Put 10 really smart college students into a combination dorm and laboratory, give them complex projects to work on, and monitor everything they do. The Home Depot Smart Home at Duke University in Durham, N.C., may sound like the premise for a reality show (that question is even addressed in the project's online FAQ), but it's far more exciting and meaningful than anything Hollywood has dreamed up.

Designed to test new-home technology in a controlled, yet realistic setting, the Smart Home is a partnership between Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, its Trinity School of Arts and Sciences, and the Atlanta-based building materials giant.

The concept for the house is the result of a senior thesis on a platform for experimental technologies by engineering undergrad Mark Younger. That thesis blossomed into the Smart Home, which is intended to be a student hub for designing and testing new technologies in everything from energy efficiency and home security to health care and just really cool stuff. To date, more than 225 students have been involved in the designing of the house.

Everything will be monitored in real time to see if the ideas the students come up with actually work at a price people are willing to pay. The student researchers will be looking at such innovations as smart refrigerators with sensors that tell you how old foods are and seeing if voice-activated faucets save enough money on water to be worth the extra cost.

That's something that will make Duke's program stand out, says Kristina Johnson, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. "Very few schools of engineering look at how cost comes in as an optimizer; most of the time, we look at precision," Johnson says. "We have to look at cost, return on investment, and flexibility. I'm hoping the Smart Home will be a living laboratory to integrate those concepts." You can look at the different kinds of technology the home will investigate at www.smarthome.duke.edu/.

Collaboration between programs at Duke is one of the key elements of the Smart House, which is currently under construction and is scheduled to be ready for its 10 residents in time for the 2007 fall semester. You can check out the progress at www.smartconstruction.blogspot.com/. The project organizers still haven't puzzled out how they're going to decide who gets to live in the house, but the last thing the organizers want is to fill it up with just engineers.

"The real opportunity is to be able to link it to the medical school. There is a lot of interest there," says Johnson. Med students will be able to remotely monitor the health of those living in the house using noninvasive biosensors. They will be tracking such things as indoor air quality, humidity, odors, and sleep patterns. "If you [are able to] keep someone in their home longer, it will cost less, and they'll get the kind of healthcare they need. I'm real excited about that."

Designed to be energy efficient and environmentally sensitive, the house will use passive solar heating, and rotating photovoltaic panels will track the sun generate electricity, says Smart Home director Tom Rose. Solar thermal panels on the roof will capture the sun's energy to heat water for bathing and washing, and a green roof will help insulate the building. Two, 5,000-gallon cisterns will collect rainwater to be used to flush toilets and irrigate landscaping. The Smart House also will meet LEED green building standards.

Rose is most excited about the modular design of the walls of the house, which will give the students complete access to all the interior wiring, plumbing, and HVAC systems.

"I think that is really cool because it will provide opportunities for students to innovate without destroying something," Rose says. "Each bedroom can become their own personal laboratory."

The living space on the first floor of the house is essentially a large common room with a kitchen and a presentation room, says Rose. "We're trying to achieve a culture that surrounds innovation," he says. "We want the people who live here to be constantly innovating, and we want that lifestyle to flow into the labs."

The southeast and southwest corners of the first floor are occupied by a clean lab housing computers and other high-tech testing equipment and a dirty lab where various prototypes will be fabricated. In addition to accommodating 10 students on the second floor, the home also will serve as a lab to support research by 40 to 50 other students each semester. You can view the detailed construction drawings of the house at smarthome.duke.edu/plans/drawings.pdf(PDF).

Among the items the students will be studying is what Rose refers to as the holy grail of home technology, the single control unit that runs everything in the house. "There is no solution now to make the entire house automated," he says. But they'll also be looking at the question of whether or not consumers are even interested in that.

"There is a disconnect right now between what the vast majority of homeowners want and what some super-automation groups think people want," Rose says. "It is clear that people are very interested in reducing their energy bill and want a good degree of automation in entertainment and security centers. But it's not clear they want them to work with each other."

None of it would have happened without the help of major donors. The Home Depot kicked off its sponsorship with $2 million in cash and building materials to cover construction costs of the 6,000-square-foot house, says Nancy Kielty, senior merchant for The Home Depot.

The retailer got involved for three reasons, Kielty says. First, it makes The Home Depot more relevant to homeowners. "We're a destination for electrical and plumbing knowledge," she says. "For us to be really relevant and reflect what technology is doing in homes today, this helps. Technology has changed so much and so quickly."

Second, home technology still has no standardization in the marketplace. The Smart Home could help manufacturers find platforms for different systems to communicate. And third, it gives the retailer access to "some really talented young people," Kielty says. "They're really interested in [the issue of] aging in the home and how technology could improve that. For them to take a medical student and bring them in, it's so fascinating."