Drexel’s Green Technology Experiment

Drexel Smart House
The future home of the Drexel Smart House

When you think of a frat house your mind wanders to images of keg-stands and jungle juice. Green house technology would probably never cross your mind. However, a group of Drexel students did think green and saw the abandoned frat house as a great opportunity.

The Drexel Smart House, located at 3425 Race St., is a 19th century Victorian that will become a living, working laboratory for green technology. The Smart House team is a student-created, student-run organization whose goal is to build a sustainable green house and have it serve as a platform for green design, technology and research.

“We are also trying to maintain the character of the house, and that’s because we respect the neighborhood and we want everyone to be comfortable with the design, and although it will be modern, it shouldn’t be obnoxious,” said Aleksandra Wolchasty, an architecture student.

Eric Eisele, a founder of the project, said, “I couldn’t wait until my freshmen design project started because we were formulating our own research, formulating a team and getting our hands dirty. I thought it’d be great if there was a student organization that would do this, and it’s been my goal to put this in place.”

The students hope that the house in Philadelphia’s Powelton Village will become a place to showcase student ideas and concepts. Some projects the students work on in their classes could become part of the Smart House, which would give them the opportunity to put their ideas into practice.

“When this idea was brought to us we were immediately excited by the notion that we would have a student-driven organization that would be able to foster and enable a lot of useful research, a lot creativity and innovation; thereby strengthening the educational experience the students receive. It also strengthens the program of study and opportunities that Drexel provides for its faculty and its students,” said Dr. Milton Silver, director of Drexel’s mentor program, which meets with the students on a regular basis to provide support, guidance, and encouragement.

Many student-run organizations end with the founder, however the Smart House team has not. “One of the unique things about this organization is that this is the third generation. Many times student organizations can’t establish themselves to take it past a good idea,” said Dr. Joan Weiner, faculty adviser for the project.

(From left to right)Cody Ray, Dr. Joan Weiner and Aleksandra Wolchasty standing in front of the Drexel Smart House
(from left to right) Cody Ray, Dr. Joan Weiner and Aleksandra Wolchasty standing in front of the Drexel Smart House

The Smart House team has a number of ideas and many different projects they hope to incorporate into the house when it opens in the 2011. According to Wolchasty, there are numerous projects currently being discussed.  Among them are:

  • Green roof options
  • Cool roof coatings
  • Rain water
  • Natural ventilation
  • Utility monitoring systems
  • Geothermal heat pumps and wells
  • Solar energy
  • Solar hot water heating

A green roof has soil and grass on top of it in order to absorb rainwater, reducing the amount of rain run-off. It also helps insulate the house. However, putting a green roof on an existing structure can be difficult due to the weight of the soil and water. Monika Mickute, the head of the green roof project, said, “A regular green roof can weigh anything from 20-25 to 50-60 lbs per square foot, and that is a very significant weight on the structure of the building.”

Mickute is developing a lightweight green roof that will weigh less than 10 pounds per square foot, a load that could easily be supported by the structure of the former frat house. The initial plan is to replace the soil with a synthetic lightweight material like perlite, hollow microspheres or polystyrene beads. “The challenge we are facing is nutrition,” she said.

Another idea for the roof is a cool-roof coating, which is essentially a white roof that reflects heat and light instead of absorbing it. “What we are trying to do is selectively target infrared radiation to reflect that out to where it doesn’t absorb as heat,” said Cody Ray, the president of Drexel’s Smart House organization. “This has the additional benefit of not only cutting your cooling bill but also reducing the urban heat island effect, where cities are either a few degrees or significantly warmer than the surrounding country side.”

Drexel Smart House
Drexel Smart House opening in Fall 2011

Geothermal heating is another project the team is investigating. “The idea is basically using the earth as a giant reservoir for keeping a steady temperature in your house year round,” said Ray. The geothermal pumps will include a closed-loop system that will circulate water in and out of the ground to transport heat as needed. “The earth just has this huge thermal mass and it doesn’t change temperature drastically during the year,” he said. The team is looking to drill 500-foot deep wells but are not yet sure if the rock formation under the house will support the project.

When the house is completed in 2011 it will be a viable housing option for Drexel students. “I think it’ll be really inspiring. I think people will wake up every day thinking how can we lessen our impact on the environment. I think it’ll be really awesome for whoever lives there,” said Wolchasty.

Also visit our other story on smart/green technology

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