This Is Where the World’s Most Energy-Efficient Buildings Are Being Invented

A first-of-its-kind lab in California is helping builders shrink your future home’s carbon footprint.

(Photo: FLEXLAB)

Jul 11, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

High in the Berkeley Hills overlooking San Francisco Bay sit four modern steel-blue buildings that resemble pint-size Ikea stores. Inside, scientists have built a first-of-its-kind test bed to invent technology for the ultimate in green homes and office buildings.

Operated by Berkeley Lab, FLEXLAB is designed to ensure that energy-efficient buildings live up to their billing once construction is complete.

Green building architects currently can’t measure the energy consumption of all of a building’s components—such as lighting, heating, and air conditioning—during the design phase. FLEXLAB can help them nail down the right configuration by testing an entire building’s performance under real-world conditions.

“It’s now harder to make energy-efficiency advancements in buildings using a component-based approach—for example, switching out the light bulbs,” said Cindy Regnier, FLEXLAB’s manager. “An integrative and more systematic design approach can result in greater savings.”

There appears to be nothing Jetsons-like about FLEXLAB, though. The interiors of the complex’s four buildings resemble what you’d find in your run-of-the-mill office building.

But unseen are sensors embedded in the floors and walls that monitor heat flow, while a camera takes photos to measure glare. Lighting systems can be switched out easily, and the ceiling can be dropped. One building even rotates 270 degrees to test the positioning of windows and solar panels.

FLEXLAB’s launch is timely. By 2020, all new California homes must be net-zero energy—that is, they must produce as much energy as they consume. New commercial buildings must achieve net-zero energy consumption by 2030.

The lab’s researchers plan to work with utilities, manufacturers, government agencies, and designers.

“One of our roles is to develop tools to help [advance] energy-sensing technology,” said Regnier. FLEXLAB’s experiments, she added, will provide information needed to create sensor-based building components that will automatically adjust energy-efficiency settings after identifying the unique combination of a particular building’s heating, air conditioning, and lighting systems.

The facility can also test how renewable energy technology—such as solar panels, energy storage devices, fuel cells, and electric vehicle charging—affects a building’s performance.

For now, though, the facility is being used for more conventional purposes. Biotech company Genentech and Webcor, its contractor, are working with FLEXLAB to test how energy savings from a building’s lighting controls, automated shading, and other systems can offset the energy needed to heat the space.

“It’s really opening the door for the next generation of energy-efficient technology using a systems-based approach,” Regnier said.