Is this the most important building in the country?

FLEXlab, a new testing facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, uses science to ferret out the actual energy savings that energy-efficient building systems and designs are likely to return.
Written by Mary Catherine O'Connor, Contributing Writer
Reviewed by Heather Clancy

The built environment is a real drain on resources: in the United States, buildings consume 70 percent of electricity. This has stoked significant improvements to conventional heating and cooling systems, but much more work remains to be done. Fortunately, myriad new building products and materials -- from windows glazed with translucent solar cells to smart heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that only heat or cool rooms when they're occupied -- hold tremendous power to reduce the environmental impact of the built environment and improve the comfort and maintain the health of building occupants.

What works on paper, however, does not always translate perfectly into the real world. For example, designers like to use daylight to reduce the need for lighting over workspaces, but if that practice leads to computer screen glare or discomfort for workers, building occupants will draw the shades and turn on the lights, negating the benefits.

When planning a building, how can designers, architects or builders know whether integrated buildings systems will work as envisioned? Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has recently unveiled the Facility for Low Energy Experiments (FLEXLab), which provides test beds for users to mock up a building to test how the materials, components and designs they want to use might impact a project's overall energy footprint and also comfort for occupants. One of the 40-foot by 30-foot labs is built on a rotating disc, so users can test components at various angles of exposure, and mimic the height of the sun in and winter and summer by adjusting the lab's orientation. (A video demonstrating those capabilities is below.)

FLEXlab is the brainchild of Steve Selkowitz, Berkeley Lab's director of building technologies. He says when integrated building components fail to meet energy or comfort goals for occupants, the blame often falls on the approach builders take to sourcing the projects. "Low-bid contracts, lots of different suppliers and subcontractors -- these are endemic challenges," he says.

In 2010, the Department of Energy awarded Berkeley Lab a $15.7 million grant to build the facility. The first customer, builder Webcor, is already using the rotating lab to vet window, shading and other components for a 255,199-square-foot office building it is constructing for biotech giant Genentech in South San Francisco.

FLEXlab project manager Cindy Regnier says many builders of major construction projects are beginning to create mockups of certain building elements, such as facades, to test waterproofing; or interior spaces, to evaluate aesthetics. FLEXlab provides a means to test not just one building element but all the operational systems -- from HVAC to window shading to lighting systems and plug loads -- in a plug-and-play infrastructure.

For Webcor, she says, "We can measure performance and help pre-optimize the component design." This will help Webcor learn about constructability of things such as the façade. The client can also bring the building's operations and maintenance staff into the lab to run stress tests and understand ways to make the components work well together and at reduce maintenance costs.

The individual labs within the FLEXlab facility are made of multiple cells: this allows comparative studies, wherein one cell can show the energy performance of components that meet minimum energy code while another shows the performance of components designed to save more energy.

For all these reasons, Kevin Hydes, CEO of Integral Group, a green building design house, calls FLEXlab "the most important building in America."

"When we're arguing for a better façade versus a standard one, we all use complicated models that rely on a lot of assumptions. Those are the only tools we have to say it's worth the investment," explains Integral Group managing principal Eric Soladay. "We're flying blind."

Interior of rotating lab. Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab

FLEXlab can change that completely, generating data to show the benefit of different components. This will allow building owners to invest based on quantitative studies, not gut feelings.

Webcor's vice president Todd Mercer says using the lab is putting his company on the leading edge of its industry. "To test building components in a real-world application before the building is built -- and to be able to make changes to the system and interoperability of the system components -- for us that's huge."

Those benefits are likely to trickle up the supply chain to manufacturers of buildings components, which can use the lab to optimize products for interoperability or maximize the efficiencies that can be achieved in real-world settings.

Selkowitz estimates there are 10 or 15 other building systems testing labs around the world that replicate parts of what FLEXlab offers, but none are as comprehensive, and the rotating lab is quite novel.

"There are lighting test facilities," says Regnier, by example, "where you can test the visual comfort and power consumption of lighting systems. But here, we can also measure the cooling benefit of offering a more efficient lighting system [that emits less heat] compared to conventional lights."

So, is FLEXlab too good to be true? That remains to be seen. "It's the first, so I think people are tentative in terms of what value it will bring," Mercer says. "But I do think it will prove out."

Top image by Mary Catherine O'Connor; Video courtesy of FLEXlab

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