Building Green Momentum

Hotels are finding sustainable design can be affordable and effective

Thomas Miller believes that in 20 years all new construction will be built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. Anything that's not, he says, will be a dinosaur.

Bold words, but as the project manager for the billion-dollar Ever Vail project, slated to be the most sustainable and largest LEED-certified, multi-use resort development in North America, Miller has reason to be bold.

“We have one of the most difficult areas to develop,” says Miller, Vail Resorts Development Company's director of development for Eagle County (CO). “It's hard to get materials here in the mountains, soils aren't great, it snows over half the year. If we can build here and make it sustainable, there's no excuse for others not to build in a sustainable manner.”

Miller still has a ways to go. The Ever Vail project is in the process of getting final approvals from Vail and the Colorado Department of Transportation. After that, the next step is turning the design drawings into construction drawings. Breaking ground is still over a year away and construction is expected to take five years.

Green projects large and small are sprouting up all over the country. Ever Vail may be the largest, but many hotels are taking steps to become more eco-friendly.

Some are renovating, while others start with sustainable construction plans. If done right, the process often proves to be less expensive than anticipated, and brings hopes of long-term savings and improved marketing opportunities.


The first question is always how much more does sustainable construction cost? Recent studies have shown that LEED-certified buildings cost anywhere from two to eight percent more than traditional construction.

Mike Webster, co-owner/principal of eco-friendly Stevenswood Spa Resort in northern California, estimated that he spent 25 percent more during renovations two years ago. Rick Patton, principal owner, New South Partners, says that five percent is a fair estimate of how much more will be spent for the LEED-certified Canopy Bluff hotel on Jekyll Island in Georgia. Ryan Schoen, vice president of development for Terra Resort Group, says the Hotel Terra Jackson Hole project nearing completion in Wyoming will cost about two percent more to meet LEED-certification standards.

Everyone agrees the cost is coming down. Webster believes it's now about two to five percent more, but that it is possible to actually save money up front if done right.

“I equate it to buying a new laptop,” Webster says. “You study a few different models and features for a couple months and by then more models come out with lower price points. It's a very fluid arena, changing on an hour-by-hour basis.”

Products that were barely available a decade ago are now plentiful. New design elements and strategies are being introduced with every new project.

Bamboo, classified as a grass, is often used for walls and flooring instead of wood. Webster says it's the fastest-growing renewable building material and can be used almost everywhere.

Natural elements like rocks and stones are used when possible. Terra Hotel Jackson Hole replaced about 25 percent of the cement used in concrete with fly ash, a coal-burning byproduct.

Stevenswood Spa Resort used reclaimed lumber and cork flooring from Portugal, and bathroom sinks were made with glass from recycled wine bottles.

Many projects — like the Fairfield Inn & Suites - Inner Harbor at Historic Brewers' Park; Canopy Bluff; and Ever Vail — will utilize a green roof. A green roof uses natural materials like soil and grasses or other plants to cover the structure, which helps reduce the urban heat island effect and storm water runoff, while helping insulate the building.

The Fairfield Inn & Suites in Baltimore, which broke ground in November, is being built at the site of an old brewery. Part of its green design plan is using recycled materials from the original construction. The old brewery tanks will be used to store rainwater, which will then be used to irrigate the landscaping.

Designers agree that proper planning is critical to sustainable construction, especially if you're looking for LEED certification.

“A big part of it is whether you get out ahead of the process,” says Gene Singleton, president of Summit Associates and part of the ownership group for the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Baltimore. “If you wait until it's in the process, then you're more susceptible to get blindsided by costs and delays.”

Hotel Terra Jackson Hole planned on an 18- to 19-month construction schedule, but the process ended up taking a few months longer. Schoen, who was involved with the design from the start, says it's important to have someone dedicated to the LEED-certification process. Patton's group at Canopy Bluff hired LEED-certified consultants to help shepherd them through the process. Ever Vail's Miller says most consultants he's worked with already have LEED professionals on their team.

Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa, which recently completed an $11-million renovation, formed a “green team” that helped it become Key West's first resort to earn the One Palm designation from the Florida Green Lodging Program. Director of Engineering Sixto Ramirez headed the green team, which included members from all the resort's departments. The green team led 32 improvement projects in areas of communication, water conservation, energy efficiency, waste reduction and clean air practices.

Communication and strong decision making are imperative to staying on budget and on time.

“The key in all of this is planning,” says Bill Barrie, senior vice president of design and project management with Ritz Carlton, who's also on Marriott's green council. “If you know up front this is what you want, it's not any harder to do.”


Despite the higher initial costs, sustainable design should bring eventual savings.

Hotel Terra Jackson Hole is using 100 percent “eco-shake” roof shingles made from recycled tires that Schoen admits cost more. But, he says, they are supposed to have a 50-year life span, double that of traditional shingles.

“We try to weigh things like that,” he says. “We compare the initial cost vs. the lifecycle cost. Initially it does cost more, but since they last 50 years, the cost will be cheaper than replacing (traditional) shingles 25 years from now. When we do that with other items, we also take into account the energy savings and upkeep. It's a good way to look at putting in something better for the environment and looking at it as paying off eventually.”

Many studies have shown LEED-certified buildings lower operating costs and increase employee productivity. The rewards can also come in other ways. Marketing a property as eco-friendly appeals to many consumers. More than a quarter of respondents to a TripAdvisor poll say they will be more environmentally conscious in their travel plans this year.

“Beyond the idea of being good guys by building a green hotel, this is also very market-driven,” Patton says. “The idea that (Canopy Bluff) is going to be one of the first LEED-certified hotels on the beaches of the East Coast will give us a great competitive advantage to attract associations and corporate groups.”

Singleton says his project in Baltimore is benefiting from extra public-relations exposure. Next year that might not be the case because Baltimore is considering mandating all developers build to LEED certification. Singleton believes that will eventually be the case everywhere.

“There's been a perception it costs 20 percent more for a whole building,” he says. “No one is going to do that. But if it's an incremental cost and a direction we're going to be heading in anyway, and you gain business and may have some cost offsets, more and more people will do it. Voluntarily.”

Whether or not traditional construction goes the way of the dinosaur, it's clear the industry is changing.

“Ten years ago we'd talk to a contractor about using a recycled product and the first question we'd get is why,” says Stevenswood's Webster. “Now no one asks why.”


Taking the LEED

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system is a voluntary building certification program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. The rating system evaluates a new building in five areas: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. It is the nationally accepted standard for green buildings. Within each area of evaluation, credits and points are earned and there are four levels of certification: certified, silver, gold and platinum.

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