Several years ago, I wrote about a commercial building whose lighting designer had struggled to keep energy use low. The designer explained the painstaking process of creating an engagingly luminous lobby while following strict maximum-wattage codes developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers and adopted by New York State.

Yet the lobby was lit up like an operating room. The owner, apparently hoping to attract tenants, was keeping the lights on a special, high-intensity setting—designed solely for nighttime clean-up crews—around the clock. What it illuminated best was the gap between the designer’s intentions and the owner’s practices.

In the debate about how to make America’s buildings greener, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on: Designing buildings in order to conserve energy isn’t enough. It’s essential that buildings’ actual energy use, post-occupancy, be measured and disclosed.

Happily, cities and states are taking the first steps toward requiring building owners to measure their properties’ energy use, and, in some cases, to make the results public. So far, five cities and two states have passed laws requiring energy benchmarking (that is, determining how a building compares to similar structures) and periodic energy audits. New York City was the first out of the gate. Under Local Law 84, the owners of 16,000 properties larger than 50,000 square feet (both commercial and multifamily) had to submit their energy data to the city by Aug. 1.

Next up is San Francisco, where some buildings must submit benchmarking data starting Oct. 1. The city’s ordinance complements a California state law that will require owners to disclose energy use when selling, leasing, or financing nonresidential buildings. Similar laws will soon take effect in Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and Seattle (where a Washington State law is already in place), according to Andrew Burr, director of the Building Energy Rating Program of the Institute for Market Transformation.

These new benchmarking rules—even in their early stages, with compliance dates still mostly months or years off—already apply to far more buildings than have been certified by the LEED program over its 13-year history, according to Burr. That not only means great things for conservation but for architects who are poised to evaluate and modify existing buildings. Barry Hooper of the Private Sector Green Building Program in San Francisco’s Department of the Environment said that some 70 percent of owners who conduct energy audits will take action to improve their buildings when appropriate incentives are in place.

So far, the laws require little more than simple calculations and data entry. Benchmarking is facilitated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager, which relies on a national database of buildings’ energy consumption compiled in 2003 by the Energy Information Administration.

But architects may use mandated energy reviews—benchmarking as well as the more involved auditing process—to prove their value to potential clients. “If you build an intimate knowledge of an organization and a building, when the owner needs other services, you’ll be in the best position to provide them,” says Nash Hurley, AIA, of San Francisco’s Vital Environments. An architect who has worked for SHoP Architects and Perkins+Will, Hurley formed Vital with Taylor Keep, a mechanical engineer, and Ian Kelso, a structural engineer, to provide retrofitting and other services to building owners.

The firm rejects the traditional building model, in which an architect’s role ends when the client moves into the building. That’s not just bad for the environment—“How do you deliver performance if you don’t even know the guy who’s running the facilities?” Keep says—but it’s bad for architects, who could be exploiting new opportunities. The new San Francisco ordinance, for example, requires that, once every five years, owners of buildings larger than 50,000 square feet perform ASHRAE Level II audits. The auditors must list potential capital improvements and identify potential costs and savings. To achieve that, Vital expects to get to know the building and its occupants and understand the owner’s business strategy.

“If we get 200 benchmarking jobs, and 20 lead to further engagement, and five of those lead to actual building projects, we’ll be happy,” Hurley says.

For one client, Vital undertook a three-month study that involved not only examining building systems but interviewing employees about their energy consumption and how it helped (or didn’t help) them do their jobs. You can only save so much energy by making changes to the buildings, Hurley and Keep explain. The rest requires working with building occupants.

In Washington, D.C., the D.C. Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 requires large commercial and multifamily buildings to make their energy consumption public. And there in D.C., global architecture firm HOK has been reaching out to former clients, including the 100 or so for whom it has completed LEED-rated buildings over the past decade. Proving that even large firms can be nimble, HOK is offering to provide energy auditing and benchmarking services.

“We take a life-cycle approach to buildings,” says Anica Landreneau, Assoc. AIA, a senior associate and the sustainable design practice leader in the firm’s Washington office. “We like to stay in contact with our clients, and let them know that we’re always around.”

Among those clients is the Nature Conservancy, which occupies a 12-year-old HOK building in Arlington, Va. The conservancy is considering applying for LEED Existing Building certification—a designation introduced in 2004 and revamped in 2008—with HOK guiding it through the process. At another building, the Nationals Park baseball stadium, completed by HOK Sport (now Populous) in 2008, the firm gives “green tours” of the stadium, positioning itself as the expert on not just how the building was designed, but on how it functions.

Of course, helping owners obtain LEED-EB status is a job to which architects can do much more of, says Gunnar Hubbard, AIA, an architect and energy consultant based in Portland, Maine. His firm, Fore Solutions, has helped Vornado Realty Trust, one of the largest property owners in Manhattan, obtain LEED-EB status for 10 of its properties, including the vast One Penn Plaza and Two Penn Plaza office towers. The process involved everything from working with cleaning crews to establish green protocols to creating a website on which building occupants are required to post their own energy use for Vornado, and other tenants, to see.

Hubbard hopes that the public reporting will have a “Prius effect,” meaning that tenants will want to show off their good energy stats. For building owners motivated by profit as well as the desire to do good, energy efficiency reduces operating costs. The lower its energy bills, the more a building will command at resale.

As buildings age, energy prices rise, and benchmarking laws take effect, architects will benefit. Some more so than others. “It’s an important part of our business model,” says Hurley. “It’s what’s going to make us a success in the next couple of years.”