Energy & Environment

Challenging Office Buildings to Go Green

Chicago's central business district, the Loop, is the city's economic engine. But all those skyscrapers are a climate-change engine, too: Commercial buildings account for 39 percent...
by | August 31, 2009

Chicago's central business district, the Loop, is the city's economic engine. But all those skyscrapers are a climate-change engine, too: Commercial buildings account for 39 percent of the Windy City's total greenhouse-gas emissions.

That's why Chicago started the "Green Office Challenge." It's a friendly competition among building owners and tenants that aims to motivate them to reduce their carbon footprints. There's no cash prize for conserving the most energy, consuming the least water or recycling the most printer paper. But high achievers will receive official recognition from the city, which businesses could then use to market themselves to eco-conscious customers and clients. Since Chicago launched the competition in February, more than 180 tenants in 50 properties have enrolled in the program.

For big cities intent on tackling climate change, office buildings represent a tricky situation. That's because most of the day-to-day choices about whether to turn off lights, computers or air conditioning lie with tenants. But tenants don't typically pay, or even see, the utility bills--building owners do. Economists call this the "principal-agent" problem, and it's a big barrier to conservation. "Office tenants feel it's the managers' responsibility to tackle those issues," says Amy Malick, Midwest regional director for the sustainable-cities group known as ICLEI and one of the architects of Chicago's challenge. "We want to bridge the connection between the two."

Tenants participating in Chicago's program will be scored based on 50 factors. These factors range from setting all computers to go into "sleep mode" when not in use, to initiating a bike-share program, to unsubscribing to junk mail. Meanwhile, property managers are scored on building-wide projects, such as putting in energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems, or installing green roofs. Progress will be evaluated in December and awards given out in January.

One participating real estate company is Behringer Harvard. The company has enrolled two of its buildings in the competition, and Mike Reilly, the vice president for property management, has been encouraging tenants to participate, as well. The largest tenant has experimented with having cleaning crews come through offices during the daytime, rather than at night. This simple step is saving nearly 250,000 kilowatt-hours of energy, Reilly says. It "enables us to turn off one-third of our building's office lighting three hours earlier every evening."

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