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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Quality Insider

New Tools and Toys for Builders

Test center for low-energy buildings underway

Published: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - 11:02

All types of snazzy technologies are available these days to make buildings greener: automated shades, electrochromic windows that know when to tint, intelligent lighting controls and smart cooling and heating systems, to name just a few. But how do these components work with each other and with building occupants? What happens when more than one technology is installed in a building? Do the current generation of building energy simulation programs provide accurate predictors of actual energy performance? Unfortunately, these questions are rarely answered because field-testing of integrated building technologies has not been a focus of the building industry.

Enter the new User Test Bed Facility at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). Like a giant, life-size set of building blocks, the facility will allow researchers and manufacturers to test buildings systems and components under “real-world” conditions by swapping out systems and changing configurations, and then allow rigorous monitoring of performance of every key building element that affects energy consumption.

“One can think of these test beds as kind of an erector set,” says Berkeley Lab engineer Oren Schetrit, a program manager for the User Test Bed Facility. “They’re designed with extreme flexibility in mind. You’ll be able to change out the walls, windows, lighting, HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] system, external or internal shading, and the configuration of the internal office systems. You can also lower or raise the ceiling height and floor height.”

An architect’s rendering of an aerial view of the User Test Bed Facility, with the existing Building 90 behind it. (Source: Stantec Architecture)

Tracking energy use from the biggest consumer

Today’s buildings (residential, commercial and industrial) consume more energy than any other sector of the U.S. economy, including transportation and industry, and are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. As of 2006, commercial buildings accounted for 18 percent of primary energy consumption in the United States and used 36 percent of the nation’s electricity. Yet most buildings have, at best, a single meter that reports energy use on a monthly basis; only slightly better are the new generation of “smart meters” that provide a continuous stream of total energy use but no understanding of the end-use breakdown by component.

With advanced building technologies that are properly designed into integrated systems, commercial buildings can achieve dramatic energy savings—up to 80 percent or more for new construction and 60 percent or more for retrofits.

The User Test Bed Facility will be a one-of-a-kind center operated as a user facility. Each test bed will consist of two side-by-side, room-sized test cells, with one acting as the control and the other as the test condition.

“We’ll be testing and optimizing integrated building systems, such as how does automated window shading impact heating and cooling loads,” says Steve Selkowitz, head of the Building Technologies Department and lead scientist on the project. “Those are technically challenging issues—hard to measure and hard to understand because they vary dramatically with weather conditions. This facility will allow us to accurately compare energy impacts side by side, including the effects of all major building systems. There’s really nothing like it in the world, operating at this scale.”

The facility is being designed and built with $15.9 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The design is currently being finalized; construction is scheduled to begin during the spring of 2012 and finish in the spring of 2013. It will be open to qualified academic researchers and industry alike, and will focus on testing commercial building systems. “We’re looking for public and private partners to collaborate with us on groundbreaking new research,” says Selkowitz. “That collaboration can take many different forms. We want to be flexible to accommodate the business needs of industry and the mission of the lab.”

Stantec Architecture is leading the architectural and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing design for the facility, which incorporates input on the functional requirements of the test beds from researchers and industry. “This facility is challenging in requiring a wide array of flexibility in changeouts of different envelope and system components, while maintaining tight construction tolerances, high levels of sensing and instrumentation accuracy, and a robust and flexible controls and data-acquisition system for the experiments,” says Cindy Regnier, program manager leading the technical development of the facility.

All of the test beds will be located at Berkeley Lab’s main site in the Berkeley hills, replacing a set of trailer buildings used as offices installed more than 30 years ago. Each test bed will be 40 ft × 30 ft, and can be split into two, 20 ft × 30 ft cells. One of the four and one-half outdoor test beds will be a high bay, or two stories, to allow testing of lighting and skylights applicable to markets such as big box retail stores. Another one of the test beds will be located in a renovated occupied space of an existing four-story office building, allowing for occupant feedback on tests of lighting controls, light levels, and plug loads.

Additionally, one of the test beds will have the ability to rotate 270°, which will allow for testing systems under west- and southwest-facing exposures, the most challenging for controlling peak cooling loads. “One of big issues of energy performance is the impact of sunlight,” explains Selkowitz. “If we can rotate it to face the sun for more hours of the day, we can get more interesting conditions to test under.”

The facility will also allow users to test the energy performance of retrofits. Of the 5 million commercial buildings in the United States, many were built without the benefit of modern energy efficiency codes and can thus be improved using retrofits or renovation strategies. “You can, for example, set up one of the facilities with the equivalent of, say, 1970s or 80s buildings code construction, then test how much energy an aggressive retrofit strategy would save,” says Schetrit.

Manufacturers, architects, utility companies sign up

Selkowitz and his team are already meeting with manufacturers of glazing, windows, facades, building HVAC and control systems, and lighting fixtures and controls. The group includes large and small firms and start-ups as well as market leaders.

Besides manufacturers, another group of interested users are architects and engineers, those who specify what kinds of systems go into new buildings. “Architects and engineers need to have confidence in an emerging technology before they specify it because if it doesn’t work, they’re on the hook for it,” says Schetrit. “This is a place for them to kick the tires, experience what new technologies look like and work like. We want to facilitate the rapid transfer of emerging technologies to market.”

Another potential user of the facility are utility companies. California utilities alone spend more than $1 billion a year to promote and incentivize established energy-savings technologies, such as compact fluorescent lamps, according to Selkowitz. “But for a lot of the newer technologies, like automated shading and daylight dimming, they don’t have ‘hard data’ on what the savings are,” he says. “Of course we can calculate that, but they really like to see measured data from the field. The test beds are designed to provide these data and will allow utilities to target their rebate and incentive programs to be more cost-effective.”

Berkeley Lab’s research will have even greater impact if it can be extended by collaborating with other building-science user facilities nationwide. The lab has been tasked by DOE to help create a national network of roughly 20 other building-science test centers, both public and private, scattered around the country to share data across climates, technologies, and building systems. Collecting, integrating, and extending data from multiple sources, including the use of advanced simulation tools, will extend the value of everyone’s data, Selkowitz says.

Berkeley Lab operates six national user facilities, including the Molecular Foundry, the Advanced Light Source and the National Center for Electron Microscopy. The Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division, which will be running the Test Bed Facility, also operates an Advanced Windows Test Facility, through which it has collaborated extensively with commercial companies and helped advance electrochromic glazing and other dynamic window control systems toward market applications.

“Berkeley Lab has been at the forefront of building science research since the program was started here over 35 years ago,” says Selkowitz. “These new test bed facilities will further enhance our capabilities, and we hope will launch a new era of scientific collaboration and accomplishment to help address the global problems of carbon emissions and climate change.”


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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s picture

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Founded in 1931, on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and its scientists have been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.