Jane Jacobs wrote that new ideas need old buildings; perhaps that's why the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems is housed in a top-to-bottom renovation of a 101 year old warehouse building in Boston's Fort Point Channel district, a really interesting collection of old warehouse buildings being rehabbed into an innovation center. I recently visited the building as a guest of ThyssenKrupp, which donated the elevator. And a very interesting elevator it is.
Conventional elevators use up between 5% and 8% of a building's energy. Installing them is slow and tedious, especially in a old building. Normally the rails are fastened to the existing walls, which require extensive engineering checks and possible expensive reinforcement. Surprisingly, an elevator can use more power just sitting there than it actually does while moving, thanks to all the fans and lights and electronics that run even when the elevator doesn't.
As an architect, I worked on a couple of building renovations where the elevator was the most difficult part of the job, often holding up occupancy of the building. Historic machine rooms often didn't meet modern code and had to be rebuilt.
The Synergy elevator at the Fraunhofer CSE isn't attached to the walls; it is a freestanding independent structure inside the shaft that doesn't rely on the building. It has gearless motors that don't need an independent machine room.
In conventional elevators the motor spins as the elevator goes down, generating electricity. However this energy was too dirty to actually be used, and would be bled off into giant resistors and released as heat. Not any more; the energy generated is filtered and cleaned to the point that it can be fed back into the building. Net energy consumption is significantly reduced and so is the cooling load for the building.
Finally, the elevator is smart enough to nap when not needed, shutting off the LED lights and fans when nobody is in the cab.
The elevator is part of the Building Technology Showcase, described as "a venue where everyone—from seasoned architects and construction executives to students still deciding their future career paths—can visualize the performance and potential of the technologies incorporated into the building." Unfortunately, you really can't visualize what's going on in this elevator. It's like this Economist article on elevators where they wrote:
From the customer’s perspective, lifts have evolved little since they first appeared 150 years ago. You walk in. You press a button. You avoid talking to the people standing next to you. You get off.
Really, they should have built this cab out of glass, there is a lot going on behind the button these days.