Revolving lab to test ideas for 'energy' buildings

The new BCA SkyLab, the world's first high-rise rotatable laboratory for the tropics located at the BCA Academy along Braddell Road.
The new BCA SkyLab, the world's first high-rise rotatable laboratory for the tropics located at the BCA Academy along Braddell Road. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

BCA SkyLab to test technologies that can create buildings that make more energy than they use

A revolving laboratory, perched on a roof eight storeys high, will take Singapore closer to constructing buildings that not only make as much energy as they use, but also produce more energy than they consume.

The 132 sq m research centre - the size of two three-room flats - was launched yesterday and is the brainchild of the Building and Construction Authority (BCA).

It will be used to test-bed technologies to bring more "positive energy" buildings to life.

Positive-energy buildings are those that can produce more energy than they consume by, for instance, harnessing solar energy, while cutting energy use with more efficient air-conditioning or lighting systems.

The medium-term aspiration is to develop such positive-energy low-rise and medium-rise buildings that are energy self-sufficient, and energy-efficient high-rise buildings, said Dr John Keung, chief executive of BCA.

Launching the BCA SkyLab at the BCA Academy in Braddell, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that as the Republic's economy developed, its building activities grew in scale and complexity, and the focus is now on environmental sustainability.

"The BCA SkyLab that we are opening today will play an important role in our environmental sustainability drive," he said.

The $4.5 million rotatable lab, which takes 30 minutes for one round to be completed, will allow researchers to test new systems with actual weather and climatic conditions, as opposed to simulating them using historical data that may not be accurate due to climate change.

The centre was developed in collaboration with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, which has a similar rotating lab suited for a temperate climate.

The BCA facility is the first of its kind in the tropics.

"The good thing about a rotatable lab is that you can tune it by a few degrees and see if it makes a difference," said Dr Keung.

So if a research team has tested a technology when the lab faces east, rotating it by 20 degrees anti-clockwise will mean it now faces the north-east, and the team can tell if the effectiveness of the system is affected, he explained.

"It gives you the flexibility to answer many 'what ifs'."

The lab comprises a test cell - where the new technology being developed will be installed - and a reference cell that will mimic a conventional room.

Changes in temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels and other conditions will be tracked by more than 200 sensors.

A system that uses blinds coated with a reflective material to direct sunlight into the room - hence reducing the need for artificial lighting, is now being tested - said a BCA spokesman.

The system can also tilt the blinds automatically according to the intensity and direction of the sun to reduce glare, and has so far been shown to cut energy use by 15 per cent to 20 per cent.

According to the BCA, there are at least four projects lined up to be tested from now until the end of 2018.

The $62 million Academic Tower, on which the BCA SkyLab sits, is also one of Singapore's greenest buildings. It uses 35 per cent less energy than other buildings of a similar size and type, thanks to a suite of eco-friendly features.

These include six sun pipes, which are circular fixtures on the roof that direct sunlight into the rooms one floor below. This way, lamps in the room need to be turned on only at night or when it is raining.

The building will also serve as a living lab for students to experience first-hand how a building "interacts" with its occupants.

Students can, for example, view exposed piping and ducting to learn how mechanical and electrical systems work.

Dr Keung said the building sector is more than hardware, technologies and facilities.

"Building capability in our people forms the core in changing the way we build, and we have to innovate to position our (building sector) practitioners and future talents ahead of the game," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2016, with the headline 'Revolving lab to test ideas for 'energy' buildings'. Print Edition | Subscribe