Buildings Compete to Work Off the Waste

National contestants chosen by the EPA vow to slim down their energy "waste lines."
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National contestants chosen by the EPA vow to slim down their energy "waste lines."

With a nod to a popular TV reality show, the U.S. has launched its first-ever National Building Competition, choosing 14 energy-conscious contestants made of concrete, brick and steel to vie for the title of "biggest loser" of kilowatt-hours.

The finalists were selected from a pool of more than 200 energy efficiency crusaders by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and announced Tuesday as part of the Energy Star program. They include a 12-story Glenborough LLC office building in Arlington, Va.; a Marriott hotel in San Diego's historic Gaslamp District; an elementary school in Carbondale, Colo.; a JCPenney store in Orange, Calif.; a mall in St. Paul, Minn.; a Sears store in Glen Burnie, Md.; and a dorm at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.

"It's time for buildings to tighten their belts and we're happy to help them go on an energy diet," said Gina McCarthy, EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation. "Cutting energy use will reduce their monthly expenses and their carbon footprint, showing that environmental protection and economic growth can go hand in hand."

The winning building will be chosen based on its energy performance from Sept. 1, 2009, to Aug. 31 of this year. There will be a mid-point "weigh-in" on July 21, and the winner will be announced on Oct. 26. Bob Harper, the celebrity personal trainer who advises dieters on TV's "The Biggest Loser," is offering "energy fitness" tips to the building contestants in videos on the EPA Web site.

Today, over at Glenborough, a San Mateo, Calif.-based real estate investment and management firm with 45 office buildings nationwide, they're scrambling to set up a Twitter account and Facebook page to spread the word about their entry, a 1987 office building at 1525 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial.

Carlos Santamaria, Glenborough's director of engineering and co-chair of sustainability, says the company has already cut energy use in the building by 30 percent since last Sept. 1 by replacing the key components of an outdated cooling and heating system. Now, among other things, Glenborough has set up "Energy Champion" teams to work with tenants, urging them to power down their computers and turn out the lights when they are not in the office. Despite the hot summer ahead, Santamaria believes the building can achieve up to 37 percent energy savings by Aug. 31.

"We're very, very proud and honored to be one of the elite chosen," he said, noting that only two office buildings made the list. "Glenborough is really a forward thinker. This is part of our normal routine. We identify the big energy wasters and then attack them."

According to the EPA, commercial buildings account for 18 percent of the nation's energy use and nearly 18 percent of its emissions of greenhouse gas. Office buildings emit more greenhouse gas than any other kind of structure. On average, the EPA says, about 30 percent of the energy used in commercial buildings is wasted.

The finalists in the National Building Competition are old hands at saving energy.

JCPenney, for example, won an Energy Star Award for Sustained Excellence this year, and so did Hines, the Houston-based real estate firm that owns the other office building in the competition. Sears was named a 2010 Energy Star Partner of the Year.

Glenborough has been named a 2010 Energy Star Leader: 80 percent of its buildings have won the Energy Star. The label goes to buildings in the top 25 percent for energy efficiency, compared to the national average.

In one high-profile project, Glenborough spent $750,000 over five years retrofitting an 11-story office building that is part of The Aventine in San Diego, achieving a 40 percent reduction in energy use, Santamaria said. The tar and lava roof was replaced with a new, cool roof of white plastic; carbon dioxide sensors were installed throughout the building to better control the fans for outside air, light sensors were placed in the hallways and stairwells; and the chiller, or cooling unit, now runs on an automatic software program.

As a result, Santamaria said, the company is saving between $150,000 and $200,000* per year in energy costs on The Aventine alone.

"Buildings don't get more efficient that that," he said.

Santamaria says he's primarily in charge of "things that hum and go 'round and 'round," but that hasn't stopped him from pushing through a different idea for saving energy - daylight cleaning, or hiring janitors during the day. In addition to reducing heating and lighting costs by up to 10 percent yearly, this change can improve quality of life for the cleaning staff, Santamaria said.

"These are real people who need two jobs to feed their families," he said. "They're going to be seen as real persons throughout the building and are going to be part of Glenborough's team."

On Monday, Glenborough launched daylight cleaning at its 14-story building in San Mateo. Now, the janitorial staff no longer has to work nights.

"What I've come to learn after 30 years in this industry is that these buildings are an ecosystem," Santamaria said. "They're a living, breathing structure. For those of us who spend a great part of our life in them, and are given the responsibility to maintain and upgrade them, it's our responsibility and obligation to do what we can to ensure they can live another 50 years and operate as optimally as they can.

"If you start from that place, then the ideas will come to you."

* — These dollar figures have been recalculated and corrected since the story originally posted.(Return to story.)