Smart House Groundbreaking: The Best Is Yet to Come

The Pratt School of Engineering broke ground April 21 for the Duke Smart House, a two-story residence-laboratory that will house 10 undergraduates and allow them to try out the latest systems and gadgets for a more efficient, environmentally friendly home of the future.

Located at the corner of Faber and Powe streets on Duke's Central Campus, the 4,500-square-foot Duke Smart House will be the first of a kind at the university, and allow students to design, test and live with the benefits and consequences of their technology decisions.

"The Smart House will become the applied product of student learning," said Duke President Richard Brodhead, who joined Pratt Dean Kristina Johnson and project manager Mark Younger for the ceremonial ground breaking on what is now an empty lot across the street from the Freeman Center.

"The Smart House is an experiment to see what the force of student ingenuity can do," Brodhead said. “I’m very proud to be president of the kind of university that has a venture like this."

The highly automated house will include such features as systems to filter out unwanted background noise; lights, music and temperatures that are powered by voice commands; efficient cooling systems; monitors to measure power consumption on a room-by-room basis; security cameras to perform facial recognition analysis; and indoor environmental quality monitors to create a low-toxin, low-pathogen environment. The house will have a "green roof" to control water runoff and use embedded fiber optic strands and acoustic emission sensors throughout the structure and foundation to detect any movement, cracks or breaks over time.

The Duke Smart House, expected to have a construction cost of $1.2 million, will have five double bedrooms, a single room for a resident adviser, two to three full bathrooms, one half bath, kitchen, living room, study-library, laboratory, mechanical utilities space and a central courtyard. In compliance with all dorm safety and building codes, it will house 10 undergraduate students and one resident adviser each year following its completion next spring.

Johnson said that one of Pratt's goals is to redefine the concept of a smart home. She said a truly smart home is one that incorporates both high-tech and low-tech solutions to create the best living environment for a particular homeowner. Smart homes can also be environmentally friendly and affordable, she said.

“This project started, as you know, as a conversation between myself and Mark Younger, who was a senior in electrical engineering at the time,” Johnson told the students and faculty members gathered for the event. “That conversation has snowballed into this incredible day --the groundbreaking for the Duke Smart House."

"I decided to hire Mark for a year to get this project going -- and now it's been two years and it's incredible how much has been accomplished. More than 110 students have worked on 45 projects for the Smart House and we are ready to begin construction," she said.

Younger, who graduated in 2003, said the technological possibilities for the house are endless.

"We are going to do everything a student can think of, and we hope you as homeowners will adopt some of what we come up with,” Younger said. “Expect much more because the best is yet to come. When the house is built we'll have a lot to work with as the house becomes a way of life for students at Duke.

Johnson said the Smart House will create an excellent opportunity for students to work with companies that are developing technologies for the residential market. Industry partners providing building material, equipment and expertise so far include Solargenix, Echelon, HAI, StrikeIron, Danaher Power Solutions, American Hydrotech, Carolina Stalite, Universal Lighting, Green Roof Plants and Eaton Power Solutions.

Architect Frank Harmon designed the overall architecture for the house, in collaboration with a team of Smart House students.

The Lord Foundation of North Carolina, Pratt and private donors are helping fund the Smart House.

For more information, visit the Smart House website,, which features a daily "smart technology" news feed and a blog for people to pose questions about technology.