A showcase for building green

Firm arrives in Innovation District with a mission

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / May 16, 2011

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Look at the rundown interior of 5 Channel Center, a nearly 100-year-old building in the Fort Point neighborhood, said Nolan Browne; admittedly, it might be hard to see why the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems would relocate there from Cambridge.

The firm, which is a subsidiary of the German research organization Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, helps start-up energy efficiency companies commercialize cutting-edge products and services. But right now, its designated new space looks pretty shabby, with paint peeling off the walls, pipes and wires dangling toward the dust, and office detritus littering the floor.

But picture 5 Channel Center as Browne, the group’s managing director, does: with a first-floor reception area showcasing the latest energy efficiency technologies, and a sixth-floor multiroom facade-research laboratory where siding, insulation, and other building materials can be tested and compared.

“If you have a demonstration showcase like this, all lit up and gadgety, people will want to look at it,’’ Browne said.

“We want to be the center where people can come to learn about the next generation of building technology.’’

Tomorrow, the Fraunhofer center will begin retrofitting its new offices — originally constructed in 1913 for a leather merchant — to create a roughly 50,000-square-foot “living lab’’ where employees will work to advance power-saving ideas.

The Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, or MassDevelopment, has approved a loan of up to $3 million to help finance the renovation, which is expected to cost $19.5 million. The firm expects to create an estimated 25 jobs over three years.

“Part of our innovation strategy is making Massachusetts a place where innovative people from around the world want to come,’’ said the state’s economic development chief, Gregory P. Bialecki, who chairs MassDevelopment. “And Fraunhofer is clearly one of the great innovation organizations in the world.’’

But how to turn an old building into a model of efficiency?

Browne recently traveled to Germany to get inspiration from a Fraunhofer project called inHaus, which researches intelligent room and building systems. There, he saw pressurized floors that can tell when someone has fallen and stoves built to reduce the possibility of a house fire.

He is hoping to combine some of those ideas with the projects his team is working on, and to pull in local industry partners to create a lab and learning space.

University students would be able to hear lectures while researchers work a floor below them to improve solar-power devices (and later, test them on the rooftop). Another floor would contain a “shading lab,’’ where workers could test window technologies that know when a room needs more or less light to add heat or cool down the space.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, whose staff worked to woo the Fraunhofer center from Cambridge, said the move to the South Boston Innovation District is a boost for the area’s green technology sector.

“It’s exactly the type of investment we want to see in the Innovation District,’’ Menino said. “What they’re planning — 50,000 square feet of incubator space — shows a real commitment to growing jobs in Boston.’’

The Fraunhofer center’s expansion is also a boon for the state, said Patrick Cloney, executive director of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which promotes the clean technology industry.

“It’s very synergistic,’’ Cloney said. “There are a significant amount of energy efficiency companies here in the Commonwealth. Some of them are service companies; some of them are technology companies. And the Fraunhofer Center will be terrific third-party validation’’ for their technologies.

Browne said that aside from the extra space, one of the main reasons the Fraunhofer Center decided to relocate to this property is its proximity to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which is nearby.

Browne is hoping his center will draw convention attendees and other visitors interested in learning about energy efficiency. On his first day in his new offices, Browne added, he plans to pay convention center officials a neighborly visit.

“I’m going to have them tell me every conference that’s coming up and how to get in,’’ Browne said. “The idea of this [center] is for people to learn. I want normal people to walk in and see a triple-paned window [because] it’s not just about coming up with technology, it’s about who is able to use it.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at


Graphic About Fraunhofer

Fraunhofer Center
for Sustainable
Energy Systems
5 Channel Center St.
Size: Six stories, 50,000 square feet
Built: 1913 for a leather merchant
Expected renovation cost: $19.5 million
Goal: A “living lab’’ to advance latest energy efficiency technologies
Among its features: A solar power lab with rooftop testing; learning spaces, including lecture halls; a “shading lab’’ to test window technologies that can tell when a room needs more or less light to be heated or cooled.