Inside Atlanta’s Better Buildings Challenge Successes

How often do professionals from the education, entertainment, healthcare, hospitality, retail and tech sectors get together AND talk about energy and climate change? If it’s in the city of Atlanta, the answer is at least once a month. That’s because in 2011 Atlanta was one of the first cities to participate in the Better Buildings Challenge with the U.S. Department of Energy, a program that motivates building owners to cut their energy use by 20 percent within 10 years.

For the past three years, the City has had tremendous success working with public and private sector leaders throughout the city to shed energy waste and conserve water. The City is still working on its 20 percent goal, but has exceeded an initial 2 million square foot goal 50 times over, making Atlanta the city on top when it comes to energy efficiency square feet commitments—with a combined 100 million square feet of building space slated for water and energy efficiency improvements.

Now, what’s behind Atlanta’s success?

Mayor Kasim Reed, City of Atlanta

Mayor Kasim Reed is part of a growing group of leaders that is stepping up to accomplish major accomplishments on climate and energy efficiency during their terms. His role as both an aspirational big picture thinker and an in-the-trenches partner close to the needs of Atlanta’s half a million residents makes him, and other mayors, powerful forces in implementing immediate and effective energy efficiency solutions.

That’s why the Better Buildings program is excited and honored to invite Mayor Reed to keynote the Better Buildings Summit.

Mayor Reed has attended the Paris climate talks, and discussed how climate change is a global problem, yet effects are local. And Reed posits that Atlanta is a true leader representing tangible action on efficiency and climate protection throughout the U.S.’s large southeast region.

Just last year the city of Atlanta’s Better Buildings Challenge passed a major milestone—100 million square feet was committed to 20 percent energy and water consumption00by the year 2020.

Don’t miss Mayor Reed in his keynote speech at the Summit, on May 10 at 12:30 PM.

Atlanta has leveraged the power of the U.S. Department of Energy’s national Better Buildings Challenge program to effectively build networks between seemingly disparate parties, creating symbiotic relationships to help achieve goals beyond energy efficiency. The Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge (ABBC) led by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability engages the city’s Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) and a network of professionals to rally a diverse chorus around the City’s multiple goals, including economic development, community investment, capacity building and of course, sustainability.

Economic Development: Putting Energy Efficiency to Work

Energy efficiency’s contribution to economic development is undeniable. Local businesses benefit from the job stability and income security resulting from renovations: and offices, retail centers, schools, hospitals etc. benefit from lowered energy bills. Those cost savings can then be invested elsewhere, including employee salaries, benefits and customer services.

For example, the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center was a tremendous opportunity to transform one of the City’s biggest energy consumers into an energy-efficient showcase facility. As a result of installing building automation, zone-controlled HVAC, new water heaters and lighting, the City saved $193,000 in the past year.  That project also created 89 new construction jobs , and serves as an important sound stage for the City’s growing film industry. The energy efficiency improvements to the Center allow the City to secure additional television projects without concerns for exorbitant energy bills or equipment outages.

Atlanta continues to see the benefits of this savings model. The City’s investments in existing buildings is effectively putting plumbers, electricians and other maintenance and construction professionals to work.  

Another way the City has benefitted economically through energy efficiency is by building bridges between the commercial building community pursuing upgrades and retrofits and contractors who can carry them out.  

Although many communities have a stable network of energy consultants and businesses—with expertise in everything from thermostats to solar arrays –the truth is not everyone in a city knows where to find them, and which ones are the best. That uncertainty can result in a bottleneck of energy efficiency projects, which result in fewer contracts and projects, and a delay in realizing energy bill savings.

ABBC partners with program sponsors, Atlanta-based energy consultants and construction businesses who’ve found that tapping into the ABBC network has proven more effective in generating leads than cold calls. And, ABBC works with Central Atlanta Progress, Atlanta’s Downtown Improvement District, to set up marketing and sponsorship opportunities for companies looking to communicate to ABBC participants. Sponsors have been able to reach a broad audience of property owners, service providers and financing institutions through the ABBC website, e-newsletter, social media channels and educational seminars. About 300-500 community leaders attend the annual building participant recognition awards event alone. Sponsorship opportunities available throughout the year also create a revenue stream and new partnerships to pay for program expenses such as education events.

Smart Investments

Initial seed investment is a common barrier for many buildings to get energy efficiency projects started.  Invest Atlanta, the City’s economic development authority, created a funding program to support ABBC and give building owners access to capital for energy efficiency projects. The City used a competitive process to identify projects with the greatest potential to improve the economic vitality and competitiveness of Downtown Atlanta.  Invest Atlanta provided grants to fund the cost of significant energy conservation measures in select building upgrades, including insulation, automated energy control systems, storm windows and HVAC modifications.

As a result of these investments, the City saw projects like 100 Peachtree take off—a 32-story iconic landmark office building that received a $3 million grant. The funding was used to replace windows while maintaining the building’s classic architecture and upgrade building systems to increase energy and water performance and improve tenant comfort.  

Beyond these grants, ABBC has also helped partners take advantage of DOE programs, utility rebates and matching grants. All of these funding opportunities are integrated throughout every aspect of the energy efficiency retrofit process, from building assessments to lay the groundwork for technical solutions, to large-scale renovation projects.

Ultimately, these investments lead to increasing the operational income and asset value of existing buildings, making them more desirable, and an attractive alternative to new buildings. This draws valuable tenants, customers and tourists—all beneficial for Atlanta’s tax base.

Capacity Building

Financial investments aren’t the only ones contributing to Atlanta’s growing network. Connecting building stakeholders and experienced building teams provides a tremendous value to building operators seeking expertise, best practices and coaching. ABBC provides technical support to participants through a partnership with Southface. Facility managers and building owners receive knowledge and skills on benchmarking energy and water use and technical issues related to energy and water efficiency, helping them to be more effective at their jobs.  

 The ABBC team maintains regular, personal contact with its participants in order to help guide them appropriately. “You have a really broad range of participation and understanding, so we’ve found that there’s a lot of one-on-one coaching and support that’s needed to help them achieve their best,” said Aaron Bastian from the City of Atlanta’s Office of Sustainability.

ABBC participants also benefit from monthly lunch-and-learn workshops. Supported by sponsors and partners, these workshops cover topics such as making the case for building upgrades and energy and water efficiency technologies.  

The Better Buildings Challenge program also creates accountability and fosters healthy competition among peers to take Atlanta’s energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction goals to the next level. In addition to reaching the 100 million square feet milestone, Atlanta’s facilities have collectively improved their energy performance by 11 percent since 2009, and their water savings by about 20 percent since 2010. ABBC’s energy and water saving successes have also spurred broader sustainability conversations around transportation and waste diversion.

The Asset of Many Voices

One theme echoed by leaders across Atlanta, as well as in cities across the country, is that every building is different. Different challenges are met with different solutions, serving different audiences with different uses. ABBC participants that have invested in energy efficiency upgrades in buildings types  ranging from offices, hospitals and colleges to museums, apartment buildings, hotels and retail centers.

Atlanta welcomes this diversity and solicits feedback by facilitating regular polls of ABBC participants to gather thoughts on their highest priorities. For example in 2014, participants wanted to focus on water management, retro-commissioning, training and funding. The program also used these education and polling sessions as a gateway to networking between peers, increasing buy-in to the program and stoking the competitive fire embedded in Atlanta’s building community.

Beyond these local connections, the City of Atlanta is also able to connect with other Better Buildings Challenge cities around the country to learn how they are overcoming similar barriers. The Better Buildings Challenge currently counts a number of major cities, including Boston, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Seattle as official partners. In all, thirty-three cities, nine counties and eight states have joined the Challenge as of 2014. The Department of Energy continues to facilitate these city-to-city connections through their annual Better Buildings Summit and their new Solution Center website, which publishes other cities’ energy-saving profiles and solutions.

Each city that participates in the Better Buildings Challenge approaches energy efficiency in their own way, tailored to the needs and opportunities in their community. Atlanta’s successes are a result of working hard to understand how the City can leverage a national initiative to a city-wide program to grow a recognizable and trusted hub for networking, investment, resource sharing and economic development. 

More city and state solutions can be found at the Better Buildings Solution Center:

Access the city of Atlanta’s tools and playbook on growing its network of public-private partnerships at