Hotels with net-zero ambitions
By Elaine Glusac
Many global travelers, it appears, want to tour more sustainably. In its annual survey on sustainability, hotel platform Booking.com recently found 71% of respondents planned to travel greener, up 10% over 2021 results. More than half say they are more determined to make environmentally responsible travel choices this year.
But when it comes to making those choices, it’s not easy to find green accommodations beyond those forgoing tiny plastic bottles of shampoo and encouraging guests to reuse their towels.
“One of the challenges facing tourism is that after transportation, particularly air and drive travel, buildings, including hotels, are the biggest source of greenhouse gases,” Jonathon Day, graduate program director in the hotel school at Purdue University and author of a book about sustainable travel, wrote in an email.
Most of the major hotel companies, he noted, have made commitments to go carbon-neutral by 2050 or earlier, but the challenge is in designing energy-efficient new buildings and retrofitting existing ones with green technology. “That requires investment and commitment from hotel owners, management companies and brands,” he said.
Now ready or nearly ready for check-in, a few independent newcomers are demonstrating what net-zero carbon emissions and reducing waste look like. They introduce measurement terms that responsible travelers will likely need to learn.
‘Net zero’ and ‘passive’
A modernist mid-rise building with a raised, concrete-cast window grid, the Armstrong Rubber Co. headquarters has been an unofficial gateway to New Haven, Connecticut, since it opened in 1970. But it remained vacant for more than 20 years before architect Bruce Redman Becker purchased it to create a sustainable hotel.
In May, the brutalist landmark, originally designed by architect Marcel Breuer, will open as the Hotel Marcel New Haven, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, which its backers are calling the first net-zero carbon emissions hotel in the country (rooms from $229).
“In the green building industry, net-zero is a building that produces as much energy as it uses,” Becker said. “For those of us focused on the climate crisis, there’s a higher bar, to have a building that doesn’t use any fossil fuels.”
The 165-room Hotel Marcel, featuring Bauhaus-inspired geometric textile patterns, will be all electric, using solar panels on-site to run its lighting, heating, cooling and hot water systems. Power over Ethernet lighting, a low-voltage system that runs on less power than traditional wiring, is expected to cut lighting energy use by about one-third.
The thickness of the original concrete walls, along with the addition of extra insulation and triple-glazed windows, stabilize temperatures indoors and position the building for passive house certification, a measurement of efficiency in airtight buildings.
“He definitely knew what he was doing, and it impacted the way the building was oriented, but Breuer was more interested in the architectural effect” than saving energy, Becker said.
After its substantial remodeling, the building is projected to use 80% less energy than the median used by hotels in the United States. Becker plans to apply for LEED Platinum certification, the highest rating established by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Even the kitchen at BLDG, the hotel’s restaurant, will be all electric, with electric stoves rather than gas.
“An all-electric kitchen is a healthier environment because you don’t have all this combustion and particulate matter,” the architect said. “This approach informed every decision that we’ve made.”
‘Whole life net zero’
When brothers and developers Robert and Stuart Godwin set out to build room2 Chiswick, an 86-room hotel in London that opened in December, they knew they wanted to operate on a net-zero emissions basis, but decided to expand on the concept and account for its construction and eventual demolition in what is known as “whole life net zero.”
“Ultimately, we’ve said we need to take full accountability for our entire carbon footprint from our entire existence, because if we don’t, and others don’t, we stand no chance of going anywhere near a net-zero future,” said Robert Godwin, managing director of Lamington Group, the family’s development company, and co-founder of room2 Hometels, designed as hotels with residential features of a home, such as kitchens.
Where possible, the construction used recycled materials, from reclaimed terra cotta floors in the lobby to hallway carpets made from plastic fishing nets found in ocean refuse. Much of the custom-made furniture, headboards and banquettes were produced within 10 miles of the property and offset by planting more than 4,000 trees. Keeping its investments local, the developers procured wallpaper, ceramic tiles, mirrors and mosaics from area artists.
Efficient systems include geothermal heating and cooling. A “blue roof,” essentially a reservoir beneath the top-floor green roof, which is home to garden beds and beehives, can hold 50,000 liters (about 13,200 gallons) of rainwater, easing runoff and providing water for plants. Guest rooms have custom recycling bins, including a section for food to be composted.
Compared to the typical hotel in Britain, room2 Chiswick is 89% more energy efficient, according to its owners, who are at work on the next room2 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and plan to open more than 40 hotels in Europe and North America by 2030.
The hotel offsets the emissions it can’t eliminate and what it expects will be the cost to the environment in some 60 years when the building is potentially demolished, by investing in a bamboo farm in Nicaragua that grows the woody plants to capture carbon, then harvests selectively.
Rooms start at 129 British pounds (about $168).
“Accessibility is important,” Robert Godwin said of the affordable rate. “Ultimately, the world needs to make sustainability economically viable.”
As a New Year’s resolution, Ken Cruse, CEO and co-founder of SCP Hotels, decided he was going to personally go zero waste, as in contributing nothing to landfills. Shortly after he set the goal, he went to buy lightbulbs and discovered a problem with his ambition.
“Packaging,” he said. “Absolute zero waste is a difficult standard.”
Still, at the hotel’s seven locations in California, Colorado, Hawaii and Oregon, he aims to make the properties net-zero waste starting in June. Rather than sending absolutely no trash to landfills, the goal is to reduce waste by 90% of standard hotel operations, and then offset anything that exceeds the effort through investments in green operations.
Using email and digital messaging, the hotels have done away with paper, which Cruse said accounts for 25% of waste produced by hotels. In lieu of plastic water bottles, there are refillable glass jars of water in the rooms. Refuse containers are divided into three sections: recycling, food waste (to be composted) and trash. Instead of paper coffee cups, there are mismatched mugs from thrift stores.
At the end of the year, the company will offset all of the waste it sends to landfills through programs like a beach cleanup partnership it has established with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. But, Cruse said, he’s “confident” SCP can achieve its goal of limiting daily trash to less than 1 pound per guest.
“We’d like to not only inspire guests with what we’re able to do, but hopefully other operators,” he said of the net-zero-waste goal. “If we can do it, Marriott, you guys can do it.”