Most architects will tell you that they practiced sustainable design long before there was LEED. They thought of it as “smart design” — sourcing materials locally, for example, makes sense globally and economically. LEED codified such practices, and smart design became sustainable design.

Now “smart” is being applied in a way that moves far beyond a plaque in the lobby. Increasingly, building owners and architects (who, to be fair, mostly follow the lead of their clients) are thinking about more tangible methods of helping people understand and reap the benefits of green design and operation.

Many owners are driven by idealism; all of them want to save money. To save money post-occupancy, however, green efforts have to move past awareness and actually get building users to change their behaviors. How? Well, behavioral science has shown that more and better information — for example, the screen on the dashboard of hybrid vehicles that graphically shows gas consumption — can motivate people (in the case of hybrids, many drivers will step on the accelerator more carefully). The human touch is nice, too. In a study published by Robert Cialdini (author of Influence), homeowners in San Marcos, Calif., responded more constructively when researchers studying their energy usage put hand-drawn emoticons (smileys and frowns) on their reports.

Other research has shown that people are motivated in similarly surprising ways. Another study of California homeowners found that people were most likely to conserve energy not when exhorted to save the planet or when told they’d save money, but when told that their neighbors were already doing so. And prior to the 2012 rollout of the UK’s Green Deal (which seeks to help people introduce energy efficiency measures in their homes at no upfront cost), governmental entities were spurred to get behind the effort through the introduction of a competitive element into the reporting of data. A sort of “league ranking” was created, where departmental progress could be compared via monthly performance tables, and real-time displays were installed in 19 government buildings and linked to online reports of energy use.

You see such interactive displays more and more these days. The Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center Lodge in Bretton Woods, N.H., has a big energy-usage display that’s very popular with guests. And as part of the Green Deal, so-called “smart meters” will be installed (beginning in 2019) in residences that will allow people “to engage with an in-home display which will provide real-time feedback on the effect of their behavior on energy consumption and will support other forms of feedback and advice,” according to the Green Deal website.

Schools are obvious places where such displays can have a huge effect, both on students and on the people who operate and maintain school buildings. (Just ask administrators at universities, where dorm energy competitions have become a staple of student life.) The building industry as a whole has been slow to embrace these kinds of efforts, because people want others to lead the way and break through the cost and logistical issues, but I see them as becoming a more standard feature of new and renovated school buildings. It’s that interactive element and competitiveness with your peers that generates the impetus to change behavior.

Jerry Burke ( is the director of planning at Stanmar Inc. in Wayland, Mass.