their schoolwork first because they're getting credit for it," he said. "This semester, however, we're trying to transfer some work to independent studies so students can get credit for their work."

 Time issues also arose for Younger, as one of the struggles he faced moving from having a student role to University staff was dealing with the bureaucracy and administrative obstacles that arise with such large projects.

 "Sometimes I'm still in the student mentality and still think that I can do anything. I'm realizing the process to get things approved in a university takes a lot of time, there's a lot to take into account, and a lot of administration work," he said.

 But one thing that's for certain is the dedication to the project demonstrated by the students, faculty and administration. One aspect of the project that has delighted both Younger and Johnson is the support they have received-- from the anonymous donor who is funding most of the project to the 50 students who turned out at the first interest meeting the night of the December 2002 ice storm despite the weather.

 "I'm surprised at how quickly the project has taken off, how wonderful it's been to have the support of [Executive Vice president] Tallman Trask and [University Architect] John Pearce, how quickly they've given their support," Johnson said. "It takes so much time to get things approved.... Things don't always happen so smoothly."

 Although other universities have built smarthouses before, a specific focus has always been defined, such as Georgia Tech's focus on elderly research and MIT's focus on a learning environment, where the house learns your behavior and then anticipates your actions.

 One pioneering facet of the University's smarthouse is its cross-disciplinary aspect--not only are civil, bio-medical, mechanical and electrical/computer engineers working on the design, but students from the Nicholas School of the Environment and the computer science department are also involved.

 "A house seemed like the perfect venue because there are so many different engineering applications in the home, and it crosses all engineering aspects," said Younger.

 Another reason why the University's SmartHouse will be different from its predecessors is that the house will not just serve as a design project but will actually function as a live-in laboratory.

 Construction on the house is slated to begin this summer on the corner of Powe and Faber streets, after an architect and contractors have been hired this semester. It should be completed in time for 10 students who have worked on the house design to live in it for the 2005-2006 school year. Johnson hopes to expand this number to 40 or 50 students within a few years.

 "It could be a unique living situation for Duke, almost like an independent house, a way to increase visibility for technology on campus. I want it to be the coolest place on campus to be... next to Teer," she joked. "The whole goal of engineering at Duke is [illustrated by the SmartHouse]--to have out-of-classroom experience, to ensure that the students have the kind of tools to lead a productive and rewarding life, and have some fun doing it."

 Fun and interest are definitely the reasons why many students are working on the SmartHouse. For Atari and many of the core team members who will graduate before the house is ready for living in, the incentive isn't just to live in the house.

 "It's like a tribute to Duke. That kind of contentment is more than what you could get living in it for a few months," he said. "That's the cool part of working on the SmartHouse."


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