On the outside, the future home of energy research firm Fraunhofer CSE looks like one more century-old mill building on Boston's waterfront. But within its walls, architects and contractors are rapidly turning the structure into a $22 million modern marvel of energy efficiency.
By year's end, Fraunhofer will transform the building into a laboratory of the world's newest clean-energy technologies. The windows will double as solar panels; walls will absorb and release heat. The lighting systems will adjust themselves based on the amount of available sunlight, and special flooring will help control the interior temperature. Inside, a public exhibit will explain how the technologies function, and how much energy is being saved.
"This building will be a massively interactive and dynamic showcase for these new products,'' said Nolan Browne, managing director of Fraunhofer's Center for Sustainable Energy Systems. "You will be able to see in real time how things are working, as well as their durability and return on investment.''
Fraunhofer helps to develop and commercialize clean-energy technologies for businesses and government agencies. A nonprofit founded in 2008, it is part of an international research network spearheaded by Germany's Fraunhofer Society, Europe's largest contract research and development organization.
Located at 5 Channel Center in Boston's Innovation District, the building project is being financed with a package of more than $10 million in state and federal grants, loans, and tax credits. Fraunhofer is also using $2.7 million in products donated by nearly 40 companies, virtually a who's who of building material manufacturers. Among the donors are Dow Corning Corp., DuPont Co., Siemens, and Massachusetts start-ups such as Bytelight, which makes lighting systems that transmit digital communications to smartphones and other devices.
The building will house about 60 Fraunhofer employees when it opens later this year. Browne said he ultimately hopes to get the firm's local head count up to 100.
The renovation is emblematic of a broader transformation unfolding on the South Boston Waterfront. Once a decaying center of bygone industries, the area was anointed as the Innovation District by Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston and is attracting an array of new companies, from the drug giant Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. to the public relations firm Fama PR.
Menino said in a statement that incorporating technologies from such a wide array of companies will help create additional jobs in the clean-energy sector. "Fraunhofer CSE's research partnerships mean we can continue to push ahead here with even more cost-effective and advanced building energy technologies,'' the mayor said.
Fraunhofer's new facility is one of a series of old Boston Wharf Co. buildings being renovated by developer Dick Galvin. His complex at Channel Center already includes a mix of residences, offices, shops, and restaurants.
"This project is the personification of the Innovation District,'' said Galvin. "In terms of meeting the area's economic development goals, it has a lot of horsepower to it.''
Fraunhofer executives said they hope the building becomes the epicenter of a growing clean-energy cluster in the district. Kurt Roth, leader of the organization's building energy efficiency group, said using the building to prove the effectiveness of new technologies will help spur broader market adoption and create jobs at the companies that develop them.
"Most of these are emerging or newer products, and that's where we can add the most value,'' Roth said. "These companies need validation to help them get to scale'' to manufacture their products for commercial sale.
The public exhibit will allow visitors to see how the technologies function in real time. One feature will allow people to point an iPad tablet computer at the building's floors and walls, and get information on special insulation and radiant-heat flooring systems under the surface. Another feature allows users to manipulate a virtual 3D model of the building to view the design of its HVAC systems and other technologies.
Fraunhofer executives said they hope the exhibit will attract visitors from high schools and community colleges, in addition to architects and other real estate industry professionals.
"We wanted to do this because there is a tremendous market need for it in the United States,'' said Browne, the firm's managing director. "It's about jobs and economic growth today, and if we're looking for a platform to rebuild the economy, we believe building energy efficiency is a great way to go.''