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The Drexel University SmartHouse

I heard of the Drexel Smart House a while back while working on a series of five articles on the Drexel University Environmental Sustainability Learning Community. Ever since I wanted to find out what is the Drexel Smart House about and possibly visit it in person.

My first visit was to the Drexel Smart House website. The picture above is the picture of the Drexel Smart House posted on the Smart House website. That picture shows the Drexel Smart House the way it will look like when the extensive renovation work needed are completed and when students will move in.

This is what the building that will be the Drexel Smart House looks like today >>>
The Drexel Smart House is a typical 1900 Powelton Village twin home that used to be a fraternity house, until some unfortunate events made the building unsuited to human habitation even for a fraternity.

How it all started…


The Drexel Smart House project was initiated five years ago by a small group of Drexel students led by Eric Eisele and Jameson Detwiler. Eric had noticed the opening of the Duke University Smart Houseand wanted to do something similar but adapted to the urban environment where Drexel University is located. A third student, Tyler Drown suggested to rehab the derelict Frat house next door to where he was living at the time.  The first Drexel Smart House formal planning meeting took place almost five years ago on October 30 2006.

Project Goals

The Drexel University Smart House share some of the same goals as the Duke University Smart House:

  • It is a Student Dorm and a Lab: Ten students will live in the house while they take their classes at the different Drexel Schools and work in the adjacent SmartHouse Lab to design and develop new energy efficient house implements and test those new tools/systems on themselves in the house.
  • A base for Student lead Research: Smart House members in collaboration with their academic advisers will have access to in-house meeting rooms and lab space where they can their project from Design to installation and testing.

Community Involvement and true interdisciplinary work is the  difference.

From the start, the Drexel Smart House Community included in its charter the  involvement and dissemination of Innovations and Learnings from the students members of the SmartHouse to the Community as one of its key goals. That is one of the main differences between the Drexel and the Duke University project.

Community involvement is materialized in the inclusion of a Community Space & a Resource Library in the Drexel Smart House blue prints available for the community use access and use. It is also materialized in the involvement in the Drexel Smart House project of the Poweltown Village Association and of the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation.
Here is a short video produced by Drexel University which presents the Drexel Smart House Project. [vimeo http://vimeo.com/7737426]

Student Involvement in the Smart House Project

The Drexel Smart House is a student lead project with about 20 student members  all coming from different disciplines & Drexel Schools.
Membership in Drexel SmartHouse is based on sweat equity. Because the SmartHouse is a University building it needs to more costly to renovate (safety & accessibility standards, Union Labor, etc..). Students have worked on organizing fund raising events to pay for the renovation which is why the actual work on the house has taken such a long time to get started.

Early Outcomes

Although the active reconstruction/rehabilitation of the Drexel SmartHouse will not start until the Fall of 2011, the SmartHouse project has already generated a number of very promising new technologies that will be tested in the Drexel SmartHouse:

  •  Day Light Simulation System is an light fixture which vary the tone, heat & wave length of an artificial lighting system to simulate the changes of natural day light during the course of a day.
  • Improved/high efficiency white roof coating.
  • Light weight “Green Roof” vegetation layer (current lightest Green roof layer weighs about 15 lbs), the Drexel U “Green Roof layer weighs a little less than 10lbs while wet (including standard Northeast US water retention). The idea is to develop a self installing “Green Roof” system that would be distributed widely.
Both the White Roof compound and the Light weight “Green Roof” layer won Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the EPA P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition.

Why are the white roof coating and the light weight “Green Roof” vegetation layer projects of particular interest?

  • As far as the white roof coating, I noticed that a lot of people still do not know that white roof coating is more efficient at reflecting heat off their roof (90% of the heat) than silver coated roof. This might be because roofers are still attached to the old tar roof technology.
    • A few months back, I asked quotes for resurfacing the two smaller roofs  of my house from 12 local roofing contractors, including some of the roofers best rated by Angie’s List in Philadelphia. Turns out that only one out of twelve gave me a quote for a white roof and the quotes I received ranged from $700 to $6,000. None of them knew anything about “green roofs”.
  • The light weight “green roof” vegetation layer is important because it opens up the possibility that people will  be able to install their own green roofs with materials and light weight vegetation layer that will be available at your local hardware or DIY store.
The white roof coating and the light weight “green roof” vegetation layer as well as the Day Light Simulation System, all three projects were initiated two to three years ago.  Kevin Malawski – the President of the SmartHouse Project and Patrick Hoffman, SmartHouse Project Manager are focusing the energy of student members on projects directly related to the reconstruction of the building such as:
  • Investigating the use of heat pumps to circulate ground water inside the house to heat and cool at least parts of the house.
  • Working with component fabricators to machine specific house components to more tightly fit with components assembled onsite in a more ad-hoc fashion and therefore the building is made a bit quicker and with more precision, leaving less room for errors and mistakes.
The Drexel Smart House is scheduled to be open for business in the Fall of 2012. From its initial outcomes, I think the Drexel Smart House will become a key link between new Sustainability  research and  technology and the broader Community of Philadelphia neighborhoods.
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