SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — In an industrial section of a San Francisco Bay Area suburb, the sleek new office building of Genentech, a biotechnology firm, opened last week. The company knows it will be energy efficient because it is the first project to take advantage of a cutting-edge efficiency testing facility that was developed last year in nearby Berkeley.

"Building 35" was developed on a rotating test bed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to model real-life conditions as closely as possible. Lighting, ventilation and shading in the 255,000-square-foot building have all been adjusted based on months of experiments in a mocked-up office with sensors to measure temperature, glare and energy use.

First impressions of the building, however, come from a coffee bar in the airy atrium with kombucha on draft, massage chairs off the lobby and Herman Miller desks that raise and lower at the touch of a button. More subtle are the green couch cushions and the metal fins on the sides of the building, each embossed with graphic representations of DNA code.

"It's all about choice, collaboration, well-being and sustainability," said Joana Calvo, a project coordinator at the building and a tour guide at Genentech's unveiling last week. The building will eventually house 1,500 of Genentech's 10,000 Bay Area employees.

There is much more at work here than mere style. The atrium is designed so that it relies on natural air flows 40 percent of the time. Ventilation systems in the conference rooms don't turn on until carbon dioxide levels reach 1,000 parts per million.

The metal fins are aligned to minimize glare and make the most of natural heat and light; as such, they are placed horizontally on the building's south face and vertically on the rest of the sides, to bounce light into the top part of the ceiling and down onto the workers.

Under construction since October 2013, the building underwent four months of testing at LBNL's Flexlab, a customizable facility that allows commercial real estate developers to create mock-ups of planned buildings to test their energy use.

Funded with $15.7 million from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the lab features eight rooms that can be outfitted to mirror an existing or planned building's layout. Two of the rooms rotate 270 degrees in order to test various levels of sunlight (Greenwire, July 11, 2014).

The price? Don't ask
The project builder, Webcor, constructed a section of the building at Flexlab and rotated it every week to test furniture, façade systems, flooring, lighting and ceiling systems. Webcor measured temperature and glare at various heights and locations in the room.

All told, energy-saving techniques and materials are expected to reduce energy use about 30 percent below the building industry's voluntary efficiency standards of 2007, and are calculated to pay for themselves within three to five years.

Adjusting lighting controls further than the manufacturers' settings, for example, is expected to save $4,145 per year and 60 percent more energy than the default efficiency settings. The automated window shades never completely close, because testing at Flexlab revealed that the bottom 6 inches of window should always stay exposed to maximize use of natural daylight.

Although the lawns around the building are currently brown, to comply with lawn-watering restrictions put in place to combat the state's historic drought, the drought-tolerant landscaping will eventually reduce irrigation by 78 percent.

The building doesn't have solar power, as its perch overlooking San Francisco Bay is known for its often-foggy microclimate.

"Our focus was having a positive ROI," said Andrew Keller, Genentech's campus site planner. "I think the return on that investment was about 27 years."

Genentech officials wouldn't say how much the building cost, but noted that if Flexlab had been available earlier in the planning process, the energy savings would have been even greater. The use of Flexlab cost $250,000.

"Flexlab did not exist when we developed our initial plans for the building, but when they came online, we were very pleased to be the first client to test several features and operating systems for the building," said spokeswoman Lisa Slater.

Currently, utility Pacific Gas & Electric is using Flexlab to test efficiency technologies, and SolarCity and Tesla are slated to test their combined solar panel and battery systems there this summer.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500