Most of the electrical energy in the U.S. is consumed by buildings and the building sector has the fastest growing rate, but up to now the country did not have a facility for comprehensive testing of new technologies that aim to make buildings more energy efficient. That has changed with Thursday’s opening of a cutting edge laboratory, in California, for evaluating the efficiency of new building methods and materials.

In many buildings, windows and walls are poorly insulated, air conditioning and heating systems are inefficient and lighting is inadequate. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings account for 36 percent of the nation's total energy use and create 30 percent of its greenhouse gasses.

Technologies for lowering those numbers exist, but their effectiveness is hard to measure because the process requires real-life conditions.

In addition to testing each element individually, it's important to assess how well they work together, says the executive manager of the Department of Energy’s new Flexlab, Cindy Regnier.

She spoke via Skype.

“We're looking at integrated systems, so instead of looking at just components, like air conditioning units, we're looking at the integration, of lighting systems with windows and shading, as an example," said Regnier.

Flexlab has four test beds where scientists can compare the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of different methods. One of the test beds can be rotated 270 degrees to study technologies under different solar orientations.

Cameras aimed at windows and walls are helping scientists evaluate the energy efficiency of new materials.

Regnier says the work done at Flexlab can save billions of dollars.

“Good integrated design in buildings can achieve as much as 50% energy savings over regular energy use. That's true of the existing buildings as well as new construction," she said.

Flexlab will work with all groups interested in improving energy efficiency - from architects and builders, designers and manufacturers of new materials, to building owners and research sponsors.

Another important factor will be occupant comfort and acceptance, so certain tests will involve people spending time in the facility.

“One of the tests that we currently have going on with Webcor and Genentech will have occupants come into the space and work in the space for a couple of weeks so that they can test the technologies and understand how they perform. It's really important for the kind of work that we do," said Regnier.

Regnier says the tests conducted at Flexlab will provide a preview of a building's energy use, before it's built - saving time, money... and energy.