Bay Area’s Living Labs

Bay Area, living lab, DPR Construction, LPA, San Jose, Silicon Valley, SoMa, The Swig Co., FLEXLAB, Bay Area news, commercial real estate

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Universities and private companies create places to ‘try before you buy.’


By Joe Gose

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]alifornia’s mandate that commercial buildings achieve zero net energy performance by 2030 and the U.S. Department of Energy’s goal to halve building energy usage are creating a sense of urgency within the commercial real estate industry.

They’re hardly on their own, however, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Several so-called “living labs” in the region are fostering innovation by creating buildings of the future. Their goal is to help developers, architects, corporations and others understand the real-life implications of selecting lights, windows and operating systems that best optimize energy efficiency for their particular use. Some of the labs are tied to universities and have been around for years, while others have only recently opened and have been primarily driven by the private enterprises that benefit from their findings.

DPR Construction, for example, retrofitted 945 Front St. in San Francisco in an effort to create a certified net-zero building that will produce more energy than it consumes (pictured). In May, the company moved into the 24,000-square-foot building, where its regional headquarters will be based. Not only does it fulfill the contractor’s mission to promote sustainability and environmental responsibility, but it also is a green showroom where clients can observe the actual impact of products.

[pullquote_right]“The space has been so well received, and everyone that walks into it has had sort of a ‘wow’ moment.” Ted van der Linden, director of sustainability at DPR Construction[/pullquote_right]Among other components, DPR added solar power, a solar thermal water heater, 13 Big Ass brand fans, solar tube lights and three living walls—plants rooted in a structure attached to the walls. And DPR wants to take this experience further. It can easily bring in new products and materials to test them and measure their impact on the spot. The company has already hosted a design charette, said Ted van der Linden, director of sustainability.

“The space has been so well received, and everyone that walks into it has had sort of a ‘wow’ moment,” he said. “The reality is that we were able to do it for just under a couple of hundred dollars a square foot, which fits into the same vein as to what our clients want to spend.”

Similarly, Irvine, Calif.-based architecture firm LPA opened a new office in a downtown San Jose office tower late last year that showcases the firm’s commitment to sustainable technologies as it seeks to expand its growing number of clients in Silicon Valley. Innovations include a “ventilated fold” in the center of the space that’s designed to promote air circulation, light reflectance and sound absorption.

At 501 Second Street in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, a landlord-tenant collaboration between the Swig Co. and Project Frog led to the creation of a living lab that displays how lighting and other power systems affect a building’s energy grid. Project Frog produces ready-to-assemble component building elements with an emphasis on sustainability.

More recently, in July the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory opened FLEXLAB, a research facility that enables private companies to test cutting-edge, energy saving technologies under real-world operating conditions. FLEXLAB features four test beds that contain two separate cells of 600 square feet each. Of the test beds, three are single-story structures, and one is two stories. One of the structures has the ability to rotate in an effort to maximize sun exposure and test its effects.

The Berkeley Lab developed the project after it won a $15.9 million contract from the U.S. Department of Energy, which in 2009 began searching for testing facilities to squeeze more energy savings from buildings.

FLEXLAB focuses on configuring various building systems such as HVAC, lighting, windows, the building envelope, roofs and skylights, furniture, flooring and partitions to maximize efficiency. It’s a strategy that’s needed to produce energy efficiency called for by California’s zero-net energy policy, said Cindy Regnier, the facility’s executive manager. But more broadly, FLEXLAB is supporting the Department of Energy’s mission, she added.

Genentech, which is building a 255,000-square-foot office in South San Francisco, has been using the rotating test bed to help optimize the building’s design. The subsidiary of the Roche Group is testing lighting systems, lighting controls, shading products and even materials used in a raised floor, among other elements, she said. PG&E, meanwhile, plans to soon begin two research projects that will last about a year.

“Historically, utilities have been giving rebates for installing energy efficient components like air conditioning units or dryers,” Regnier said. “But they’re increasingly getting interested in a system-level approach so that they can get deeper energy savings.”

The California Lighting Technology Center at the University of California at Davis, meanwhile, is a decade-old lab that tests lights for varying uses and publishes its findings for general consumption. Two of its more recent reports look at the changes to Title 24 that took effect July 1 and LED retrofit options for fluorescent lamps, said Kelly Cunningham, the center’s outreach director.

Replacing fluorescent lights with LEDs is an especially big topic now, she said, and building owners or managers considering it essentially have three choices: Replace old fluorescent tubes with LED tubes, replace part of the fixture or replace the entire fixture. While simply installing a long-lasting LED tube and “forgetting about it for 15 years” would appear to be the simplest option, it’s tough to gauge which companies in the relatively young industry will be around the long-haul to honor warranties, Cunningham explained.

“It’s very much buyer-beware right now in that marketplace,” she said. “You’ve got to do your homework.”

Images courtesy of DPR Construction

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