Living in a Green Laboratory

At Duke and Stanford, student residence halls are starting to function more like live-in laboratories, where students can research, develop, and test new ways to live green.

September 01, 2008 |
Residents of Duke’s Smart Home regularly host tours of the facility to educate fellow students and the local community on sustainable design and green living. The 6,000-sf, LEED Platinum student residence hall serves as a live-in laboratory, where occupants and other Duke students perform research studies on the building’s green technologies, including its rainwater collection system and rooftop photovoltaic array. PHOTOS: JIM SINK, COURTESY OF SMITHGROUP
Question: What do you get when you hand over the keys to one of the nation's greenest college residence halls to dozens of smart, eager, inventive undergraduates?
Answer: A breakthrough scheme for providing environmentally friendly backup power, a revolutionary indoor composting unit, and even a solar-powered electric bicycle.

These are just a few of the 60 or so research projects that have been conducted by teams of students at Duke University based on the school's LEED Platinum student residence hall, which opened last November following more than four years of planning, design, and fundraising by students and faculty. Known as the Home Depot Smart Home, the 6,000-sf facility is much more than a green dormitory—it's a live-in laboratory designed to enable students and faculty to poke, prod, test, and tinker with building systems in an effort to advance green living.

Daylight floods one of five bedrooms in the Duke Smart Home. Each 250-sf bedroom comes furnished with a two-person lab counter (under window) for research projects. Students can reconfigure the layout of modular furniture.
The 6,000-sf, LEED Platinum student residence hall serves as a live-in laboratory, where occupants and other Duke students perform research studies on the building’s green technologies, including its rainwater collection system and rooftop photovoltaic array.
Movable wall panels located throughout the Duke Smart Home provide students with easy access to building systems and infrastructure for conducting research projects and performing upgrades to the facility.
The Smart Home features a full-size kitchen with Energy Star-certified appliances and a dining area for 10 residents.
Duke Smart Home rainwater collection tanks
Set to open in fall 2010, Stanford University’s 47-bed, 21,150-sf Lotus Living Laboratory green student residence hall is based on more than three years of feasibility, planning, and design studies by students and faculty.

While only 10 lucky students actually get to live in the house, dozens more interact with the facility and study its environment each semester as part of the Duke Smart Home program. Student teams from a wide range of academic disciplines explore inventive ways to use and improve the technology, systems, and materials in and around the home. Adjustable wall panels and easily accessible building systems allow the students to explore and study virtually any sustainable feature in the house, from the rainwater collection systems that supply water for irrigation, toilets, and the laundry, to the rooftop photovoltaic array that heats water for showers and dishwashing.
The facility also incorporates two research spaces: a clean lab with computers, a printer station, and a set of monitors that allow students to track and study the performance of the building's systems; and a dirty lab equipped with cabinets, counter space, and plenty of outlets for building and testing products

Duke is among a handful of universities that are experimenting with using cutting-edge residence hall projects as the basis for research and educational programs in sustainable architecture, building sciences, environmental studies, and green living.

“What better type of campus facility to study than one where students live and interact with on a daily basis,” says Martin Fischer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, who is serving as the project lead for the planning and construction of the school's 47-bed, 21,150-sf Lotus Living Laboratory green student residence hall. The $9.65 million project, which recently received the green light from the university to begin design documentation, is the culmination of more than three years of feasibility, planning, and design studies, which included more than 20 in-depth research projects led by students and faculty. The facility is scheduled to open by fall 2010.

“Our students have studied everything from the long-term performance of photovoltaic systems to shower patterns in dormitories and how they affect peak demand for hot water,” says Fischer. He says a core group of about 10 students will be actively involved with the actual design and construction of the facility at any given time, with dozens more involved in research projects and class work based on the project.

“Our vision is to have both students and faculty closely involved with the design and construction so that we can better manage the building after it opens and teach others how to make these types of buildings,” says Fischer. He anticipates that several student research projects, including the shower pattern study and the PV performance evaluation report, will have a direct impact on the final design and construction of the facility.

Like the Duke facility, Stanford's live-in lab residence hall will include features that encourage and permit experimentation and ongoing upgrades, including movable wall panels, modular structural systems, and double and triple plumbing infrastructure for the testing of grey and black water recycling systems. The three-story building will also feature a building systems lab and large-scale metering and monitoring systems to provide constant feedback about the building's performance.

Students and faculty will be able to conduct research studies on a variety of green technologies and systems in the eco-dorm, including dual-flush toilets, waterless urinals, radiant slab heating, natural ventilation, photovoltaics, a vegetated roof, triple-pane low-e glazing, sunshades, and a 100%-daylit interior.

Besides providing an outlet for the hands-on research, development, and testing of green innovations, these experimental live-in labs also offer students real-world experience in project management, facility operations, networking, fundraising, and team collaboration, says Tom Rose, program director for the Duke Home Depot Smart Home.

“Our students actually make cold calls and raise funds for their projects,” says Rose. As an example, Rose points to a green roof replanting project initiated and managed by a group of students in the spring. “They used their connections in the industry to partner with several roofing companies and friends in the green building community who donated plants, labor, and expertise for the project. It was a great learning experience.”

Rose says about 50 students (five to six each semester) worked closely with architect/engineer SmithGroup and contractor Bovis Lend Lease during design and construction of the Smart Home.

“They actually met with the design team and came up with directives for the professionals,” says Rose. “In some sense, you have a student managing the professional team, like an owner would. At the same time, the professionals were also managing the students, teaching them the process in reverse.”

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5 Eco-dorm Research Projects That Make the Grade

• During the past five years, students from Duke and Stanford Universities have conducted more than 80 research projects based on their green student residence facilities. Here are five innovative projects:

• “Shower Use Profiling,” by Jonas Ketterle, Stanford University

Showering creates the highest hot-water demand in residence halls. This project evaluated shower loads over time, data that will be crucial for planning the solar water heating array. The results of this experiment will be used to reduce water consumption from showering.

• “Photovoltaic Performance Indicator,” by Lee Pearson, Adam Dixon, Steve Worrell, Eric Falls, Duke University

For most residential solar panel units, it is difficult to tell if the PV system is working correctly. This system will track solar cell output and wirelessly send that information in a Web-based utility, allowing users of beginning or advanced knowledge the ability to monitor their home's solar power input.

• “Shower Drain Heat Exchanger,” by Paul Kreiner, Stanford University

This research examines the potential of recovering heat from outgoing shower water at the drain to preheat incoming cold water. This project will design, build, and test various low-cost heat exchangers suitable for this purpose.

• “Open Source Power Monitor,” Emily McAdams, Duke University

This project is aimed at building a power monitoring device costing less than $20 that monitors power on an outlet-by-outlet basis. This is the first step toward building a pervasive, wireless networked power monitoring solution for the Duke Smart Home.

• “Smart Transport,” by Arnav Gupta, Brad Larson, Jimmy Shadlick, John Reynolds, Duke University

The goal here is to design solar-powered electric bicycles to provide reliable transport from the Smart Home to Duke's west campus. Standard bicycles will be transformed into electric bikes using a conversion kit designed by the team.

For more student research projects, visit:

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