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New Lab Studies Energy-Efficient Building Materials

Exterior rendering of the Maximum Building Energy Efficiency Research Laboratory (MAXLAB)
The Maximum Building Energy Efficiency Research Laboratory (MAXLAB) is an 18,000 sq ft structure with offices and two testing bays, one two stories tall for building envelopes and the other lower and designed for HVAC equipment research. Sam Fentress, Fentress Photography

The complex at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory includes one-of-a-kind testing facilities aimed at stimulating industry innovation and ensuring that the U.S. building industry remains competitive.

August 6, 2013—Imagine being able to accurately model the effects that differences in climate in various parts of the United States will exert on the function of a building envelope or to simulate the effects of positive and negative wind gust pressure, rain, and solar radiation on a variety of building systems. Consider having a testing platform that would enable you to obtain a real-world sense of how a given heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system would work in the face of a variety of temperature and climate conditions before you chose to install such a system.

When the final touches are completed on a new, $20.2-million research complex in Tennessee at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory later this year, the U.S. Department of Energy and its industry partners will no longer have to imagine. Eastern Tennessee will be a one-stop shop for testing the energy efficiency of building envelope materials and innovative heating and cooling systems.

This work to improve building envelope materials—which include materials used in roofs, attics, walls, and foundations—is important because HVAC systems account for 17 percent of the energy consumption in the United States, according to studies conducted by the Department of Energy. If it becomes easier to manage the temperature and moisture of our civic buildings and residences, it makes sense that the energy consumption of these structures will decrease as well.

Three structures comprise the complex: the Maximum Building Energy Efficiency Research Laboratory (MAXLAB) and two flexible research platforms (FRPs). MAXLAB is an 18,000 sq ft structure with offices and two testing bays, one two stories tall for building envelopes and the other lower and designed for HVAC equipment research.  

“In the high bay lab of the MAXLAB building, we have an apparatus that really doesn’t exist anywhere else; it simultaneously measures air and moisture penetration of large-scale wall assemblies,” says Patrick Hughes, the director of Oak Ridge’s Building Technologies Research and Integration Center. “It can hold a temperature gradient across the wall that’s basically any temperature gradient you could encounter in North America.”

Diagram of the MAXLAB which is directly wired to the two flexible research platforms

The MAXLAB is directly wired to the two flexible research platforms,
which are essentially building skeletons that can be covered in any
building envelope material that needs to be tested. ORNL

The MAXLAB is directly wired to the two FRPs, which are essentially building skeletons that can be covered in any building envelope material that needs to be tested. One is a single-story, 3,030 sq ft structure with a sloped roof frame, and one is a two-story, 4,050 sq ft building with a flat roof frame. At present the one-story structure has been covered with a metal exterior and is undergoing baseline testing.

The complex was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and constructed by McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., of St. Louis, for $14.3 million. Additional ARRA funds ($5.9 million) were used for commissioning the design by Cannon Design, also of St. Louis, outfitting the facility with new equipment, and paying Oak Ridge’s facilities development division for managing the design and construction.

McCarthy has ample experience building labs and clean rooms, but the flexible test platforms are uniquely well insulated. “They can pipe warm water through those concrete slabs, so ground temperature cannot have an effect on the study,” says McCarthy’s project director, Larry VanHouten, Aff.M.ASCE.

The complex will be fully operational by the end of the year but will not be completely occupied until researchers are able to move projects into the MAXLAB, says Antonio Bouza, a Department of Energy mechanical engineer with the Building Technologies Program. And that may take some time, Bouza says.

Among the tests that the new complex will enable is an examination of the efficiency of new refrigerants having a low potential to contribute to global warming on a building having a real-world footprint. Those test systems are being provided by the Department of Energy partners General Electric, of Fairfield, Connecticut; ClimateMaster, Inc., of Oklahoma City; and NORDYNE, of O’Fallon, Missouri. All three firms are manufacturers of HVAC systems.

“The platforms are important because these advanced components [represent] significant departures from [how] they had been manufactured in the past,” says Hughes. “The industry partners really want low-risk test beds to work out the wrinkles.”

The lab will collect data that can validate or refute the claims made by companies that manufacture these new refrigerants and HVAC systems. Four separate rooms and four heating and cooling zones will be made available.

Bouza notes that most small buildings in the United States have not adopted efficient multizone HVAC systems, even though such systems are common in other parts of the world. “The lab will enable the domestic manufacturers to catch up and be competitive,” he says. “The whole thing is to reverse the trend of equipment and appliance manufacturers moving jobs and technology and equipment outside of the U.S.”

And it’s not just heating and cooling that will be put through their paces at Oak Ridge. The setup will allow a company that believes it has an innovative material—for example, an improved type of insulation, to test its creation under customizable weather conditions. It’s a way to certify that materials will not fail when they’re deployed on a large scale.

A structure with a heat loss problem that’s been standing for 40 years, Hughes explains, should continue to stand after it’s been retrofitted with new insulation. The solution to heat loss shouldn’t suddenly lead to a moisture management problem that causes the growth of mold or the cracking of exterior finishes in cold temperatures. “The complex is designed to prevent the kinds of building envelope failures that have plagued the construction industry from happening again,” says Hughes. And if they do happen, the MAXLAB can help researchers duplicate conditions and quickly understand what caused such a failure.

In the end, the goals for the complex are to help the U.S. building industry be more competitive, help those in the construction industry feel confident that what they’re building is going to last, and promote higher standards for envelope management in the international building community.


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