UT Austin's new thermal lab to study building efficiency

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by AMY JOHNSTON/KVUE News

kvue.com

Posted on December 7, 2009 at 6:06 PM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 8 at 11:39 AM

The University of Texas at Austin is now home to the first university-based energy-efficiency testing facility for buildings in the U.S.  It's called the Thermal Lab, and it officially opened Monday.

According to the University's Center for Sustainable Development, in the US, commercial buildings consume 55 percent of all electricity.  This new Thermal Lab is aimed at making a drastic cut to that number.

Professor Werner Lang, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at UT, he is behind this new thermal lab.  The $100,000 lab is a 14x16x12 boxy white structure that sits on a metal platform adjacent to the West Mall building.  Inside, it has a simple design with an air-flow system, energy efficient light bulbs and a computer system that records weather and energy information.

"The overall goal is to understand how we can design high performance envelopes, meaning facades and roof structures, in such a way that we reduce the energy consumption," he said.

The thermal lab stays a constant 68 degrees.  They calculate just how much energy will be used with current weather information.  The south-facing wall will be changed out several times in the next year.

"The gray insulating panels you see right now have a very high so-called "R" value, so the energy losses are extremely limited right now," said Lang.

Double- and tripled-pane windows will also be measured, along with shade structures.  Energy losses will be calculated through sensors. The results allow architects to design more energy efficient structures.

"Our facility is an outdoor testing facility right on campus.  People can experience what it looks like, what the facades are going to look like.  So we are much closer to educating our students through research, than other facilities," said Lang.

This will allow important scientific work to be combined with architectural design -- all in one facility -- so future buildings can be aesthetically pleasing, but also generate more energy than they consume.

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