Drexel's green home technology experiment - Technical.ly Philly

May 6, 2010 11:30 am

Drexel’s green home technology experiment

The Drexel Smart House, located at 34th and Race Streets, is a 19th century Victorian home that is being transformed into a living, working laboratory for green tech.

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

(Photo by Chelsea Leposa)

In partnership with Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, the university’s capstone journalism class, students Chelsea Leposa and Jared Pass will cover neighborhood technology issues for Technically Philly and Philadelphia Neighborhoods through May.


The is the second of a two-part series about residential technologies being developed or explored in the region. See the first here.

Frat houses are usually synonymous with keg-stands and jungle juice. There, eco-friendly house technology would seem as important as finishing homework.

But a group of Drexel students are trying to alter that perception, using an abandoned frat house as a great green opportunity.

The Drexel Smart House, located at 34th and Race Streets, is a 19th century Victorian home that is being transformed into a living, working laboratory for green tech. The Smart House team, a student-run organization, hopes that after it is built, it can 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 comfortable with the design and although it will be modern, it shouldn’t be obnoxious,” says Aleksandra Wolchasty, an architecture student involved with the project.

Co-founder Eric Eisele says he has been helping plan the idea since very early in his college career. “I couldn’t wait until my freshmen design product started because we were formulating our own research, formulating a team and getting our hands dirty,” he says. “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.”

Drexel Smart House, opening in Fall 2011.

The students hope that the house will become a place to showcase their ideas and concepts allowing 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, and thereby strengthen the educational experience,” Dr. Milton Silver, director of Drexel’s mentor program, says. The university’s mentors meet with students on a regular basis to provide support, guidance, and encouragement.

Many student-run organizations are only as strong as their founder, but it goes deeper than that with the Smart House team, organizers say. “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,” says Dr. Joan Weiner, faculty advisor for the project.

The Smart House team has a number of ideas and many different projects that they hope to incorporate into the house when it opens in the 2011:

  • 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 is fitted with soil and grass in order to absorb rainwater, and in the process, reducing contaminated rain run-off. The natural roof also helps insulate the house. Installing a green roof on an existing structure can be difficult due to the weight of the soil and water. “A regular green roof can weigh anything from twenty to sixty pounds per square-foot, so that is kind of a very significant weight on the structure of the building,” says Monika Mickute, the student leader of the green roof project.

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 current structure of the Smart 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 instead of absorbs heat and light. “What we are trying to do is selectively target infrared radiation to reflect that out to where it doesn’t absorb as heat,” says Drexel’s Smart House President Cody Ray.

“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 countryside.”

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,” says Ray.

Geothermal pumps could include a closed-loop system that would 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 says. The team is looking to drill 500-foot deep wells but they’re not yet sure if the rock formation under the house will support the plans.

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,” Wolchasty says.

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