Smart Home’s photovoltaic roof panels and the MSI rotunda.

The prefabricated, fully functioning, eco-friendly “Smart Home” has occupied an exterior courtyard at the Museum of Science and Industry since May 2008. Installed under the museum’s mature bur oaks, planted before the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and surrounded by vegetable gardens, native prairie plants and a rain garden, the home has been a popular destination since it joined the museum’s other oversized, experiential museum exhibits such as the coal mine and the U-505 submarine.

The contemporary-style home looks especially attractive at this time of year, the surrounding gardens and green roofs full of color and produce.

The Smart Home was designed by Michelle Kaufman ( in accordance with her “five eco-principles”:

Smart Design

Material Efficiency

Energy Efficiency

Water Efficiency

Healthy Environment

Getting to know the home’s products, materials, furnishings, appliances, and technologies is an entertaining experience, and the knowledgeable docents keep the tours lively. The home’s interiors were recently redone by Midwest Living magazine’s interior designers.

Sustainable materials are used in creative and attractive ways. Wood from a bur oak tree that fell near the house in 2009, for example, was used to make part of the living room coffee table and the dining room table. The museum does a nice job on the exhibit resource guide that accompanies the show, listing contributing products and designers and their various websites.

Throughout the home the materials, furniture, paints and lighting are all eco-friendly, with many mainstream suppliers showing off their green products.

Many of the technology items in the house were recommended by Wired magazine. One such item is an energy-monitoring system that tracks, in real time, the amount of energy being generated by the home’s rooftop solar film and a 45-foot wind turbine.  The homeowners can track their energy consumption and, with an internet feed of energy pricing, calculate the savings to be gained by adjusting their power usage.  The home automation system allows owners to control and monitor temperature settings, window coverings, lighting, security sensors and cameras. A sampling of other energy-efficient items and technologies, as described in the exhibit’s guide, are listed below: 

• a kitchen-countertop section known as “eCoupled Intelligent Wireless Power” that can power a kitchen appliance or recharge a mobile device. It “uses near-field inductive coupling with an advanced intelligent control system to safely and efficiently transfer power without wires”;

• the “Kill-A-Watt,” a device that reduces overall energy consumption by identifying the specific energy usage for plug-in lights and appliances;

• the “EcoSmart Vision Fireplace,” a portable and ventless fireplace that runs on denatured alcohol;

• the “Power Smart Tower,” a device that automatically powers down outlets when they are not in use and powers them back up when power is called for, reducing stand-by power usage by up to 85 percent;

• the “Dyson Air Multiplier Fan,” which draws in air and amplifies it 15 times. Because it has no blades or grill, it is safe and easy to clean;

• “Snow Joe Plus,” a lightweight, powerful, electric, snow thrower.

One of the niftier parts of the exhibit is the home’s garage, which was designed to serve both as a traditional garage and as an extension of the house and its family areas.

There are garage doors on both ends of the garage, and the overhead door facing the house has a “durable rust-proof aluminum frame with insulated tempered glass” that ties it visually to the outdoor family area and to the house itself.

Included in this garage are:

• a large recycling area

• a biodiesel unit for converting ordinary cooking oil into auto fuel

• a hydroponic unit for fall and winter vegetable and herb gardens

• a year-round plant preparation area

• a composting area

• a workbench with energy-efficient tools such as a “vibrafree random orbit sander” and a “bionic wrench and bit drive.”

The garage was transformed by the DIY Network’s Garage Mahal series which, according to the MSI brochure, “features amazing transformations of disorganized garages into spectacular living spaces.” It suggests what many garage-users already know: that a garage is too important to be used only for cars.

The prefabrication of this home offsite in a controlled indoor environment was energy-efficient as well. The construction phase was shortened to several weeks, and less energy and fewer resources were used than in the construction of a typical house, which can take from 8 months to a year.

Foundation work (excavation and pouring of concrete) was done at the museum site while the rest of the house was being built in the factory. Homes with factory-built components (also known as modular homes) use pre-cut materials, reducing waste and worker error. Drywall, wiring, sawdust, vinyl and other scraps are collected at the factory and recycled. Subcontractors install plumbing, heating and electrical systems in the factory, and for all the trades other than concrete, weather is not an issue. Factory-built homes are tested for air leaks before they leave the factory to make sure that the structure is properly sealed and insulated.

The exhibit’s large menu of green options is offered to visitors without any of the associated costs. But it is intended to be educational and stimulating, and recalls Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair that had its own “Homes of Tomorrow” exhibit.

The Smart Home is also a nice fit with the Climate Matters exhibit that opened at the MSI on Sept. 16.

The “Smart Home: Green and Wired” exhibit will be at the museum until Jan. 9, 2011. The exhibit is not included in the price of a general admission ticket and requires a timed-entry ticket for tours.

Ellen Galland

Ellen Galland has had an architectural practice in Evanston since 1983. For more than 20 years, she has written articles for the RoundTable, including the column “Ask An Architect" and "The Green Column"...