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The Greenhouse Effect

Juliette Borda Green hotels

Photo: Juliette Borda

Dennis Quaintance has been waiting more than 30 years to build a sustainable hotel.

"I’ve been interested in what we can proactively but practically do for the environment ever since the first Earth Day in 1970," explains Quaintance, the codesigner and CEO of the new Proximity Hotel, scheduled to open later this summer in Greensboro, North Carolina. "But until recently, the market wasn’t there." Today, however, integrating things like solar panels and recycled materials into a hotel is advantageous from both an environmental perspective and a business perspective.

The 147-room Proximity is striving for Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, the national standard for green design, construction, and operations from the U.S. Green Building Council. Among the hotel’s planned features are 100 solar panels to heat water, a green roof, and North America’s first installation of an Otis Gen2 elevator, which generates electricity as the car descends. Ultimately, the hotel will use 50 percent less energy than conventional properties do. Should Proximity meet LEED’s stringent requirements and succeed in its quest for Gold, the second-highest rating a building can achieve, it will be one of the first hotels in America to do so (see "LEEDing the Way," page 152). "I know for sure that you can now build a hotel with 100 percent of the quality of a five-star property that will use 30 to 50 percent less energy." Quaintance says. "That’s not hyperbole."

Quaintance’s environmental boosterism signals a significant paradigm shift in the hospitality industry. A few years ago, one would have found scant evidence of anything green in hotels, apart from incandescent bulbs swapped out for compact fluorescents and those little cards allowing guests to opt out of daily linen and towel replacements. In recent years, as the word "chic" began being paired with "eco," a number of boutique hotels and resorts have been touting questionably sustainable features—such as bamboo trash cans or non–animal-tested scented body wash. Chic, yes. But green?

Probably not. As environmentalism becomes de rigeur (see the greening of this year’s Academy Awards for the apotheosis of this trend), every industry—not just hospitality—has been experimenting with green marketing or its more extreme cousin, greenwashing, whereby environmental benefits are marketed but not necessarily delivered. But recently, these superficial eco-flourishes have been giving way to more significant efforts as hotel companies set out to prove that sustainability can have both style and substance.

This shift has been particularly notable in the United States, which had been left in the dust by such environmentally advanced countries as Sweden and the United Kingdom. Driven by rising energy costs and a heightened awareness of global warming and its impact, U.S. hotels are finally picking up the slack. Most significantly, many of their efforts are happening behind the scenes—and away from the marketing materials. Hotel companies are embarking on major new initiatives. In addition to constructing LEED-certified buildings, they are making extensive green retrofits to existing properties. Hotels large and small are conserving water and electricity; purchasing bulk supplies of everything from food to amenities; installing energy-efficient fixtures, lighting, and appliances; and using low-VOC paints (which reduce the risks of off-gassing) and non-toxic cleaning supplies.

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