Syracuse University

Building Performance

On a cool, overcast summer day, engineering professor Jianshun “Jensen” Zhang stands outside a two-story house with brown siding on South Campus and talks about the issues involved in having a properly weatherized home. But this is no ordinary house. It is the Building Envelope Systems Test (BEST) Laboratory, a new research and development facility designed to monitor the performance of air barriers—systems of materials, such as wall assemblies, that control unintended air movement in and out of buildings.

This saves energy through proper heating and cooling, preserves indoor air quality, and prevents air leakage, which can introduce moisture and condensation into the structure, damaging insulation, reducing its efficiency, and creating the potential for mold. “Even the tiniest bit of air leakage can bring moisture and contaminants into the space,” says Zhang, an expert on built environmental systems who directs SU’s interdisciplinary energy and indoor environmental systems program. “The new thinking, in terms of design and wall assembly, is to make materials that will absorb some moisture and release it, so it’s like a ‘breathing’ wall.”

The BEST lab is part of a $2 million, three-year project being conducted by the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems (SyracuseCOE) and several partners, including the Air Barrier Association of America and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Syracuse, one of three ORNL test sites nationwide, was chosen because of its four-season Northeastern climate and the area’s expertise in green building technologies. “This collaborative project expands and extends our network of partner firms and institutions that are creating next-generation solutions for high-performance and healthy buildings,” says Ed Bogucz, executive director of the SyracuseCOE.

The lab features 34 wall-assembly test panels, which are made of different materials and contain sensors for tracking air pressure and movement, temperature, and moisture in real time. “It’s been almost impossible to detect where the air actually goes once it’s inside the wall, so that information gathered under field conditions will be new,” Zhang says. Inside, the lab maintains standard temperature and humidity settings and is equipped with instrumentation for collecting data from the sensors. Outside, a weather station records wind, solar radiation, and precipitation data. In the project’s initial phase, the air barriers are being tested for a year, allowing information to be gathered on their efficiency and durability, including hygrothermal performance—the impact of heat and moisture transport. 

Zhang, research professor Mark Bomberg, and doctoral student Thomas Thorsell are also testing the barriers in the simulated climate chambers of the Building Energy and Environmental Systems Laboratory, which Zhang directs at the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science. They plan to correlate their lab test results with the field data, which will help them validate the lab testing and develop computer simulation models. The BEST initiative should contribute significant information to sustainable building technologies, giving scientists new insights on indoor air quality, passive energy technologies, such as wind and solar power, and other topics. “We want to know how the materials perform within the entire system in terms of energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality,” Zhang says.