seeing Green

Everybody's talking green. Talking, planning, designing, but not building much — yet — save for a few visionary leaders (California's Gaia Napa Valley hotel and Washington's Hilton Vancouver come to mind). The hotel industry is just dipping its toe in a current that has steadily gained strength over the past few years in the commercial building industry. It's coming to realize that employing green practices in the development, construction and operation of hotels is not only the right thing to do, it can pay off in lower operational costs, improved employee health and staff retainment, higher real estate values and the opportunity to charge higher rates.

At the forefront of the green movement are the hospitality architects and designers who've “drank the Kool-Aid,” so to speak. One of the more high-profile firms to embrace the cause is San Francisco-based Gensler. Gensler, one of the largest firms in the country, is a long-time proponent of green building design and was recognized for its efforts with the U.S. Green Building Council's 2005 Leadership Award. The firm also boasts more than 580 LEED-accredited (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) professionals. At the recent Hospitality Design expo and conference, four of its designers (Tom Ito, J.F. Finn III, Melissa Mizell and Vito Lotta), together with Hyatt Hotels VP Larry Traxler, presented case studies of sustainable designed projects.

Gensler's regional hospitality leader, Vito Lotta, AIA, LEED AP, spoke with Lodging Hospitality about the firm's vision and commitment to sustainable design, in a conversation that recapped many of the talking points from the HD presentation.


How big is the movement towards green design?


There are two major trends in hospitality today. One is the new perspective of the traveler — the focus on blending business and leisure. And an important thing to many guests, particularly the younger traveler, is the environment and sustainability.


The goals of green design, with an emphasis on conservation and economy, seem to be incompatible with the ideals of, particularly, upper-end hotels, where excess and luxury rule. How do you reconcile the two?


The approach we take as a firm is that first, the guest experience is king. The guest demands an incredible experience, and to have all their needs anticipated and met. At the same time, we must meet the needs of the owner and operator and design for a profitable property. Today's hotel owner/operators are savvy about these important environmental issues or are interested in learning. They consider the benefits to the world, the interests of environmentally responsible guests, the quality of experience and the return on investment.

Sustainability is defined as providing for current needs without sacrificing the needs of future generations. But that definition is insufficient to describe green hospitality because hospitality is not about sacrifice; it's about the current experience of comfort, building suspense, setting desirable expectations and satiating current needs. Therefore, we suggest a revised definition for hospitality: Sustainability is about fulfilling our guests' current dreams and desires without sacrificing the future generations' dreams and desires. The objective is to achieve sustainability without making it about sacrifice.


How do you achieve that?


Many of the strategies are global in nature. Others are very specific to hospitality. And not every building will be LEED-certified nor is that often possible with renovations. As designers we can do a lot. However, the programs now available for LEED certification are focused more on new construction; but that will change.

The first thing clients ask is ‘How much will it all cost?’ These strategies don't necessarily cost more and in fact they may save you money and gain you tax credits. That whets their appetites. It's kind of like evangelizing.

Another benefit to the developer is speed to market. For example, for a project like the Hyatt Regency Chicago that we're working on, the whole process is long and one thing that slows it down is permitting. However, the city and Mayor Richard Daley are progressive thinkers, and if you are targeting these high levels of LEED certification, they have a dedicated Green Permit Program to assist you with expedited service and reduced fees. There is a dedicated Green Permit administrator who acts as a liason to escort projects through the process.


What's the difference beween sustainable design in a hospitality environment versus that in another commercial building?


There are more challenges in hospitality, with the guestrooms, for example. This is due to the inefficiency of the number of plumbing fixtures per floor plate. Workplace interiors don't have the same kinds of issues so they have to be judged on a different scale.


Talk about elements of hotel design and how sustainable products and methods might be applied.


Designers often are constrained by guestroom standards. For example, you've got a defined guestroom footprint, and we're putting all this extra furniture in that is required to meet a star rating standard. If I could get rid of just one chair and table, think of the savings in terms of materials and processes and energy that went into creating that one chair or table. And does the guest even use that extra chair other than to throw their clothes on it? We can make smarter choices.

There are so many new materials and products coming to market that serve sustainable design. For example, low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints and adhesives and formaldehyde-free wood substrates. What is the source of the wood being used? Is it from a rapidly renewable source like bamboo or wheat or is it from an endangered rainforest species? Bamboo is very popular aesthetically for walls and floors; it grows rapidly and is renewable. Not only should the source be considered and how long it took to grow, but how far it was shipped.

The first question asked is how fast can I get it and how much will it cost? As the demand for these items grows, the costs will come down.

Carpeting: Available synthetics are recyclable. A growing trend is toward using carpet tiles instead of rolls. The designs have improved so much that you don't see the lines and the quality of patterns and varieties have increased dramatically. And, if you have damage or a stain, you replace a few tiles instead of a whole room's carpet.

Water, air and light: There are new ways of designing and operating buildings that save enormous amounts of energy compared to traditional designs. Half the energy used in buildings goes to lighting and cooling. The average guest requires 218 gallons of water a day, for hygiene, laundry and dishwashing. Laundry doesn't require potable, fresh water. Grey or rain water is fine and then it can be filtered, cleaned and used again. One can even use a heat exchanger to recapture the heat from the hot water.

One survey reports there's a five- to 10-percent rate premium guests are willing to pay for quality indoor air. Marriott reported that 40 percent of its corporate guests are asking about environmental issues when booking stays and green hotels are being placed on lists of recommended hotels for government employees.

We enjoy natural light but the challenge is controlling the quality of the daylight that comes in and limiting unnecessary heat gains, unless that heat gain is desired. There have been incredible advances in films that will not only filter out light but control ways the glass redirects light with polarization, so that the light actually reaches deeper into the space while light that creates heat is screened out.

In the guestroom, intelligent lighting control systems will monitor the amount of light in a room and will do a composition balance of artificial to natural light, or daylight harvesting. Also, we're looking forward to controls related to occupancy. These controls aren't simply motion sensors but they read the heat given off by a person's body and will regulate the lighting power accordingly.


Final thoughts?


The future of the world's environment rests heavily on the design industry. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has set a goal of reducing the fossil fuel consumption of buildings by 50 percent in four years, with an additional 10 percent in reductions every five years thereafter. The AIA has responded to a call to action by a group called Architecture 2030. Their mission is to conduct research, and provide information and innovative solutions in the fields of architecture and planning, in an effort to address global climate change.

Responsible design is simply the right thing to do.

That's why Gensler does it. Either you're with us or you're going to be with us.

For more information and related articles, go to


Interior Strategies

Lighting, air conditioning and heating: intelligent control systems that monitor guests in room, together with their preferences and patterns

Specify less furniture pieces; specify Green Guard Certified furniture where possible

Carpet rental and carpet tile; Green Label Plus carpets

Operational coordination with guests, i.e., reusing towels and bedding for a multi-night stay

Specify green products: companies with low “carbon footprint”

Materials selected for durability

Renewable materials including cork, bamboo, agrifiber substrates for millwork; materials that are recycled or recyclable

Sustainably managed wood products: certified by the Forest Stewardship Council

Materials and finishes that do not off-gas: no or low-VOC paints, adhesives and sealants; no added formaldehyde

Local and regional materials

Hotel Operating Systems

Reuse water for washing dishes and laundry

Capture energy from washing wastewater — pre-heated water

Proper selection of light lamps for low energy and long life cycle

More efficient HVAC systems

Potential for renewable energy sources

Source: Gensler

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