There’s always been a slight tinge of healthy competition when it comes to designing and constructing buildings. It’s why neighbors race to outdo one another in home improvements, and it’s what drove William Chrysler to make his Chrysler Building the world’s tallest when it opened in 1930 -- only to be surpassed 11 months later by the Empire State Building nine blocks south. Now several cities and states are hoping that same sense of one-upmanship can help cut energy consumption and clean the air. Their plan? Force big buildings to audit their energy use and publicly post the results.

Increasingly, cities like Austin, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., along with California and Washington state, are mandating that large buildings perform energy audits that will be benchmarked against other buildings of a similar size, configuration and age. While the concept of benchmarking isn’t entirely new -- the historic Dexter Horton building in downtown Seattle has been doing it for several years, and Arlington County, Va., started benchmarking county office buildings in 2001 -- mandating that the results be made public is.

In 2008, the District of Columbia became the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to require that all public buildings and all commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet disclose their energy and water usage via a public website. To rate the energy performance, building owners collect utility data, and then report it to the city through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Energy Star Portfolio Manager website. By making monthly power bills a matter of public record, D.C. hopes to motivate property owners to adopt energy-efficient technologies.

Numerous studies have already shown that energy-efficient buildings -- particularly those with green certification -- out-compete inefficient buildings in terms of rental rates, sales prices and occupancy levels. “These policies are game-changers, incentivizing investment in efficiency and holding design teams accountable for building performance,” wrote Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, a green building advocacy group, in a recent blog post on

Not long after D.C. passed the Clean and Affordable Energy Act, Austin, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle followed suit. Austin’s mandate is unique in that it requires energy audits for residential homes -- 86 percent of which failed their audits in the first year, according to the city’s public utility, Austin Energy. New York’s Greener, Greater Buildings Plan goes a step further by requiring energy-efficient retrofits on existing buildings (although only when it’s determined that the costs of the green improvements can be recouped though declines in energy bills within five years).

In the U.S., buildings account for 36 percent of total energy use and 65 percent of all electricity consumption, according to the EPA. By many estimates, the heating, cooling and electrifying of buildings also accounts for more than one-third of the country’s carbon emissions. In D.C., roughly 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. In New York City, it’s more like 80 percent, leading to citywide energy expenses of about $15 billion per year. In fact, a recent eco-friendly facelift of just one building -- the storied Empire State -- is expected to cut energy costs by $4.4 million a year.