Unique laboratory paves the way for zero-emission buildings


In Trondheim, Norway, a unique building has been raised. A living laboratory dedicated to research, development and teaching that can make commercial buildings of the future completely emission-free. NTNU and SINTEF's new ZEB laboratory is itself proof that this is possible.

Emissions of greenhouse gases are by far the biggest challenge of our time and the building and construction industry is no small contributor in that respect. It has been a long time since the Norwegian research operators SINTEF and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) put this issue on the agenda, but recently they got a completely new arena for researching and testing new solutions in real life. The ZEB laboratory (Zero Emission Building) in Trondheim is perhaps the only building of its kind. Not only will this be a workplace for 80 researchers, doctoral fellows and others who work with zero-emission technology, the building is a living laboratory where research and business can meet to create and test new solutions in practice.

Testing new solutions
According to Research Director at SINTEF, Terje Jacobsen, involving the building and construction industry is very important.

“Further to initiating projects with support from the Norwegian Research Council that involve both researchers and the business community, we want to get the industry to use the building to develop their own solutions. The building provides opportunities both to test how the solutions work technically and to see how people who use the building experience them. That way, companies can reduce risk before a product is launched on the market,” says Jacobsen.

Supplies energy
Creating buildings that do not contribute to more greenhouse gases may sound utopian, but the ZEB laboratory itself is proof that this is possible. The building is mainly made of wood and is equipped with, solar cells, heat pumps and thermal storage.

“It is impossible to completely avoid emission of climate gases when constructing a building. We must compensate for this by collecting and delivering emission-free energy. The solution we have chosen is to supply electricity to the local electricity net and heat to the district heating networks,” Jacobsen explains.

The solution chosen for thermal storage is state of the art, technologically speaking. The technology is based on a so-called phase change material, which in this case is a type of bio-wax. The bio-wax is located in a tank that is connected to the heating and ventilation system. It is melted using the energy produced by the building. When the wax is allowed to solidify, heat is recovered.

Identical test rooms
Another unique feature of the building is that it is designed to allow for easy replacement of components to enable researchers and companies to test different solutions.

“We have, among other things, two test rooms where you can change facade elements such as windows and solar screens,” says Jacobsen.

These test rooms are completely identical, while parameters such as temperature, light and ventilation can be changed easily. This allows the researchers to compare how users react to changes in an indoor environment.

Important interaction
A unique building also requires a unique construction process.

“When we announced the contract in 2017, we did not have a single drawing to show. What we were concerned with was the competence of the contractor. The framework for the project was an interaction contract that made it possible to work out solutions together with the architect and contractor. We are very pleased with the collaboration with Veidekke, LINK arkitektur and their teams,” Jacobsen emphasizes.

The building must be a living laboratory. The research in the building must answer the overall research questions: What technical and architectural solutions are needed to achieve good office and teaching conditions in a ZEB building? How do users influence the energy consumption in the building and how do they adapt to ZEB technologies?

In addition, the building must be:

  • A laboratory for the development of internationally competitive industry
  • A laboratory for knowledge generation at a high international level
  • A research arena for the development of zero-emission buildings
  • An arena for risk reduction when implementing solutions for zero-emission buildings
  • A national resource for all research organizations in the field
  • Institutionalize a new center as an extension of the Zero Emission Buildings Research Center for Environmentally Friendly Energy

Facts about the ZEB laboratory

  • Year of construction: 2020
  • Client / owner: NTNU and SINTEF
  • Main contractor: Veidekke
  • Architect: LINK
  • Size: 2000 m2, four floors 
  • Funding: The Research Council, Enova, NTNU and SINTEF.

A groundbreaking building

The ZEB lab owners SINTEF and NTNU have challenged main contractor Veidekke to think outside the box. They believe the choices they have made along the way can affect how the construction industry relates to climate requirements in the future.

There are several levels of zero-emission buildings. The ZEB laboratory in Trondheim is set at a level where emissions are calculated not only in the design phase when materials are selected, but also in the construction phase and when the building is in operation.

Veidekke’s project manager Trygve Karlsen describes the ZEB laboratory as a groundbreaking project. He also believes that it may help to change the way suppliers to construction projects think about emission requirements.

“We get questions from the suppliers about why we have made the choices we have made. I believe that just something as simple as requesting environmentally friendly solutions can create a change in how the industry relates to CO2 emissions,” he says.

Zero emission targets affect material selection
According to Operations and Safety Manager Rickard Tällberg in Veidekke who is responsible for procurement, you get different challenges when zero emission is the ultimate target than when you “only” have budget and quality objectives.
“Emissions from materials are measured all the way from when they are harvested from nature until the finished product is installed on the construction site. Both the qualities of the materials and the amount used are important. An example of how this has guided our decisions was when we had to choose insulation. It stood between glass wool and rock wool. In terms of price and function, these are quite similar, but glass wool has significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, which is why we chose it,” he says.

As much wood and as little steel as possible
The use of wood in the main load-bearing structures of the building is one of the most important material choices. Here, too, they have worked creatively, among other things, to ensure the least possible use of steel, since this is one of the worst CO2 offenders. Among other things, this has led to the wooden columns in the building being oversized in order to reduce the use of steel brackets.

“An element that both we and the client are very proud of is the main staircase. It is specially designed to avoid all use of steel. The stair treads in solid wood rest on wooden beams stretched out from a core of solid wood, almost like the branches of a tree,” says Karlsen.


Important operating choices

Also, on the operational side, simple choices can make a big difference. Lighting is one of these choices. Glamox has supplied all lighting for the building, both outside and inside. In order to achieve the zero-emission target, it has been important to use LED lighting with low energy consumption. Furthermore, all the luminaires are equipped with DALI drivers so that they could be included in a lighting control system.

“Building owners SINTEF/NTNU had clear demands. We’ve therefore had a strong focus on finding solutions that use little energy. Lighting is an important part of this. The results would have been poorer with a different lighting solution,” says Karlsen.
Another example of how different choices affect CO2 emissions during the operational phase is the lifts used in the building.

“One of the lift types we considered uses more power than the one we chose when it is in standby. This had a lot to say for energy use and thus the CO2 accounts, since lifts stand still most of the time,” Tällberg adds.

Solar cells contribute both to emissions and reduction of CO2
The use of solar cells is a very important part of the CO2 calculations, because it is the only way the building can produce energy. In fact, the solar cells were installed so early that they could be used to produce electricity already during the construction phase. The project manager nevertheless describes the use of solar panels as challenging as it affects the CO2 accounts on both sides.

“Production of solar cells is very energy-intensive, so it will be very important for the CO2 calculation to get the maximum amount of energy out of the panels,” Karlsen explains.

Useful collaboration meetings
In the design phase, Veidekke has worked closely with representatives from the client in addition to the architectural firm Link, HVAC installer Bravida and electrical installer Vintervoll.

“We’ve had a working group that has met regularly face to face. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other in the beginning. This has made it easy to come up with ideas and suggestions and the group has been very useful because experience from all subject areas has been represented,” says Karlsen.