Even simple dashboard readouts tell a driver how much fuel a car is consuming. Yet with buildings—which account for vastly greater energy usage—only now are technologies such as energy-monitoring systems and dashboard-style readouts coming into custom. Few buildings today display up-to-the-moment resource usage. But the three architects interviewed here envision a future in which reading a building’s energy data on a laptop, mobile device, or wall-mounted display will be as easy and commonplace as glancing down at the fuel gauge while driving.

Austin Smith
Peter Arkle Austin Smith

Austin Smith, Scott Simons Architects

“I heard one consultant say we’d all drive Priuses if our exhaust was purple,” says Austin Smith, AIA, principal of Scott Simons Architects in Portland, Maine. “It doesn’t matter how good your building performs unless occupants are aware of how they’re using the building.”

Scott Simons Architects chose a dashboard manufactured by Lucid Design Group for the Borsarge Family Education Center, a LEED Platinum–rated building designed by the firm and Maclay Architects with Fore Solutions that is also the first nonresidential building in Maine to achieve net-zero energy usage. The dashboard provides not only data for energy used, but tracks rainwater collected, photovoltaic electricity produced, and thermal solar hot-water generated. “So much of it is the software behind it—loading the information,” Smith says. “It did take coordination between our traditional meters and making sure they were compatible, an ironing-out process. We’re still calibrating the specifics and tweaking.”

Incorporating an extensive monitoring system into the Borsage Family Education Center fit the project’s program. “This is an education center. It has a mission to educate people, and one purpose was to show the average owner how they can affect their building,” Smith says. “The dashboard is a great part of that. It’s amazing how people flock to it.”

Michael L. Prifty
Peter Arkle Michael L. Prifty
Michael L. Prifty, BLT Architects

Universities so far are among the most frequent clients seeking energy-monitoring systems because the systems allow multiple buildings across a campus to be easily monitored at once. For example, about 70 of the buildings at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., are connected by an automated monitoring system.

“Their portfolio is tremendous,” says Michael Prifty, FAIA, principal of Philadelphia’s BLT Architects. “If there’s ever an issue in any of the buildings—smoke detection, lack of heat or cooling—where performance is not as anticipated, they can issue a ticket for repair from the headquarters to the physical plant.”

Practical training is crucial. Prifty was called back by another higher-education client after operations staff found it difficult to use the newly installed energy-monitoring system. “We made the changes right then and there,” he explains. “The engineer, the subcontractor, and I set up the building to operate properly. But afterward you have to be trained. You have to be a sophisticated owner to capitalize on the info being provided to you.”

Bob Kennedy
Peter Arkle Bob Kennedy

Bob Kennedy, EYP Architecture & Engineering

Utility companies regularly use smart-metering systems that register energy or water usage without requiring that a meter reader physically check the premises. Designers have started to adopt this technology as well.

“More people are installing submeters in buildings anyway as a default,” says Bob Kennedy, director of energy services for EYP Architecture & Engineering in Albany, N.Y. His firm’s experience with dashboards includes a project at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., that employed a touchscreen display.

“Good practice calls for installing these submeters. It’s becoming standard practice, although it’s not universal,” Kennedy says. “Often the catalyst was to get an additional point under the LEED certification process.”

EYP is also collaborating with the College of Nanoscale Science at the University at Albany, State University of New York to provide photovoltaic monitoring as research for the school. “Some of the buildings we occupy do real-time monitoring to evaluate the impact of clouds passing over,” Kennedy explains. “We’ll be able to look at long-term performance based on dust, snow, time of day, to better predict energy available minute to minute. But this monitoring system is far more detailed than what you’d see in these buildings. Ultimately, as the cost of PV cells decreases, as we look at integrating them into walls and roofing material, we’ll have more data about what can be produced.”

Kennedy says that there are other applications for dashboards beyond monitoring the primary utilities of electricity, water, and natural gas. “The other thing we see dashboards or monitors going in for is photovoltaics. It’s fairly common to have these in conjunction with PV panels on the roof.” Photovoltaic panels usually come with their own metering system. “In the case of a residence, you can actually make your meter spin backwards. In a commercial building, it would probably spin more slowly,” Kennedy adds. “The benefit of detailed metering is as the cost comes down and we integrate it into structural materials, we can predict how much power will be generated.”

Even so, the architect says, “There’s only so much we control. Occupants have a fair amount of control: plug loads, heating and cooling, coffee pots. It’s important for people to know that it’s not just designing and building a good building. It’s how the building is used.”