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DOE-Funded Labs Spend Stimulus Dollars on Sustainable Building Research

Test beds and flexible research platforms let researchers exchange building systems and measure their performance

By Zach Mortice

Associate Editor

Two government-sponsored labs are drastically improving their facilities for green building and net-zero energy research, thanks to $36 million worth of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds awarded to the Department of Energy (DOE). Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory received $15.9 million to build new test bed modular and customizable buildings that are used to test building materials, components, and systems, which they hope to have completed in a year and a half. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., received $20.2 million to upgrade the technical infrastructure of their facilities and to build similar flexible research platforms. They anticipate this construction project will begin by May of 2011. These small corners of last year’s $787 billion economic stimulus package are part of the AIA’s advocacy efforts to use the stimulus opportunity to create a more sustainable, efficient, and healthy built environment.

These lab improvements will allow for the testing of how green building systems perform while integrated with other systems in near real-world scenarios, and will enhance partnerships with the labs’ diverse private industry groups, helping them to bring their products to market at more affordable prices.

Nothing you can’t change (and document)

The Berkeley Lab is currently selecting designers to build at least six test beds that will provide 20,000 to 25,000 square feet of lab space. These labs are nominally programmed as office space, but can be adapted to retail, commercial, and classrooms environments as well. Test beds are building shells that are totally and completely flexible and interchangeable; all systems, materials, and envelope assemblies can be switched out and wired up to have their performance measured. “On one sequence, we might have a facade with punched windows, and then we’ll take that facade off and operate it with a big curtain wall,” says Stephen Selkowitz, head of the Building Technologies department at the Berkeley lab.

Selkowitz’s lab examines the full gamut of sustainable building technology: building control systems, envelopes, lighting, HVAC, natural ventilation, solar shading, plug loads. In each case, the components’ performance is measured and recorded; every transfer of heat and moisture, the amounts of light that penetrate the building, and the power drawn from the grid. Patrick Hughes, director of the Building Technologies Research and Integration Center at Oak Ridge, says his lab works much the same way. “There is nothing about the building you can’t change,” he says.

This process allows scientists to see how different systems work in conjunction with each other, and this kind of component integration is at the heart of these labs' value. It also lets researchers put these systems in programmed, finished, contextual spaces, yet still have a measure of control over the experiment. Selkowitz calls it the “sweet spot” between “real buildings” and a pure lab setting, “where you get the reality of these integrated systems, but in a manner in which you can work backwards and figure out what’s going on and why.”

Such a careful path to new building systems marketability is necessary because of the inherent risk aversion of the building and construction industry, says Berkeley lab staff scientist Eleanor Lee. If an electronics manufacturer makes a digital camera that doesn’t work, it’s an inconvenience and a trip to the mall for a refund. In lieu of a return policy for buildings, there are lawsuits.

The DOE is also placing special emphasis on residential green building research with a series of 15 multidisciplinary partnerships that aim to vastly increase the energy efficiency of Americans’ homes. This $30 million research effort was announced in July, and an architecture firm (Wagner Zaun Architecture of Duluth, Minn.) is a member of one of the teams. The NorthSTAR Energy Efficient Housing Research Partnership Team will be led by University of Minnesota building scientist Pat Huelman, and will examine holistic approaches to energy efficient residential design in cold climates. Wagner Zaun’s Rachel Wagner says that her firm has designed 12 sustainable custom houses that could be models for the research team to examine.

‘Net-zero ready’

These projects will increase the labs’ capacity to bring in private industry partners, including architects. Companies often bring their own innovations to the Berkeley lab to be refined, but if there’s a need in the commercial marketplace that only Berkeley has solved, they’ll license out their discoveries to private companies, says Selkowitz.

Much of the DOE’s $38.7 billion of stimulus money is dedicated to sustainable building technology research, and it’s constituted a windfall for the Berkeley and Oak Ridge labs. Even beyond the stimulus package, the sustainable building funding environment has become much more generous in the past several years, say researchers. In the last two years, even without the ARRA funding, Selkowitz says that the buildings research budget at Lawrence Berkeley has doubled.

The DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory had its budget boosted by 50 percent, and the National Science Foundation has also had relevant portions of its budget increased as well. But while people in the sustainable building research community applaud the Obama Administration’s emphasis on sustainability and the raised level of public concern that accompanies it, they’re still wary of shifting political tides. “It’s absolutely true that the labs have had a significant increase in funding,” says Vivian Loftness, FAIA, a sustainable building researcher and professor at the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture, “but one of the questions is going to be, ‘Will it last beyond this administration?’” Loftness compares the dangerously critical quest to create a sustainable and carbon-free economy to the 20th century’s mission to go to the moon. And by that measure, she says, not nearly enough money is being invested in research.

While the DOE’s $36 million investment was initially aimed at producing net-zero building technology, recent DOE leadership directives, spurred by the lingering and deep recession, re-prioritized this effort towards “maximum energy efficiency building research,” says Hughes, that will produce affordable, practical, if not net-zero solutions. Both Selkowitz and Hughes say that focusing incremental energy savings on the wider built environment is more cost effective than completely eliminating carbon emissions caused by a narrow and rare class of net-zero buildings. To this end, the Oak Ridge lab has focused on technologies (like insulation and roof coatings that reflect light and heat), that can be affordably applied to existing buildings, which consume the vast majority of energy.

Selkowitz prefers to focus on producing solutions for “net-zero ready” buildings that are passively sustainable on their own, but don’t become completely carbon neutral until they’re hooked into the on-site active energy generation systems that currently make it so expensive to make a building that consumes net-zero energy. Carbon neutrality is still the long-term goal for the Berkeley lab, and there’s room for both initiatives, says Selkowitz. But, “The country will be much better off if we have tens of thousands of buildings that save 70-80 percent of the energy, but don’t quite go all the way,” he says, “rather than having 1 percent of the buildings being net-zero and the rest being the way they are today.”


The exterior of the Advanced Windows Test Facility at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. All images courtesy of Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The exterior of the Advanced Windows Test Facility at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The interior of the windows lab at Berkeley, which is set up with instrumentation to measure ambient light and other interior conditions such as temperature, pressure, and humidity.

Each of the three window lab rooms is thermally isolated from one another, and instruments also measure power and energy use.


Recent Related:

With New ARRA Stimulus Funding, DOE’s National Accounts Program Expands Big Box Sustainability

Stimulus-Funded DOE Research Invests in the Building System and Sustainability Technologies of Tomorrow

HUD and DOT Forming Joint Task Force to Promote Sustainable Communities

User’s Guide: Find a Federal Stimulus Design and Construction Project for Your Firm, Updated

The User’s Guide: Find a Federal Stimulus Design and Construction Project for Your Firm


Visit the AIA Government Advocacy’s Rebuild and Renew Web page.

See what the Committee on the Environment Knowledge Community is up to.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to “Lab Coats Back in the Studio: Can Sustainability Bring Design and Research Together?”

See what else the Architects Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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