How We Did It: Buildings Tell Us Just How Green They Really Are

A revolutionary new LEED plaque makes sure structures live up to their green potential

January 22, 2015
Reading Time
3 minutes

I’ve always had a layman’s interest in architecture and in LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council’s certification program for sustainable buildings. I’m a software developer, so designing buildings is well outside my area of expertise. But when IDEO worked with the USGBC to come up with a new LEED certification plaque, it became clear that software design would be a fundamental part of LEED’s future: The idea was to replace the static plaque with a continually updated digital display. Initially, LEED only looked at a building’s performance at the time of certification. The USGBC has long been working on ways to evaluate what happens after certification, and a recertification program has been in place since 2004. The new plaque was conceived to go even further, monitoring a building’s sustainability in real time on a dynamic digital graph. That sounds (and looks) pretty simple and intuitive, but to make it work, we had to bust down some interesting technical walls, in a way that nicely encompassed the breadth of IDEO’s capabilities, from design research, business development, industrial design, shop building, and interaction design to the software I helped create with an incredible team.

I came on board after the actual visual design had been finished. A small IDEO team had already completed a concept video, unveiled at the 2013 Greenbuild conference, for a plaque that calculates a building’s ongoing performance in five categories: energy, waste, water, transportation, and human experience. For each of the five ratings, there is a curving pathway that gets longer as the score improves.

The team came up with this “racetrack” design to show real sustainability data in a way that encourages positive behavior change. Familiar graphics like charts and graphs tend to make people focus on the negative, whereas we wanted people to focus on progress. No matter how long the strip on the racetrack is, you can see that you’re on your way, even if you still have a ways to go. We weren’t sure we could achieve the requisite combination of elegance and functionality in the time allotted. But it was a good challenge, and that in itself was compelling.

The animation has a big purpose: Showing the building’s use of energy, waste, and water makes people more aware and more conscientious of their own use. I think that’s really positive. The plaque also shows how occupants travel to and from the building, as well as how comfortable and happy they feel when they’re inside, which are new ideas for what it means for a building to be “green.” I wouldn’t have thought, when LEED was introduced in 2000, that a software developer could have a meaningful impact on sustainable architecture, but the fact that I could really speaks to the opportunities that will be open to us in the future.

Many folks helped to contribute to this post. Huge thanks to: Scot Horst, Gretchen Sweeney, Jennifer Easton, Kim Cullen, Gerry Harris, Steve Bishop, Beau Trincia, Mark Harrison, John Stoddard, Alastair Warren, and Building Robotics.