About a year ago, a group of Duke University students approached Raleigh, N.C., architect Frank Harmon with an intriguing request. They asked him to draw up a proposal for an environmentally friendly student residence that could double as a laboratory for studying and developing green building technologies. The project, they told Harmon, would serve as a constantly evolving experiment, allowing them to collect data on their own energy use as well as try out new ideas and products.

Harmon, who teaches at North Carolina State University, rose to the challenge. With the help of research papers written by the Duke students, he designed a 4,200-square-foot house powered by a variety of sources, including geothermal heat pumps and photovoltaic panels. A series of “smart walls” contains energy-monitoring equipment behind perforated metal doors, so the students can access and adjust the building's mechanicals and electricals at any time. And a rainwater collection system, a “green screen” of deciduous vines that cool the house during summer, and a vegetated roof are just a few of the house's additional interactive, flexible green features.

Walls, floors, and ceilings are constructed in sections that residents can easily remove and change as technology evolves. “The idea is that the students can create innovations for now and in a decade,” says Harmon. They'll be able to start soon, for he and his undergraduate collaborators persuaded Duke's Pratt School of Engineering to back the project. Known as the DELTA (Duke Engineering Living Technology Advancement) Smart House and slated for completion in January 2006, the building will be home to 10 engineering students each year.