Can Energy Dashboards Really Motivate Change?

by Matt Woo, P.E., RCDD, LEED AP BD+C

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

In this world of high tech, we are constantly bombarded with information wherever we go. This can make it difficult to decide what information is relevant and worthy of our attention, and what we should just ignore. Improving sustainability measures in the built environment requires everyone’s attention, from developers and designers to building occupants and maintenance staff. Energy or environmental dashboards display data about a building’s energy usage in real-time as a means of informing people about the building’s energy consumption and triggering action to conserve. Though not a new technology, dashboards have become more commonplace and it is crucial that they convey information in interesting and engaging ways so that they may captivate visitors, staff, and maintenance personnel to work toward the desired sustainability goals.

Why Use an Energy Dashboard

Building automation systems have traditionally presented energy use data in a format oriented toward building operations and maintenance personnel seeking basic building energy use information, such as plug loads, lighting loads, and HVAC loads, as part of their day-to-day building monitoring duties. Then, energy dashboards were touted as an energy education tool, passively conveying basic energy information but not expecting that information to drive change. Now, facility managers have been steadily adopting energy dashboards as a standard tool to help them optimize and maintain high performance in building system operations. Energy dashboards are also increasingly used at the C-suite level of management to capture energy use information and help develop company-wide energy saving (and therefore cost saving) measures.

It’s one thing to capture and passively display information and for a select few people to care about it, but as we’ve discussed in previous articles, building occupants also play a vital role in achieving sustainable buildings. This is the new audience for energy dashboards. An energy dashboard needs to reach out, grab the attention of those viewing it, and engage them so that they are empowered to make changes. Energy dashboards are only effective if they cause users to react and make changes to their habits, routines, or building operations in support of energy conservation and sustainability. Engaging the everyday building user requires creative methods of data visualization.

A Tour of Energy Dashboard Systems

Here are a couple examples of innovative building energy dashboards that illustrate building performance and engage the building users to affect change:


The Stone34 building, in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, has set a cap on its energy usage so as to achieve the building’s program requirements of reducing water and energy use by 75 percent, as compared to similar office buildings. It uses measurement and verification (M&V) meters to monitor energy and water usage. This information is displayed in real-time with a “gas gauge”-style dashboard to illustrate current demand and remaining energy “left in the tank.” Historical energy and water usage data and trends are also visible for comparison.

The building lobby features an artistic floral sculpture that utilizes pneumatic-actuated flowering petals connected to the building automation system to illustrate the building’s performance in a creative way.

stone 34 energy dashboard artwork

stone 24 energy dashboard artwork closeup

The pneumatically-activated petals in this metal sculpture are tied-in with the building automation system and creatively communicate building data to visitors and staff. Photos by Matt Woo, from Wood Harbinger’s tour of Stone34.

The petals close when the building is under-performing and open wide when it is performing to its sustainability goals, expressing a building in harmony with nature. In this fashion, the building truly embodies a living structure where its tenants can monitor status and affect distinct and direct changes to control how the building performs. Some of my colleagues and I had a chance to tour the Stone34 building last summer, and we all found this artistic data visualization method very innovative.

Bullitt Center

The Living Building-certified Bullitt Center uses a diagnostic system to monitor real-time energy and water use data and solar photovoltaic energy production in the building and affect changes to meet its net zero annual energy and water use sustainability goals. Similar to a human brain, the building management system senses the needs of the building and responds by automatically adjusting passive systems (e.g. opening/closing windows, adjusting louver shades) and active systems (e.g. heating/cooling) to keep the building comfortable and efficient.

It illustrates system energy and water usage status on an energy dashboard to encourage tenants to make adjustments in their building use and help maintain net zero operations so that the Bullitt Center can retain its Living Building status.

Trends for an Effective Dashboard

Some dashboards may look really slick, with lots of fancy bells and whistles, but may not provide the right information or enough information to engage visitors, building occupants, and facility personnel to take action as it was originally intended. Many tech startups are creating dashboards, but have little to no background in building management or energy analysis. Larger building management system companies already have their own software with options for energy dashboards, but these dashboards may be too information-rich and overwhelming to comprehend, even for trained operations and maintenance personnel, let alone building tenants and visitors. This can discourage people from taking action on the information conveyed.

“The coolest dashboard in the world won’t save one BTU of energy if somebody doesn’t grab a wrench and fix the equipment, adjust an operating schedule or take action to improve the infrastructure,” says Clay Nesler, vice president of global energy and sustainability at Johnson Controls, in an article published by Greentech Media in 2013.

Here is my list of a few features that an energy dashboard may include to be more engaging and effective in creating a great user experience and likelihood of positive behavior change.

  • Easy to use user interface (UI)—a simple, uncluttered layout will help users process content quickly without distractions.
  • Gauges and charts—visual representations of information help users understand trends, comparisons, and targets.
  • Labeled icons—a short description of small graphics or images helps assure that users really understand what they’re seeing.
  • Dynamic and interactive—keep the information fresh with new content and include elements with which users can interact to promote ongoing engagement.
  • Location—help users relate to the performance metrics by using local geographic location information from maps, GPS, or surveys.
  • Mobile interface option—in addition to physical dashboards in the building lobby or in other key places, a complementary Web or app version helps users stay engaged and informed.

Food For Thought

Energy dashboards provide valuable real-time access to important data for building performance monitoring and the overall health status of building systems. This data, when effectively illustrated to building users, can be highly empowering and drive users to react to what they’ve learned and make changes to their habits, routines, and building operations to help achieve high performance goals. Small changes made today toward building efficiency will have a long-lasting effect on lowering energy bills, improving building comfort, reducing greenhouse gases, and contributing to a more sustainable future for both the built and natural environments.

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