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Get Smart: Sustainable Living

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: Smart Home, Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, sustainable living, sustainable buildings, water conservation, Cindy Murphy,

It was a gorgeous early fall day in late September that I boarded the train to Chicago.  I was meeting a couple of friends coming in from Wisconsin at the world renowned Museum of Science and Industry.  Our first stop was the Smart Home exhibit.  

The exhibit is a demonstration of sustainable living.  It’s not in the museum; it’s an actual full-scale home with its own grounds, outside of the museum.  I was expecting a lot of high-tech gadgetry, out of my realm of understanding, and definitely out of my price range.  In one aspect, I was not wrong; the Smart Home is certainly very high-tech.  But there are also many things that an average low-tech person like me, and one of average income can incorporate into their own homes.  The architect of the Smart Home, Michelle Kaufmann, specializes in sustainable buildings, and believes green living should not be out of reach for the average homeowner.  It’s her goal to make sustainable homes comfortable and


All the construction materials used to build the house are renewable or recycled.  The electricity is generated by state-of-the-art solar rooftop panels, and a wind turbine.  Surplus energy generated is used to power other parts of the museum.  The Smart Home makes use of both rainwater and “grey water” (water from the home’s sinks, showers, and washing machine) to flush toilets – more than one-quarter of the water used in a traditional house is literally flushed down the drain.  Rainwater and grey water are also used to water the Smart Home’s landscape. 

I was as equally impressed by the grounds outside the Smart Home as I was by the inside.  Water conservation practices are demonstrated through the use of rain barrels, and a cistern, as well as using drought tolerant native plants indigenous to Illinois’s prairie, dune, and oak savannah eco-systems.  Rain gardens, permeable pavements, and indentations in the ground that collect water (called bioswales), reduce run-off, enabling deeper water seepage into the soil.  Green roofs not only minimize runoff, they also help insulate the house, reducing energy costs.

The Smart Home also has extensive vegetable gardens that were planted and are maintained by University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners.  Space is utilized to its maximum potential with trellises, vertical walls, raised beds, self-watering planter boxes, and two Tower Garden ® Growing Systems on a rooftop patio.  I was amazed at the amount of produce grown in these towers.  Each one contained chard, tomatoes, herbs – sage, parsley, rosemary, and thyme - two different varieties of eggplants, and multiple kinds of peppers.  These self-watering towers are take up only about 2 to 3 feet of floor space, yet yield enough fresh vegetables to feed a family.  Very cool.  

A composting station provides soil enriching humus to the gardens, and two bee hives provide pollinators for the vegetables, fruit, and flowers.   

The Smart Home Exhibit is an excellent example of sustainable living.  I’d bet everyone who visits walks away with at least a few ideas they’d like to incorporate into their house and landscape; I know I did.  If you’d like to visit, you’d better hurry.  After four years, and over 300,000 visitors, the Smart Home will close its doors in January, 2013.  I asked a museum representative what will happen to the exhibit; she wasn’t sure if it will be remodeled, dismantled and rebuilt at another museum, or if it’ll reopening, housing a different exhibit.  One thing is for sure though; it’ll be renewed, repurposed, or recycled.     

Eco-Friendly Transportation  

A museum visitor uses an eco-friendly mode of transportation.  It’s never too early to start!