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Signs warn to watch for a rotating building at the FLEXLAB at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. on Tuesday, July 8, 2014. FLEXLAB is designed to work with companies and utilities to reduce energy use by testing, evaluating and deploying the most energy-efficient technologies. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

By Dana Hull

BERKELEY -- The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, located in the hills above UC Berkeley with sweeping views of the Bay, has long been known for its cutting-edge research in energy efficiency.

On Thursday, it will unveil FLEXLAB, the world's most advanced lab for studying energy efficiency in commercial buildings.

Buildings account for 40 percent of all U.S. electricity use, and reducing their usage is a critical piece of the overall effort to lower the use of fossil fuels. Lighting, plug loads and heating and cooling all contribute to a building's overall energy use. Many buildings are designed to be energy-efficient but end up using more energy than planned once they are up and running and filled with workers. Testing next-generation technologies in real-world conditions has been challenging -- until now.

"This is the first-of-its-kind test facility that looks at buildings as an entire system," said Cindy Regnier, the project leader for FLEXLAB, in an interview. "We can do comparison testing, and test one HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) system to another."

Silicon Valley startups, architects, designers, utilities and manufacturers are invited to use FLEXLAB for fees that vary based on the time needed to conduct the testing and the rigor of the analysis. Some tests may take just a few days; others may run for months. The idea is that designers can use the FLEXLAB to compare technologies and make key decisions on building systems before breaking ground on projects.

FLEXLAB has four separate labs that can test-drive different technologies, including HVAC systems, lighting, windows and the building envelope. Every outlet has its own circuit and power metering. The systems being tested are easily interchangeable, so designers can swap out windows, walls, skylights, lighting and other architectural elements, or compare two products side-by-side.

One of the four test beds is motorized and is able to rotate 270 degrees to simulate various climates, seasons and angles of the sun.

"Sensors embedded in the structure measure heat flux and heat flow, as well as temperature and humidity," said Regnier.

Green building, once a curiosity, has become a huge market, with Lux Research forecasting that it will be a $280 billion global industry by the end of the decade. Several Bay Area companies, including Adobe Systems, Genentech, Google, Prudential Real Estate Investors and Zynga have signed on to the "California Best Buildings Challenge" and have committed to a 20 percent reduction in energy, water and waste by the end of this year. Many employers have found that improving the energy performance of buildings has a positive impact on employee health and productivity.

One company already taking advantage of FLEXLAB is Genentech, headquartered in South San Francisco. The pharmaceutical company is building a new office space, and in partnership with commercial construction contractor Webcor Builders, a mock-up of a typical office environment has been installed within FLEXLAB so they can optimally design for lighting and shading.

"This facility could be the most important building in the country," Jes Pederson, CEO of Webcor, said in a statement.

Work on FLEXLAB began five years ago, and Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman, Lawrence Berkeley Lab director Paul Alivisatos, and UC President Janet Napolitano are among those expected to attend Thursday's ribbon cutting.

Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.