A Q&A with Cindy Regnier, Manager of the Facility for Low Energy eXperiments in Buildings (FLEXLAB®)

August 26th 2013
An artist's rendering of FLEXLAB

Special Focus: FLEXLAB®

The Facility for Low Energy eXperiments in Buildings (FLEXLAB®) is designed to be a national focal point for developing, simulating and testing energy-efficient technologies and strategies for buildings. FLEXLAB users will conduct research and develop technologies at FLEXLAB on single components as well as whole-building integrated design and operation aimed at substantially lowering the energy use, and improving the comfort and performance of both new and existing buildings. FLEXLAB is a facility of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD).

In the following Q&A, Cindy Regnier, FLEXLAB's manager, discusses FLEXLAB's capabilities, and how its users will be able to use the facility when it opens.

How is the construction of FLEXLAB going? When will it be ready for users?

Construction is going well. At this point, FLEXLAB is on time and on budget, and construction should be complete in early 2014, including the commissioning process. Following that, we will put the facility through a calibration process to determine testbed accuracies, begin testing the data acquisition system and gathering baseline data from its many sensors.

Who do you expect will be the primary users of FLEXLAB when it is completed? And what needs does FLEXLAB address for these users?

The diversity of users is broad—maybe broader than you think. FLEXLAB can address the energy efficiency needs of utilities, federal and state research programs, manufacturers, building owners and the AECO [architecture, engineering, construction and owner-operated] community.

Product manufacturers of almost any type of building product or service are a natural user group for FLEXLAB, which can help extend the impact and market potential of products by developing integrated design solutions—such as automated shading coupled with dimmable lighting systems—that validate performance (for example, visual comfort,) as well as energy savings.

FLEXLAB can also help where they've developed emerging technology whose performance isn't yet recognized in industry—for example, code, or simulation tools—they need verified performance data and a means to extend results to the rest of industry.

We expect to work with the AECO community, too. The developer and AECO community is increasingly being asked to deliver guaranteed performance of building designs, whether for energy performance disclosure laws or for other energy efficiency-related purposes. The community currently only develops mockups for constructability, not verification of energy or comfort performance. Verification of a design's energy and overall performance in FLEXLAB lowers risk for the construction of the facility, especially where there are unique combinations of low energy systems, or high-risk elements that might affect comfort and performance such as full height glazing.

AECO users will be able to specify and test innovative systems for their designs in one or more of FLEXLAB's testbeds, and use feedback data from their operation to improve their designs. Building new energy-efficient buildings, or improving the energy performance of existing buildings in an investment portfolio enhances value. The AECO community will develop higher confidence in and reduce financial risk of new innovative design strategies with higher energy efficiency targets. This is a capability that can differentiate the truly innovative AECO firms in the marketplace.

Utilities need verified performance of emerging technologies to increase certainty on their impact on energy use, as well as R&D in emerging areas of energy reduction strategies to meet their energy efficiency programmatic goals, such as whole building integrated system performance.

How about the public sector?

For federal and state energy efficiency programs, R&D in FLEXLAB can help them determine the best technologies to reach aggressive energy savings goals, such as California's goal of net zero energy buildings by 2030. To get there, whole building integrated solutions that optimize performance and are cost-effective are needed.

FLEXLAB is uniquely suited for integrated system development because its infrastructure allows users to measure the interactions between multiple systems. In addition, FLEXLAB's relationship with industry throughout our partnership program will allow for greater connections to demonstration and deployment opportunities, significantly increasing the impact and outreach of their R&D portfolio.

Policymakers and building code officials will find that they can utilize testing results from FLEXLAB to help guide the improvement of energy efficiency codes and standards for buildings. And of course, the buildings research community is interested in working with us to develop new building technologies, as well as building simulation tools.

What are some of the energy efficiency problems that FLEXLAB was designed to address?

One problem that is occupying many minds right now is successfully integrating HVAC, facades, shading, lighting systems and controls in a way that's cost effective, and generates aggressive energy savings. FLEXLAB provides unique capabilities for testing in this area. The interior spaces are reconfigurable, so the user can create multiple zonal conditions, such as core and perimeter, for testing whole-building or zone energy savings.

Reconfigurable lighting systems allow you to test different lighting technologies and controls, and assess their impact on thermal loads and HVAC energy use, as well measure energy use and impact on visual comfort of the lighting itself. Through reconfigurable glazing and shading systems, the user can measure the impact of different glazing technologies on convection, thermal loads, energy use and comfort.

The HVAC systems are also fully reconfigurable—we can provide full airside or hydronic side heating and cooling. Each testbed also has radiant in-slab tubing with topping slabs of varying thicknesses to test different thermal mass and control strategies. Overall we can provide everything from an older 1970s era HVAC system to displacement ventilation, radiant panels and other efficient alternatives.

The ability to mockup older systems and facades is important to allow us to study cost effective energy saving retrofit strategies.

Give some examples of integrating controls with operation.

Integrating building load control with the grid is an area that's ripe for new technological solutions. For example, what are the optimal electric vehicle charging strategies when coupled with building loads that can reduce peak demand on the grid? FLEXLAB will have networked charging stations nearby, for testing performance under real conditions.

Automated facades coupled with daylight dimming are a major challenge for designers, because their controls strategies vary and performance can be uncertain, (such as motorized blinds, shades or electrochromic glass). The designer needs to optimize incoming sunlight for work surfaces, but minimize incoming solar heat gain, heat loss during the winter, and glare. FLEXLAB can provide quantified strategies for these controls scenarios.

In FLEXLAB, the user can control and measure the performance of every design element and operational strategy—room configuration and occupancy, type of shading system, automated (or manual) control strategy. One-and two-story testbeds will be available, along with a rotating testbed that be used to position the testbed to different orientations with respect to the sun. The two-story testbed will allow users to conduct skylight and clerestory studies, as well as tests that concern stacked floor conditions.

A FLEXLAB user can try different design and control strategies, test the performance of each, determine which system meets performance requirements the best, and improve on that system with further redesign and testing, which can be done with the testbed occupied or unoccupied.

EETD researchers have had a lot of prior experience researching these issues, correct?

Yes. Scientists here [in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of Berkeley Lab] have conducted years of research addressing daylighting and automated control solutions. We worked with the New York Times Co. to help them develop an automated shading and daylight dimming system for their new headquarters building, testing potential technologies in a testbed we helped them develop in New York.

We'll apply our years of experience in daylighting, demand response, automated controls and sensors, lighting systems, and other areas of building science to help FLEXLAB users design and execute tests that will help them solve their unique problems.

What makes FLEXLAB unique among building test facilities?

FLEXLAB is unique in having the ability to address the performance and optimization of integrated systems and technologies in buildings. No other facility can do this. Other existing testing facilities tend to focus on R&D around a specific technology. This limits their ability to address deeper energy saving opportunities that arise from integrating building systems to work together for maximum energy efficiency.

Savings from integrated design and operation will ultimately push buildings to net-zero energy territory. The additive savings from individual energy-efficient technologies just won't achieve this level of performance.

Also, at FLEXLAB, we can look at other aspects of high-performance systems beyond energy efficiency, including thermal and visual comfort, and indoor environmental quality.

How can interested potential users learn more about FLEXLAB?

They can look at our website, FLEXLAB.lbl.gov, and they can email flexlab.info@lbl.gov to be put in touch with someone from the FLEXLAB team.

Allan Chen