Building designers are faced with a dizzying array of options when shopping for materials and systems marketed as energy efficient. Many things must be taken into consideration when designing buildings to be energy efficient including surface reflectivity, glazing properties, lighting efficiency, plug loads and HVAC equipment. References to standards, energy modeling calculations and technical data are provided as proof of energy efficiency for each material, product or system, but how would anyone know the net effect of multiple materials, products and systems existing side-by-side and operating together?

Do some have negative impact on the others? If so, how and under what circumstances? Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is embarking on an exciting and ambitious project to answer these questions by building what it calls the User Test Bed Facility for Low-Energy Integrated Building Systems.

LBL received $15.9 million in funding from the Department of Energy to design and build a facility consisting of “a set of test beds and simulation platforms for research, development and demonstration of low-energy building technology, control systems and building systems integration” to “address key technical challenges for low-energy buildings” and to “serve a national need to support the aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency strategies established by the Department of Energy for existing and new buildings.” LBL envisions the testing facility as a place where companies, government agencies and research groups collaborate and experiment with low-energy materials, products and systems to find out not only how different systems interact with one another but their impact on occupants.

Giant Erector Set

The UTBF has been designed as a series of side-by-side spaces on an east/west axis (for maximum southern exposure) capable of systems replacement and interchangeability. Tests will include one space serving as the control with adjacent-and separately operated-spaces with a slightly different set of materials and/or systems. The test beds can be fitted with different walls, different glazing systems, shading devices, interior partitions, furniture, fixtures and different HVAC systems to suit the requirements of the experiments that will be conducted. The goal is to isolate variables that make the most difference in energy efficiency.

A hypothetical example of a “use case” scenario on the LBL UTBF website involves the study of integrated control solutions for HVAC, lighting and motorized window shading systems that demonstrate and quantify the efficacy of integrated control strategies. The use case would be set up with sensors and equipment to continuously monitor and record energy consumption and human comfort levels.

There are many examples of energy efficient strategies that prove out on paper, but have also proven to be nightmarish for building occupants. What good is a super energy efficient building that people can’t stand to occupy? According to Oren Schetrit, an LBL staffer overseeing the implementation of the project, human occupant guinea pigs are provided in the form of LBL staffers that typically work in an office/lab building just next to the test lab facility. For any meaningful data to be collected, tests will need to last anywhere from several weeks to several months and require occupants be present for the duration. Occupant feedback may prove to be the most important data source for the experiments conducted.

LBL is seeking feedback from potential partners, both public and private, including product developers, innovators, research institutions, utilities and manufacturers on experiments that will be conducted at the test bed facility. LBL envisions that the fee to use the facility for the testing will vary depending on whether or not the data will be made publicly available and whether or not LBL will be a partner for the experiment.

According to Schetrit, long lists of interested parties and proposed experiments have already been submitted for consideration-interest in the facility is high. To get your product or material or system on the list, go to the UTBF website (and follow the instructions for submitting a feedback request or get in touch with Oren Schetrit via email: oschetrit@lbl.gov or telephone: (510) 486-5649.

Going Big

The entire LBL test bed facility is a mere 7,000 square feet and the individual test spaces within are 20- by 30-foot, single-story boxes. One concern I have about this is that the data generated using such small spaces may not transfer all that well to large, multistory buildings. Schetrit was confident, however, that with available computer software, the data will be applicable and transferable to larger buildings. For skeptics like me, there is another test facility (of sorts) currently being planned in the New Mexico desert.

Measuring a staggering 20 square miles, a company called Pegasus Global Holdings plans to build an uninhabited, experimental city for the purpose of developing and exploring new green technologies. In a release on the company’s website, CEO Robert H. Brumley says:

“The idea for the center was born out of our own company’s challenges in trying to test new and emerging technologies beyond the confines of a sterile lab environment.”

The only occupants will be a skeleton crew of workers in charge of maintaining and operating the facility, which is being called The Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation (“The Center”). The Center will be designed to represent a mix of old and new infrastructure found in most modern U.S. cities and will be complete with homes, roads, office buildings, traffic lights, power generation, utilities and telecommunications systems. Pegasus Global Holdings will spend an estimated $200 million to construct The Center and plans to have it done by 2014. Like LBL, Pegasus Global Holdings will be looking for partners to share in the development of the experiments and cost of the testing once the facility is operational. Brumley explains: “The Center will allow private companies, not-for-profits, educational institutions and government agencies to test in a unique facility with real world infrastructure, allowing them to better understand the cost and potential limitations of new technologies prior to introduction.”

Both the LBL and Pegasus Global Holdings facilities will include spaces/buildings constructed to older code requirements, recognizing that the majority of existing building stock in the U.S. will need to be updated for energy efficiency over the next several years. The ability to simultaneously test buildings from the 70s, 80s, 90s and through the 2000s will provide the data needed to tackle this problem, according to both LBL and Pegasus Global Holdings.

Conclusion

The test facilities being developed by LBL and Pegasus Global Holdings promise a unique opportunity to test energy efficient building systems against the modeled predictions to ensure that they work prior to implementation. The working assumption is that building designers often incorporate energy efficient materials, systems and strategies without being entirely confident that they will actually save energy. There are numerous examples of “green” buildings complete with “green” building certifications that have failed to live up to promises of energy efficiency, some falling well below the energy savings predictions. I cannot see a downside to the experiments and testing that will be done at these facilities, in this case more is almost always better. Hopefully, the data that is generated is useful (and available to the public) and will help close the gap between theoretical and actual energy savings in buildings.