Benchmarking in Cities is Making a Difference – with Help from USGBC Local Communities

Beth Murray

USGBC local communities around the country are helping cities jumpstart their building performance benchmarking efforts. And the results are pretty exciting. After four years of benchmarking in New York City, buildings there are using almost 15% less energy according to MIT professor David Hsu, one of the most widely recognized experts in energy benchmarking analysis. Hsu’s research pinpoints New York City’s benchmarking and disclosure policy as the reason for the measurable drop in energy use intensity – and accompanying reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — in the city.

Benchmarking is the process of measuring the performance of a building so it can be compared over time to similar buildings – and itself. In the US, cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC and Seattle – as well as New York – have passed benchmarking ordinances that require all office buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to share their energy use information so the public can compare performance. With the ultimate goal of reducing energy use, the immediate objective of benchmarking is to make building managers more aware of energy use and unleash market forces to drive energy efficiency investments and energy saving behavior.

And it appears to be working. According to Hsu’s research, benchmarking is driving down energy use in two ways. First, building managers are looking more closely at their utility bills. Just the act of gathering energy information to complete the benchmarking requirements may make building managers more aware of their energy use and lead to using less. Second, knowing that potential tenants and buyers will see their building’s performance, building managers may be motivated to reduce their energy use.

The USGBC local community in New York City, Urban Green Council, has played an important role in the success of the city’s benchmarking efforts, partnering with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability every step of the way. “We now see our role as sharing what we’ve learned about implementing benchmarking with other USGBC communities just starting down this road,” said Urban Green Director of Policy Laurie Kerr.

USGBC communities in other cities are supporting benchmarking in innovative ways. “Benchmarking in Chicago wouldn’t be where it is today without Katie (Kaluzny, Associate Director of USGBC Illinois),” explained Amy Jewel, Senior City Advisor with the Energy Project Manager, who works to advise and support Chicago’s energy efficiency efforts and sits in the Chicago Mayor’s Office. “I can’t sing her praises enough.”

Looking ahead, several cities including Orlando, Los Angeles, and Denver, are poised to begin implementing new benchmarking ordinances, while other cities are expected to consider benchmarking proposals in the future. USGBC communities are supporting successful benchmarking by helping with 1) Advocacy, 2) Compliance and Data Quality, and 3) Beyond Benchmarking next steps.


Local USGBC communities have played an important role as advocates for benchmarking policies in cities. In Chicago, USGBC Illinois worked closely with the city to help design the benchmarking ordinance. Chicago passed its ordinance in 2013, after Austin (2008), DC (2008), New York (2009), Seattle (2010), San Francisco (2011), Philadelphia (2012), and Minneapolis (2013). Learning from the cities that had gone before, Chicago knew it was important to gather accurate information from buildings. “We knew if the energy data we were collecting wasn’t accurate, it wouldn’t be useful in driving energy reduction,” said Jewel. “Data quality and data verification were critically important for the city.” As a result, Chicago is one of only two jurisdictions in the U.S. that require data verification as part of their benchmarking ordinance.[1]

In addition to assisting with the data verification portion of the benchmarking ordinance, USGBC members and partners in the Chicago area signed on to a letter to Chicago City Council members not only voicing their full support for the ordinance but offering pro bono assistance with data verification. City council members were concerned the data verification process would be too cumbersome or expensive for building owners, so USGBC Illinois’ commitment to helping buildings through the process was key.

“We knew energy benchmarking would engage our members in the process, so we were happy to help,” explained Kaluzny. Through the pro-bono program, USGBC Illinois has helped over 80 properties complete their benchmarking and verification requirements. Most of the properties that seek help are nonprofit organizations, houses of worship, community centers, affordable housing, or other buildings in need.

The Delaware Valley Green Building Council (DVGBC) played a similar role in Philadelphia. The DVGBC put together the Coalition for an Energy Efficient Philadelphia and took the leadership role in coordinating the call for benchmarking, which was passed by City Council in 2012. In 2014 in Kansas City, USGBC Central Plains acted as the point of contact for the coalition of groups supporting benchmarking there.

In general, USGBC local chapters have a strong relationship with the local building community and help engage stakeholders and communicate the value of benchmarking.


In many cities, the USGBC local community is involved in helping building managers comply with the benchmarking ordinance. Even prior to compliance assistance, an initial implementation challenge for benchmarking cities is finding the correct information for each building in the city. Cities have used creative approaches to finding the correct mailing address and building manager name.   For example, in Chicago, USGBC Illinois volunteers are helping with the process. They go beyond the typical Google desk search and actually hop on Divvy Bikes – the local bikeshare program – to visit and research buildings and look for contact information for building owners and managers. “We call them ‘building sleuths,’” said Kaluzny.

A major partner in supporting benchmarking compliance in New York City, Urban Green reached out to its vast network of building professionals and solicited volunteers to serve as a pro bono speakers’ bureau after the ordinance passed in 2009. Over the next 12 months, Urban Green sponsored more than 50 presentations for building owners to spread the word about benchmarking. They also provided a downloadable compliance checklist for buildings owners. “It was viewed by thousands,” said Sean Brennan, Research Manager for Urban Green.

Washington DC and Chicago have offered “Benchmarking Jams” or “Data Jams”, USGBC-led training sessions for building managers who are filling out Portfolio Manager for the first time. Cities use the EPA’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager tool to collect their benchmarking data.

In Chicago, USGBC Illinois recruited more than 40 of its members to serve as volunteer benchmarking coaches. At one Data Jam, the asset managers for all the Chicago Housing Authority properties worked one-on-one with volunteers to organize their utility data, set up Portfolio Manager, and identify next steps in the submission process. “It not only helped the CHA with their benchmarking efforts,” explained Kaluzny, “It also provided a mentoring situation for our young professionals who were paired with more experienced professionals to work with a CHA managers. It was a win-win.”

In Kansas City, USGBC Central Plains volunteers are helping building managers collect more accurate data for their benchmarking submissions by doing pro bono walk-through audits of buildings. “They help building managers count computers and figure out lighting types,” explained Jennifer Gunby, the City Energy Project Manager for Kansas City.

Beyond Benchmarking

Benchmarking is a starting point for energy policy. As Gunby explained, “Beyond Benchmarking is the next step.” Cities are starting to analyze their benchmarking data and take action. Some cities, namely Philadelphia, Seattle, and Chicago, for example, send personalized scorecards to building owners to let them know how they are doing compared to their peers and suggest actions. Other cities, New York and Boston, as well as Philly, Chicago, and Seattle, have created interactive online maps that show comparative building performance.

In other cities, the local USGBC communities have created energy vendor databases that provide current lists of energy services providers for building owners who are ready to go the next step. USGBC affiliates in Chicago, Kansas City, and Philadelphia are using their own websites to host lists of energy services providers in the area so a building owner who just received a benchmarking report or scorecard find the best vendor to meet his needs. “The challenge is to keep the vendor data current and accurate,” said Kansas City’s Grunby. “We’d like to be able to vet the vendors and include user feedback and reviews.”

Urban Green in New York, built the interactive map the city uses to publicize the performance of its buildings. Since 2016, Urban Green also leads the writing and publishing of the city’s annual benchmarking report. “Our goal is to make the benchmarking information easy to find and easy to understand,” explained Kerr. Her organization is hoping to create a template for data analysis and reporting – as well as mapping – that other USGBC local communities can use as they begin to support benchmarking. “There are huge opportunities for economies of scale,” noted Kerr.

As Hsu’s research in New York proves, benchmarking has the potential to make huge strides towards energy efficiency in cities. USGBC local communities can play an important role in making it happen.

[1] The other jurisdiction is Montgomery County, Maryland. Chicago requires that a person with a City-recognized credential (such as a licensed architect or engineer) must verify the accuracy of the benchmarking data the first time a property owner or manager submits a report, and then every third year afterwards.

Beth Murray
Beth Murray is a Lecturer at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, and is a former USGBC Research Fellow.