Visitors to Portland State University's Green Building Research Laboratory are routinely invited to pose in front of a Flir Systems infrared thermography camera.
The camera helps identify leaks in building envelope systems. It also gauges body temperatures, resulting in blue and red dreamlike images that lend a surreal air to the windowless room.
The mix of cutting-edge science and curio will drive PSU's research prospects for decades. The lab has already been nationally recognized, with $1 million in recent federal appropriations, as a leader in developing environmentally sound construction methods.
Intel Corp., the Santa Clara, Calif.-based tech behemoth that employs 15,000 in Oregon, has contributed the lab's centerpiece wind tunnel, which tests whether environmental materials can withstand huge gusts. Other area businesses have begun commissioning the lab to perform materials studies.
In slightly more than 12 months, the lab has contributed to a National Science Foundation-funded study of integrated green roofs and solar panels, tested phase-change materials and studied how operable windows affect the environment at a 383-unit campus residence hall.
The lab, which contains about $650,000 worth of equipment, has also helped students test whether schools in Portland and Beaverton are energy efficient.
"We're interested in two different areas: How it's built and how well it's functioning," said David Sailor, professor of mechanical and materials engineering in PSU's Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science.
The lab could help the state develop a critical industry sector. Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of both energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.
Oregon officials want the state to become a hub for builders of high-performance, net-zero energy buildings. To get there, engineers within the state's universities have agreed to work cooperatively.
"Our sole purpose is to further the goals of the green building industry, but there's some overlap with the universities," said Sailor. "We don't see ourselves as in competition with the other schools. We have our own strengths and are in many respects working to become more competitive in attracting federal funding."
The $1 million from Congress's Energy and Water Appropriation Bill could help PSU in three ways:
- It can establish a graduate student internship program that attracts high quality scholars to work within the Green Building Research Lab.
- It can use lab programs to help develop the planned Oregon Sustainability Center. The mixed-use, 200,000 square-foot structure will be both a net-zero energy building and a regional hub.
- It will back new and ongoing education and research initiatives for Sailor and other faculty members.
Along with the infrared camera and wind tunnel, the lab's equipment includes a spectrophotometer that measures reflectivity of roofing materials and other products. It also employs several types of sensors that gauge overall effects from air temperature, humidity, air-flow velocity, carbon dioxide and surface moisture.
Along with Intel, the facility has landed contributions from Portland-based companies Alpine Glass Services Inc., AMS and Pro Gro Mixes and Materials.
Sailor said the lab has attracted interest from several companies hoping to utilize green building expertise.
For instance, Earth Advantage Inc., a Portland-based nonprofit that teaches builders and developers how to erect environmentally sound structures, hopes to create a dashboard-like product that provides easily accessed information about energy spending and other usage data.
Sailor hopes to hear from more businesses willing to work with the lab.
"I want industry to see us as a resource, but at some point, we need to create an operational model that's sustainable," he said.