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Fraunhofer USA, Inc. is a non-profit subsidiary of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, a leading international applied research and development organization with 66 institutes and independent research units located throughout Germany. Fraunhofer USA has nine different research centers, each one closely affiliated with its German counterpart and many of which are partnered with major US research universities. Each center focuses on a specific expertise, ranging from digital media technologies to manufacturing innovation. The Boston area being rich with top research institutions was an obvious choice for the location of Fraunhofer’s Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (CSE). The Center first set up its operation in Cambridge, but when negotiations to move into an MIT-owned building began to fail in 2010, it seized the opportunity to relocate to an old storage warehouse building ripe for renewal in an area of South Boston that had just been designated the country’s first “Innovation District” by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

As we have seen with other projects, this one too came by way of cultivated relationships. DiMella Shaffer President Randy Kreie first met Tom Hamill of Redgate Real Estate Advisors and Fraunhofer project manager, during an afternoon of golf where Tom was an invited guest. Tom mentioned a new lab retrofit project that might be a good opportunity and potentially a nice fit. We would need to compete with several other big-name laboratory design firms, but Randy thought we were up to the task. The interview went well and we won the day, successfully exhibiting to the client our expertise in working with historic structures, solving unforeseen circumstances in creative ways, and our long history of fitting labs into buildings that should never have had labs in the first place.THE BUILDINGLocated at 5 Channel Center (5CC), the building was designed and built in 1913 by the Boston Wharf Company, at the time, one of the key real estate developers in the state. The Fort Point Channel District was first developed in the 1830s and became a global hub for textile trade distribution, especially wool. The 5CC building, a six-story three-bay loft building with masonry walls and heavy timber and steel framing, was originally built for a wholesale leather merchant and like most of the mill buildings of the area was been abandoned after the decline in the wool warehousing market. Some of these buildings found new use as artists converted them to studios beginning in the 1970s. This building had accommodated a variety of uses over time but had lain abandoned for ten years and was slated for demolition when Fraunhofer CSE took interest in it. 5CC was in a sad state of disrepair, suffering from a long leaking roof and a rotted-through roof hatch, with numerous pigeons in residence on the upper floor. With some incentives from the Commonwealth and the City of Boston, Fraunhofer CSE saw great promise in the building and realized that it could be a unique building technology showcase of their research and testing work in making buildings more energy efficient.

5 Channel Center (2014)

The CSE’s work is focused on advancing sustainable energy systems, which seems more straightforward in new construction, but a lot more challenging when retrofitting existing buildings. So this is one important purpose of their new center at 5CC—to be a “living laboratory” where various energy saving technologies can be implemented in an operating building and carefully monitored and compared over time as to their effectiveness and value.

Building section diagram showing a variety of research and testing laboratories and office spaces.

Advanced laboratory facilities support the Center’s two scientific teams: Building Energy Efficiency and Solar Photovoltaic Modules and also benefit of CSE’s industry and higher education research partners. These include durability and material testing laboratories for building products and integrated building systems testing. The ability to deploy and evaluate these systems in an actual operating building creates a unique opportunity for in-depth research. The goal is to reduce the building’s energy usage by over 50% against previous baselines. Some of the building industry’s leading systems and materials are being used in the building and will be evaluated over time. Recommendations and further research and testing based on the findings will support future improvement goals in the industry. Energy consumption, long-term durability and user comfort are all key components of the evaluations.

One of the building’s experimental retrofits include the installation of a variety of building insulation systems, including spray cellulose, mineral wool and vacuum insulated panels. Sensors were also installed in the exterior wall to measure heat transmission and humidity for evaluation over long periods of time, even up to ten years. A variety of high-performance window and wall assemblies are installed in four semi-controlled environments at the top floor of the building (see photo above) as part of the building integrated façade test lab and can be evaluated for insulation properties and can inspire improvements in photovoltaic façade elements.

Our team worked closely with BR+A Consulting Engineers implementing several different mechanical systems  throughout the building. In the building’s lobby, three separate and redundant systems are installed: radiant chilled/heated floor slab, displacement air system, and overhead chilled sails. Each system can be independently controlled and even run in combination, to evaluate energy usage and user comfort. The experimentation continues above the ground floor, where a different mechanical system is installed on each floor: fan coil units, chilled sails, and passive cooling with rooftop ventilators at the top floor.

Another research area at the Center is smart glass technology, ranging from electricity-producing windows to glass that tints automatically to reduce the heat load while maximizing daylight. High STC moveable glass partitions were also installed in the building, with pneumatic seals between the components to help control the sound transmission. The interior glass also helps distribute the natural daylight deep into the building, since the majority of the windows are only on the front and back of the building.

Offices and conference rooms with glass partitions to maximize daylight harvesting.

A complete solar photovoltaic module prototype manufacturing line is located in the lower level laboratory, along with a climate chamber where the panels can be life-cycle tested using an age accelerator. A higher ceiling height was required in this space, so a portion of the ground floor was removed to create a two-story space which also features an observation window from the lobby. Currently in development is a plug-n-play residential solar panel system that could be purchased at a home improvement store and easily installed by homeowners themselves.

Photovoltaic panel laboratory.

The first floor lobby extends into an interactive showcase exhibit that describes the building’s new and evolving technologies. An augmented reality experience enabled through tablet technology reveals building systems behind walls and shows their workings and capacities.

Left: Reclaimed heavy timber from the floor removal is used at the reception desk.

Right: Entrance lobby with chilled sails at ceiling and exhibition showcase beyond

Since the building is located in the Fort Point Channel landmark district, the building’s exterior window replacement brick re-pointing was under careful scrutiny and review of the National Park Service, so that the character of the building was preserved in the renovation. A historically accurate (based on old photographs) copper cornice was rebuilt on the north façade and a new entrance was carved out of the corner of the building (lower right in photo below). Our Project Manager David Godfroy highlighted some of the pitfalls of working in such an old and unpredictable building, such as installing and waterproofing an elevator pit below sea level and needing to hang the pit from the adjacent pile caps. The very experimental nature of the building’s technologies meant that there was always an ongoing search for the “latest and greatest,” and this sometimes resulted in products being chosen well after the design and documentation phases were complete. Many of these products were so new that they didn’t have any documentation or cut-sheets describing their dimensions, electrical needs or installation requirements. So many decisions had to be made in the field as these components arrived on site. But David really appreciated the client’s openness to experimentation and willingness to take risks. The success of such a building necessarily relies on this mindset. A specific LEED rating was never a goal of the project. Instead the owner simply wanted to build the best and most energy efficient building they could. Everything was done very completely, efficiently and in the best way possible. In the end, the building earned 16 out of the possible 18 LEED points for Energy and Atmosphere and ultimately achieved a LEED Gold rating.

Such an experimental building, where technologies are continuously tested and monitored is a perfect fit for the Innovation District. The research and testing carried out here by the scientists on products and systems, many of which were donated by industry partners, will continually inspire product improvements geared at energy efficiency and cost savings. The building was designed so that even the built-in systems can be replaced in the future with newer products as technological advances present more options for evaluation. In this way the building can perfectly fulfill its potential as “living laboratory.”