Just north of campus, at 3425 Race Street in Powelton Village, sits a 19th century Victorian twin home, the stone-fortified former Pi Lambda Phi fraternity house that has sat vacant since the 1990s.
Thanks to a $1.1 million pledge from the university, though, the long-languishing building—now dubbed the Drexel Smart House—has taken one step closer to becoming a full-fledged student residence, sustainable urban-living model and innovation classroom.
Exterior renovations on the building are set to begin in May, and project organizers have hopes of adding on an addition that would provide additional lab space and new meeting space as well. With a fluctuating group of students participating in the student organization-driven project—anywhere from 12 to 25 in a given quarter—the Smart House concept is holding strong as it approaches its five-year anniversary.
“We’ve been planning for as much as we can,” says Kevin Malawski, current Smart House president and sixth-year architecture student. “We want students to be able to live and learn in the same place, but it’s more than that. Our student research is very applicable. We’re thinking about the long-term here.”
Since conception, the project has garnered volunteers from various Drexel disciplines, Powelton community support and input and nearly $300,000 in grants from external organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It was a perfect fit, to take this old, completely abandoned residence, and show if you can make this old Victorian sustainable, the same model can be applied to the rest of the neighborhood,” Malawski says.
The vision for the Smart House project, a student-led, faculty-supported and multidisciplinary initiative, has been in the university’s peripheral since a student pitched the idea to Provost Mark Greenberg back in 2006.
“One of our challenges initially was, would there be the vitality to keep it going?” says LeBow College of Business professor and Smart House faculty adviser Joan Weiner, who was also involved in the early planning phases of the project. “President John Fry saw this as a very positive example of student initiative that truly had impact with its experiential learning component, the interdisciplinary component and the community engagement component.”
The Smart House aims to obtain the highest level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, setting precedent for future construction projects in the area.
“This project allows us to come around in our own way and do it together as students, delving into these deep issues and putting sustainability in the forefront of our mission,” Malawski says.
One way they hope to do so is by implementing a “green roof,” covering the structure with a waterproof white membrane and then with vegetation. Currently, the Smart House team is working to develop a 10 lbs.-per-square-foot model as opposed to the typical 30 lbs.-per-square-foot roof, which is too heavy for traditional Philadelphia homes.
“Once the green roof is fully in place, we want to monitor its performance and prove it can be successful on average houses,” Malawski says.
The green roof will help regulate the building’s temperature—maintaining heat in the winter and repelling warmth in the summer—while also helping to manage the city’s stormwater by reducing the building’s impervious coverage.
But Malawski says architecture students are not the only ones who can learn something from developing the Smart House.
“We’ve been multidisciplinary from the beginning,” Malawski says. “It’s about engineers working with business professionals, business professionals working with architects, architects learning from psychologists who are interested in studying how people interact with the technology in the house. We want to encourage mingling between the disciplines.”
While students are often transient in the immediate neighborhood, Malawski says house organizers have sought input, guidance and critique from some of the Powelton neighborhood’s permanent community members.
“We truly do need and value their input,” Malawski says.