CBE focus group at HOK's San Francisco office

Collaboration is Key as CBE Celebrates 20 Years

Since CBE’s launch in 1997, collaborations with industry and government partners have been central to our work, and have led directly to many of CBE’s most important and far-reaching results. The center began then with ten partners (consortium members), a requirement set by the National Science Foundation for funding as an Industry/University Collaborative Research Center; membership has grown in recent years to almost 40 members. CBE’s membership consortium continues to provide a nimble and fluid platform for collaboration, without the typical administrative burdens required with project-based funding.

Partnerships between industry and universities represent a rich history of collaboration, contributing to growing the U.S. economy across diverse sectors including computing, health care, infrastructure and national security. As reported by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, cooperative, synergistic collaborations between academic, government and private sectors are critical for catalyzing innovation and fundamental advances.

Our collaborations with industrial partners take many forms. At the most basic, industry partners guide our work towards relevant topics and disseminate our research — implementing findings directly through the design of buildings and products, communicating via their networks, and advocating for improvements to codes and standards. Many partners collaborate further, by being part of the research team, co-authoring articles and papers, sponsoring projects, providing access to buildings, or sharing laboratory facilities. For this article, we recently spoke to a few of CBE’s industry partners who have made important contributions over the course of many years.

Validating new practices to spur adoption

Gwelen Paliaga, Technical Director for Building Science and Emerging Solutions at TRC Energy Services, has been an important contributor to CBE’s work, including while he was with Taylor Engineering. (Gwelen is currently CBE’s Industry Partner Chairman, and is also a graduate of the UCB Building Science Program.) He notes that collaborations with CBE have impacted his work in terms of design practices, specifications, and HVAC control sequences. An early collaboration with Taylor Engineering involved the design of the Orinda City Hall, for which students of Prof. Gail Brager conducted wind-tunnel studies to inform the design of this mixed-mode building.

One of Gwelen’s important contributions was being a prime instigator for a project that investigated the energy and comfort implications of reducing the minimum airflow rates in variable air volume (VAV) buildings. The project emerged from energy-efficient VAV practices that Taylor Engineering and others were using, but that were not being widely adopted due to perceived (but unproven) problems. To comprehensively evaluate the strategy, a team consisting of CBE, Taylor Engineering and Price Industries won funding from ASHRAE and the California Energy Commission, leveraging in-kind contributions from Price Industries and support from CBE partners, to conduct a 12-month field study in the Yahoo! campus in Sunnyvale, Calif. The results showed impressive energy savings (for example, cooling savings of 14 to 29 percent) and also improved comfort during summer. In fact, the project discovered and addressed a key reason that buildings are overcooled in summer. The results are now being considered in pending changes to important standards such as Title-24 and ASHRAE 90.1.

Currently we are working with Gwelen and his TRC colleagues, along with the Association for Energy Affordability, and support from Big Ass Solutions, on a multi-year project to study the potential for connected smart ceiling fans and thermostats to improve energy efficiency and comfort in multi-family residential buildings. Gwelen describes this as the culmination of an ongoing effort to get reliable data for design with ceiling fans. This collaborative project emerged out of a working relationship these team members had from working on the ASHRAE comfort standard (ASHRAE standard 55) and a new standard for ceiling fans (ASHRAE SPC-216).

And our survey said…

Started over 15 years ago, CBE’s occupant survey platform continues to be used by researchers, design teams and building owners to assess occupant satisfaction, diagnose problems and inform design decisions. The survey project was started through collaboration with the U.S. General Services Administration, with guidance from Kevin Kampschroer, Director of the Office for Federal Buildings and Health, and GSA’s Chief Sustainability Officer (at the time he was GSA’s Director of Research, and also served as CBE’s Industry Partner Chairman). The objective was to evaluate the performance of GSA’s property managers, which had previously been done by a national survey consultancy. As Kevin explained recently, partnering with a university research center provides benefits that a private company does not: “A consultant may tell us ‘this is how we do it.’ It’s not a collaborative process. A university also offers credibility that a hired gun does not. CBE has intellectual rigor and peer review to make sure what’s delivered is credible.”

Kevin notes that the survey was initially set up with help from the UC Berkeley Survey Research Center (now closed), that tested the questions to verify that the results would serve GSA’s goals (unlike the millions of Survey Monkey questionnaires now created with little understanding of appropriate methods). The CBE survey team then implemented the survey in hundreds of GSA properties each year, forming the basis of a unique and valuable database that continues to be mined for research and benchmarking of building performance. The survey has also been adopted by ASHRAE standards and LEED, and buildings with exceptional survey results qualify for CBE’s annual Livable Buildings Awards.

We are big fans of fans

Conducting tests with human subjects in a controlled environment chamber is one of CBE’s core capabilities. Several years ago, industry partners from Big Ass Solutions asked for our support in an innovative project, the development of a ‘smart’ version of their Haiku fan, one that would respond to environmental conditions and people’s preferences. CBE’s team conducted tests in the chamber with subjects to understand what combinations of air speeds and other factors would provide the most comfortable conditions. Big Ass Solutions used the findings to inform the design of their control system, and in 2014 released the Haiku with ‘SenseME’ technology. Christian Taber, Principal Engineer of Codes and Standards with Big Ass Solutions, says that the SenseME has been very successful; while it was initially offered as an option, it is now standard on all indoor Haiku models, as it offers differentiation in the market. “There were a lot of Internet of Things products coming out at the time, but we felt that this would really add value to the product for energy and comfort,” he says.

A recent and unique collaboration studied the interactions between three building technologies, each represented by three collaborating CBE partners: Radiant ceilings (CBE partner Price Industries), ceiling fans (Big Ass Solutions) and acoustical ceiling panels (Armstrong Industries). This collaborative team conducted a laboratory study to determine the effect that suspended acoustical panels (clouds) would have on both cooling effectiveness and acoustics, and also whether fans could provide a beneficial effect. The findings were robust, and provide architects and radiant system designers with guidance to balance the demands of cooling and acoustical performance (e.g., with 30 to 50 percent of a ceiling covered by panels acceptable sound absorption is provided, with nominal blockage of the ceiling cooling effect). These results have been published, and a second paper describing the promising effects of adding fans, is in press.

Values and value propositions

For many of CBE’s industry partners, the ability to collaborate with an academic organization such as UC Berkeley offers significant value. As Gwelen Paliaga notes, “CBE is unique, as they put a lot of effort into working with industry and addressing market barriers. Industry often finds academic research  too ‘ivory tower’ to be relevant to their needs. CBE’s mission is to be applied, and this model is successful and unique.”

For many partners, interactions with inquisitive students and post-docs is a valuable aspect of collaboration with an academic institution. Jay Fizer, Research and Development Manager with Big Ass Solutions, notes, “One of the interesting things about working with a university is the constant stream of individuals with new viewpoints. SenseME is a good product, but now we have some new minds at CBE with ideas to help tweak it and improve it.” He also appreciates how students are trained in design and applying strategies during their time at Berkeley, and then enter professional practice and make important contributions using that knowledge, often with CBE partner firms (including for example Gwelen Paliaga).

GSA’s Kevin Kampschroer notes that while collaboration with CBE has been cost effective, having lower costs than many consultants, the main benefit is not economic. “When I want advice about something in the wheelhouse of CBE, I can call Fred, Gail or Ed for advice. This works not because I am a client, but rather because of the fundamental reason that CBE is motivated by societal good. We are looking to improve the lives of the people we affect, and with CBE we can collaborate in ways you cannot in a for-profit world.”

Featured image: Prof. Gail Brager leads a work session on LEED and green workplace design at HOK’s San Francisco office.