Andy Ryan

The Tower at PNC Plaza, which opened earlier this month, is one of a number of new commercial towers around the globe claiming to be the world's "greenest" office building. To measure and publicize its energy-efficient design, the tower features The Beacon, a 30-foot-tall data-driven light installation developed by experience design firm ESI Design, that conveys the building's real-time performance and response to the environment through audiovisual displays. The Beacon, which hangs at the center of this new PNC Bank corporate headquarters' atrium, interprets data collected from indoor and outdoor sensors about the Gensler-designed building’s energy and water consumption, water recycling, daylighting levels, natural ventilation, waste collection, composting levels, and use of electric light. It then communicates that information through an artistic display of light, color, text, and sound patterns.

By using lights to convey information, says ESI Design vice-president of creative strategy Gideon D’Arcangelo, the installation "functions like the Empire State Building. ... But we wanted something more complex that told a richer story of the building and its green architecture."

Visible from both inside the lobby and outside at the street level, the Beacon displays information about how the LEED Platinum–certified building utilizes sunlight and outdoor air to reduce its energy consumption, and how occupants’ daily activities affect its performance. Visitors can reference the Beacon’s website through tablets stationed throughout the lobby or on their own mobile devices to learn what the various light patterns signify about the building’s metrics.

Andy Ryan

To follow the building's energy-efficient features, ESI Design used 1,584 liquid-crystal polycarbonate panels that use no energy when opaque, appearing frosted, and minimal energy when transparent. The 4-foot-by-8-foot panels serve as a dynamic diffusion layer so that at times the lights look dispersed and at other times appear to have a more pointed light source. Each panel is backed by a two-by-four grid of LEDs that create a range of colors for the animations.

Sound accompanies the visual lighting effects to add context to the display. Metrics such as occupancy level, exterior temperature, and window usage trigger the frequency and volume of specific noises. The data sonification aims to "blend in with the lobby ambience," D’Arcangelo said. The organic noises, some of which mimic the sound of breathing, signal the building's behavior as a living system. After all, he says, "this is a building that breathes" through natural ventilation. "What does it sound like for a building to breath?"