Call it the biggest loser, real estate style.

Teams from 245 buildings around the country are going head to head in this year’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Energy Star National Building Competition to see who can reduce their energy use the most. The structure realizing the largest percentage reduction in energy use—adjusted for weather and the size of the building—will be recognized as the winner in November. And numerous ULI members including Shorenstein Realty Services, USAA Realty Company, CB Richard Ellis, Grubb & Ellis, Hines, and Jones Lang LaSalle are competing.

“We believe organizations including ULI members who are participating in this competition are helping to drive energy savings. We applaud their efforts,” says Jean Lupinacci, chief of the Energy Star Commercial and Industrial Program.“We’re trying to bring this issue to the mainstream so everyone can understand it.”

The National Building Competition is similar to the reality show The Biggest Loser on television. “Just like contestants on the TV show are trying to lose weight in a sound way, we are trying to put a healthy plan in place for energy conservation and reducing carbon dioxide [CO2] emissions,” says Lupinacci. “So the buildings ‘step on the scale’ to see how much CO2 they emit and how much energy they use now and then check back later to measure their progress.”

Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager allows owners and managers to enter the energy use of a building and track it over time. “Everyone can do [his or her] part,” Lupinacci continues. “In our competition, we have buildings built in the 1800s and buildings constructed three years ago; we have structures as big as 2.5 million square feet [232,257 sq m] and as small as 5,000 square feet [465 sq m]. In July, we checked on how the competitors were doing. It was exciting to see that at the midpoint, the competitors had saved $3.7 million on utility bills and prevented greenhouse gas emissions equal to [those produced by] 2,300 American homes.”

Fifty Fremont owner TIAA-CREF and its property managers at Hines entered the iconic 787,000-square-foot (73,115-sq-m) office tower in San Francisco’s financial district into the competition to highlight the importance of sustainability and share best practices case studies, says John Cornuke, director, real estate asset management for TIAA-CREF. Owned by TIAA-CREF—a national financial services organization with $469 billion in combined assets under management and the leading provider of retirement services in the academic, research, medical, and cultural fields—Fifty Fremont is certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“One of the goals of the competition is to identify and share case studies of best practices,” explains Cornuke. “Fifty Fremont is a prime example of a property whose team fully understands the benefits generated by sustainable operations and has the experience and knowledge to develop and execute a plan to achieve stellar results. The 26-year-old Fifty Fremont has enjoyed a significant improvement in its sustainability as a result of the commitment by both TIAA-CREF and Hines. Sustainability and its positive attributes have reduced operating costs and mitigated the negative impact on the environment, which together offer substantial benefit and value for tenants, investors, and the rest of the community.”

Since Fifty Fremont emits approximately 3,895 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, Cornuke adds, “our use is about 50 percent of average and our sustainability initiatives are saving roughly the same 3,895 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. According to the EPA, 3,895 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions is equal to the emissions generated by 764 cars or the energy use of 338 homes for one year.”

Colorado’s CB Richard Ellis (CBRE) unit entered the Denver North Suburban Medical Office Building in Thornton, Colorado, because CBRE saw great opportunities in improving operations of the facility that would greatly reduce energy consumption, says Pete Stifter, LEED AP operations and management chief engineer at CBRE in Englewood.

Located in Thornton—a suburb of Denver—the North Suburban Medical Building is a four-story medical office building whose tenants include, among others, Surgery Center. The building, constructed in 2001, is owned by HPCI and managed by CBRE. Recognizing the potential to improve the North Suburban Medical Building’s energy and financial performance, CBRE utilized the proven strategy of the EPA’s Energy Star program. By working with Energy Star to make the North Suburban Medical Building more energy efficient, CBRE is saving the building’s owners about $40,000 per year in energy costs.

The structure’s greenhouse gases were reduced by 746 percent from baseline, the latest statistics show, Stifter notes. “We saw a reduction of 4.5 million BTU [British thermal units],” he says. “Monitoring and adjusting building equipment operations provide great energy savings.”

What could others learn from the National Building Competition?

“Simple changes to the way we operate an office tower—such as daytime cleaning and the addition of motion sensors to control lighting—have a significant impact on energy savings,” notes TIAA-CREF’s Cornuke. “Enlisting the support and cooperation of the tenant/space user by providing them well-thought-through process and operations changes will enhance the success of all sustainability initiatives.”

Other advice includes the following:

  • Benchmark your properties so that changes can be measured and tracked. “You can’t manage that which you don’t measure,” says Cornuke.
  • Look for zero-cost operations changes to identify energy savings, such as daytime cleaning, before any capital investments are considered.
  • Use the savings derived from your no-cost/low-cost changes to help fund capital investments that would generate even more savings.