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A Life-Size Set of Blocks Puts Green Building Ideas to the Test

A government lab is constructing four buildings that will be able to test the real-life performance of energy-efficient technologies.

A government lab is constructing a set of four buildings that scientists and the manufacturers can use to test the real-life performance of energy-efficient technologies. Called the User Test Bed Facility, the buildings will allow researchers the flexibility to swap out windows, change ceiling and floor heights, customize interior wall materials and exterior facades, install particular lighting, and make a host of other adjustments in order to test technologies in various conditions and configurations.

The lab describes the project as a “giant, life-size set of building blocks” or an “erector set.” It certainly sounds like a fun toy to play with. Another helpful metaphor might be to a paper doll: given the body of the building, researchers can dress it up however they like, pairing different hats and dresses with each other, or piling on accessories.

The facility, funded by $15.9 million under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and supported by the Department of Energy, will be located at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Each of the four buildings has two rooms in it, one for experimental conditions, the other for control conditions. One building’s ceiling will open to two floors in height in order to simulate conditions at warehouses or big box stores. Another will be able to rotate 270 degrees so that researchers can control its orientation with respect to the sun. The facility can simulate conditions in older buildings, too, which will allow tests of technologies designed to retrofit buildings dating back decades.

The buildings are scheduled to be ready in 2013, and the lab’s Building Technologies Department, which oversees the facility, is asking for manufacturers, architects, utilities and other industries to pitch them on research projects to test out their new toy. Right now, the lab is offering the most details about the resources available for lighting and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning studies.

The lighting document offers a hint for why product manufacturers might jump at the chance to test out their wares in real-life conditions. After all, companies can already get an accurate sense of the energy savings their products will offer from modeling. But the lab lists one of its objectives for the program as creating a database of results in order “to help build confidence that properly specified and installed controls can save significant energy with excellent occupant acceptance.” Remember the outcry against energy-efficient light bulbs and Congress’ decision that we should all probably use them? Most of the arguments against that law cited the ugliness of the light energy-efficient CFL bulbs emit. “Excellent occupant acceptance” -- real live human beings’ willingness to live and work in the conditions created by the new technology -- was missing there.

People need to accept these technologies for them to make a difference. It sounds like a good idea in theory to install automated window shading and lights that dim in response to sunlight pouring into the window. But maybe it’s really annoying for some reason. Fix any problems before sending a new idea to market, and consumers might not just accept but want the product on offer.

Picture courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

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