TAPPING THE ECO MARKET

An integrated ecosystem and an approach blending luxury, comfort and environmental concern are at the heart of the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel, a 133-unit, two-story property in American Canyon, CA.

The Gaia took South San Francisco entrepreneur Wen-I-Chang nearly six years from conception to opening in November, and the first few months were rough. But, says the Taiwan native, the Gaia should do better as summer kicks in, and his Atman Hospitality Group already is developing two other green hotel projects in California, one north of Sacramento, the other west of Yosemite National Park.

The Gaia, at $19.5 million inclusive, cost 10 percent to 15 percent more than a conventional hotel. It reflects “whole-system thinking,” Chang says. “All the structures and mechanicals are interrelated, unlike in traditional design.” It also involves state-of-the-art materials and equipment.

The four-acre site and hotel include a swan lake; kiosks offering information on energy and utility conservation in the hotel; rooms painted with non-toxic, odor-free paint; recycled carpeting; HVAC that uses 15-percent less energy; new-growth wood in all inside construction; and chemical-free landscaping. In addition, there are a business center and fitness center, fine dining, a heated outdoor pool — and proximity to Napa Valley wineries.

When he first proposed his property, Chang arranged for a charrette of all potential stakeholders. A charrette addresses a problem from all angles and often involves meetings of subgroups. Chang's approach is definitively holistic.

“Even before we got the name, we held a contest to ask people for names,” says Chang, who has also developed Holiday Inns and Hilton Garden Inns. A couple from nearby Vallejo won, but the canny Chang also awarded the prize — a week in Tahiti — to a couple from American Canyon. Gaia was the goddess of earth from Greek mythology.

Two redesigns involving the roof line added $1.5 million to the cost. The original called for a waved roof, but that was prohibitively expensive. Ultimately, a flat roof, complete with solar panels, was designed, “but we still kept the wavy line on the second-floor walls.”

The Gaia aims to appeal to four types: successful retirees with lots of money; Yuppies with “a lot of money and no time”; environmentally conscious travelers; and governmental and corporate groups that “like to stay at our place because it's politically correct.” The Gaia is certified for meeting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.

“Our swan lake is an ecosystem by itself,” Chang notes. In its “permacultural” landscaping, all the plants benefit each other. “Rather than some having roots that are too big, sucking all the water from the neighboring plants, they're all related in a good way.”

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