Credit: US Green Building Council

A Chicago office building is making strides on efficiency, in part because of a unique dynamic display that gives occupants real-time information on energy use.

The U.S. Green Building Council unveiled the LEED Dynamic Plaque, which maintains running efficiency scores on a constant basis, two years ago as a way to encourage building owners, managers and tenants to work together to reduce the amount of energy and water they consume.

And if the example of 200 W. Madison, a 45-story office tower in downtown Chicago, is any indicator, the plaques are already causing managers and tenants to make changes to help boost their building’s energy efficiency.

“The goal of the program is to get people talking,” said Gretchen Sweeney, vice president of LEED implementation with the U.S. Green Building Council. “It’s one thing to hear about efficiency. To see actual numbers that show how efficient a building actually is at a given point in time? That’s more powerful.”

Encouraging change

The plaque keeps a constantly evolving score of how a building is performing in five categories: how much energy a building is consuming, how much water it is using, how much waste it is generating and how its employees travel to and from work. The fifth category, known as the human experience, charts how satisfied a building’s employees are with everything from the amount of natural light in their offices to the temperature in common areas.

In Chicago, the tenants, managers and ownership team at 200 W. Madison have been tracking their scores for more than a year. The building’s management team says that the plaque, and the way it has inspired changes at the building, played a key role in the office tower’s 2015 move up to LEED Gold certification.

The building was the second office tower in the world to use the LEED Dynamic Plaque, according to Transwestern, the company that manages 200 W. Madison.

“The plaque has opened the door to more conversations with our tenants about how we can all save energy and reduce our waste,” said Katie Sakach, vice president and general manager with Transwestern. “Among our management team, the plaque also gives us a daily challenge. We’ll walk in and see that our score is 71 today. That’s fabulous. Or maybe our score has fallen and people want to know what happened. Was it a hotter day, so we used more energy to cool the building? Did we use more water, for some reason? Could we have done better?”

Inspiring change

After completing a tenant survey, Transwestern discovered that only a small percentage of building occupants filled the office tower on Saturdays, but the company was required to provide heating and cooling services from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday, no matter how many tenants are in the space.

To avoid wasting energy, Transwestern now offers tenants an app that they can access through their phones. If they are going to be using the building on a Saturday, they can go to the app and turn on the heating or air conditioning for their floor. This allows Transwestern to fulfill the terms of its lease – making heating and cooling available on Saturdays – without wasting energy on floors that are empty.

Transwestern estimates that the app will save the building $60,000 to $80,000 every year, according to Sakich.

“Those are real savings,” Sakich said. “This one change can have a real influence on the bottom line.”

Shooting for the highest scores

The best possible score that a building can receive on any day on its dynamic plaque is 100. Buildings start with a base score of 10 and can generate a top energy score of 33, a water score of 15 and 8 in waste. Buildings can also receive a maximum score of 14 in transportation and 20 in human experience.

Buildings can rely on smart meters and building automation systems to track their energy consumption numbers, CO2 levels and water use. Management can also enter key data, such as waste numbers, manually.

Other scores require a more personal touch. Building management sends surveys to generate the data used in the transportation category and one aspect of the human experience category. The survey, for instance, will ask building occupants how far they travel to work, whether they drive each day, how often they bike to work or whether they rely on public transportation.

At 200 W. Madison, building management is taking steps to provide a boost to the building’s human-experience score. A $5 million renovation that is now underway will bring a new tenant lounge, expanded fitness center, a 30-foot “green wall” featuring indoor plants, and added seating areas to the building.

A growing program

Gautami Palanki, sustainability consultant with the Washington, D.C. office of the U.S. Green Building Council, said the LEED Dynamic Plaque program is growing. As of early spring of this year, just under 600 buildings totaling 150 million square feet worldwide have either installed a plaque or have started the process.

“With any new program, it does take time for building owners and tenants to understand what the numbers mean,” Palanki said. “The goal of the program is to engage occupants in the building. We want people whose daily job doesn’t involve running the building to understand that their actions can make a difference. If they don’t turn off the lights when they leave a room, it can have an impact.”

Sweeney said the plaque, if displayed in a visible location such as a building’s lobby, can encourage everyone in that building to discuss ways to improve that space’s energy and water consumption.

“This is a score that people can talk about whether they are in the boardroom at ownership level, on a facilities management team or an occupant in the building or a visitor to it,” Sweeney said. “People at all these levels can communicate that score and understand what makes a building more energy efficient.”

If water consumption is consistently too high, the facilities management team might recommend replacing old bathroom plumbing fixtures with modern low-flow versions. The team might also recommend changes with how the maintenance staff waters landscaping both outside and inside an office building.

“Maybe the dynamic plaque tells you that you just need to increase your score in a category by three points to get it where you want it,” Sweeney said. “Once you know that goal and that gap, it is easier to decide what action needs to be taken.”

If a building’s energy score is falling just below management’s goals, hitting the higher mark might involve something as simple as encouraging tenants to turn off their office lights and shut down their computer screens at the end of the day, Sweeney said.

“The score is driving action,” Sweeney said.