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Award of Excellence Winner Selkowitz Drives the Nation Toward Better Performing Buildings

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Photo by Eric Millette
Selkowitz's brainchild, FLEXLAB, is the culmination of four decades of energy-efficiency advocacy.
Video by Luke Abaffy/ENR
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In the summer of 1969, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's building-energy guru, Stephen E. Selkowitz, spent seven weeks in New York City brainstorming better ways to get hydroelectric power to the people. The 21-year-old Harvard physics major was one of 25 young adults immersed in the first "World Game" workshop of R. Buckminster Fuller, a Renaissance man best remembered for the geodesic dome. Fuller's goal was to improve the global human condition through "design science."

Selkowitz recalls the workshop as a "catalyzing" experience that opened his eyes to the world of architecture and global resource conservation. "Hearing Bucky Fuller in real time was amazing. I was fascinated by his vision of how to fix the world," says the 66-year-old Selkowitz, senior adviser for building science of the environmental energy technologies division of the Berkeley lab, which is owned by the U.S. Dept. of Energy and operated by the University of California, Berkeley.

At the workshop's conclusion, Fuller, who died in 1983 at age 87, said, "There's not a person at this table who hasn't ... for the rest of their life a very great responsibility, because they know the world can be made to work and all the tasks that need to be done."

Inspired by his hero, Selkowitz has spent his career making the world work better. In the late 1980s, he sparked a paradigm shift in the fenestration sector, thanks to the Berkeley lab's research, development and deployment (RD&D) of invisible window coatings that trap heat in a building or keep it out. The low-emissivity (low-E) windows have saved, to date, $7.7 billion on energy costs and 1.2 quadrillion BTUs, according to National Academy of Sciences' data. The energy saved is equivalent to that used each year by 3.8 million people or the electricity produced annually by forty-five 1,000-MW nuclear powerplants, according to DOE.

Selkowitz is also the acknowledged RD&D leader for high-performing windows, envelopes, and advanced daylighting and lighting systems. And he was a driving force behind the development of DOE's no-cost building-energy modeling tools, which are industry standards.

Selkowitz's latest brainchild, dubbed FLEXLAB, is the $15.7-million Facility for Low-Energy Experiments in Buildings. It is his response to "the greatest obstacle" to high-performance, high-comfort buildings: a lack of systems integration. The 4,844-sq-ft research "sandbox" is the world's first "rentable" plug-n-play office space for full-scale performance tests on energy-efficient technologies and systems operating in concert (ENR 9/30/13 p. 40).

"In the past 20 years of measuring the performance of buildings, we've learned that energy efficiency and great solutions for the people who occupy spaces are possible," says Selkowitz. "The bad news ... is that they are not always achieved. We're excited about the role FLEXLAB can play in helping us close the gap between what's possible and what's achievable."

For relentlessly working to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings and for moving the nation toward better building performance, as well as for being the master of commercializing energy-efficient building technologies and the mastermind of FLEXLAB, Selkowitz has been voted the 49th Award of Excellence winner by the editors of Engineering News-Record.

In academia, in government and in the private sector, Selkowitz is called a genius, a visionary, a game changer, a science ambassador, a great communicator and a consummate collaborator. He is lauded as a bridge between the research world and the real world.

"Steve is the Energizer bunny," says Scott Frank, a partner in mechanical engineer Jaros, Baum & Bolles. "He is obviously a brilliant scientist, but he also understands bureaucracy and organizations."

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