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Hotels Are a New Frontier for Net-Zero

Hotels use a lot of energy and water. Two ongoing projects are aimed at showing the industry how to change.

The former home of the Armstrong Rubber Company is being transformed into a net-zero boutique hotel in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo courtesy Becker + Becker.

The country’s hotel industry has been a barren landscape for net-zero design, but new projects are popping up and they suggest that owners are finding ways around traditional roadblocks to lowering carbon emissions in a very energy-intensive corner of the commercial real estate market.

In San Francisco, the William Penn Hotel in the city’s Tenderloin district is getting a $3 million net-zero rehab that will benefit the formerly homeless residents who live in its single-occupancy rooms. Improvements will include solar panels on the roof, better access to natural light, and new ventilation systems, according to this post at Fast Company.

Across the country, in New Haven, Connecticut, architect and developer Bruce Becker is tackling a much more upscale project: the $50 million transformation of the former headquarters of the Armstrong Rubber Company into a 165-room boutique hotel.

The unusual building, with a two-story cutout that separates offices above and a ground-level space below, is known locally as the Pirelli building after the Italian tire maker that moved there in 1988, according to an article about the project in The New York Times. Next year, it will open as Hotel Marcel.

These are ground-breaking projects. The New Building Institute, which tracks net-zero buildings around the country, says it has no verified net-zero hotels on file now. But in addition to citing the San Francisco project, it pointed to a sports and recreation center in northeastern Vermont called the Craftsbury Outdoor Center that is using solar and locally harvested wood to lower carbon emissions.

In all, it’s a very modest list for an industry that’s responsible for about 10% of all commercial real estate and has the highest energy use intensity (EUI), outpacing shopping centers, retail outlets, multifamily housing, industrial manufacturing and office space, according to a report on the industry from the Urban Land Institute.

A mostly unrealized potential

The industry’s lackluster record on energy and water consumption is due to several reasons, according to the Institute’s report. “The hotel industry faces a number of unique challenges in executing on sustainability improvements,” the report says, “including a lack of utility data, complicated ownership models and structures, and concerns about improvements disrupting the guest experience.”

Hotels can make a great business case for lowering energy use and cutting carbon emissions. A growing number of guests say that sustainability is important to them. City regulations and incentives may favor energy upgrades, and investors are growing more attuned to the sustainability issue. Returns on their investments can be immediate—one energy management system upgrade mentioned in the report cut energy costs by 18.5% in the first year, a change worth $283,733.

“But,” the report adds, “the hotel industry is leaving valuable operational and technical opportunities for savings and efficiency on the table.”

Energy and water use at resort hotels surpasses consumption in all other commercial buildings. Illustration courtesy Urban Land Institute.

Hotels are responsible for about 1% of global carbon emissions, the report notes, which will have to decline by 66% by 2030 if the planet is to stay within the 2°C threshold cited in the Paris Climate Accord. Emissions will have to drop by 90% by 2050. There are lots of small steps that hotels can take, the “low-hanging fruit” of energy efficiency: adjustments in temperature setpoints, LED lighting, high-efficiency water fixtures. Bigger investments will yield better results but they take more planning and cost more upfront.

Despite the difficulties, more guests are saying they appreciate efforts to lower emissions and make operations more sustainable. Forty-four percent of guests younger than 25 say that’s important while 33% of all 72,000 Hilton guests in the same survey said they would rather stay in a hotel with environmental and social programs, the report said.

Full steam ahead in Connecticut

Hotel Marcel—110,000 sq. ft. in a building originally designed by Marcel Breuer in 1967—is scheduled to be finished next summer. According to the architect’s website, the building will generate 100% of the power it needs for lighting, heating and cooling, and charging stations for electric cars from rooftop and parking canopy arrays.

Work began this year. It includes recycled and local construction materials, energy-recovery ventilation, LED lighting, and high-efficiency VRF (variable refrigerant flow) air-source heat pumps. The architect hopes it will become the first Passive House−certified hotel in the U.S. and use 80% less energy than the median energy use intensity in the U.S.

The hotel, on the New Haven waterfront, will be close to train stations and major highways and become “a model for sustainable hospitality.”

The local landmark has been through a few owners in its day. After Pirelli, the property was purchased by the home furnishings giant Ikea in 2003. According to an article at the time, Ikea planned to build a 300,000-sq.-ft. warehouse on the property and tear down part of the building to allow for more parking. The plan was bitterly opposed by preservationists, and Ikea later worked with the city to turn the building into a hotel.

Becker bought the property for $1.2 million last year, The Times said. Becker told the newspaper that the building’s blocky shape and ratio of surface area to interior space made it a good candidate for improved efficiency.

“It will probably cost about $5 per sq. ft. more,” he said, “but we’ll be saving about $1 per sq. ft. every year on energy. So it really does make a lot of sense. It’s an opportunity to create a new paradigm that the hotel industry can look at and learn from.”

A feasibility report done for Becker last year by Steven Winter Associates said the building could meet requirements of the Passive House Institute’s EnerPHit standard via the compliance path with a variety of upgrades to mechanical systems and the building enclosure. That includes boosting the R-value of the roof to 40 with 7 in. of polyiso insulation, and upgrading above-grade walls with 3 in. of closed-cell polyurethane foam. Windows will be triple-pane with a fiberglass frame and a whole-window U-factor of less than 0.127. The center-of-glass U-factor would be 0.09 (the equivalent of R-11).

This rendering shows carport PV canopies, a key part of the project’s net-zero aspirations. Illustration courtesy Becker + Becker.

Heating and cooling will be provided by VRF heat pumps. Domestic hot water also will be generated by a heat pump. The airtightness goal is 1ACH50 or less.

With net-zero operation in mind, the PV system is crucial. The feasibility study, which Becker provided to GBA, recommends a rooftop solar array with a capacity of 130kW plus multiple carport arrays totaling 150kW. Panels over the carport are expected to generate about 135,800kWh of electricity per year.

Becker said in an email that he was working with an energy modeler to make sure the PV system would provide 100% of the hotel’s electrical needs. He expects batteries will be part of the system, not only for emergency power but for load shifting.

A more modest project in San Francisco

While Hotel Marcel plans on opening as a boutique hotel, the San Francisco rehab is taking place in a squat, four-story building in one of the city’s most rundown neighborhoods.

The California Energy Commission is paying for the redesign, which will involve the building owner and San Francisco 2030 District, part of a network of communities promoting high-performance buildings. Exterior changes to the building will be minimal, according to Stan Lew, an architect and director of the San Francisco 2030 District.

“The insulation and envelope is what it is,” he told Fast Company. “You can’t really change how the building looks because it’s historic. You’re challenged with not doing much to the envelope.”

In addition to solar panels and other energy-saving upgrades, developers plan on turning the building into a sort of lab for startups to test new products. If the rehab is successful, the building’s owner, the Chinatown Community Development Center, could use it as a template for some of the 2000 other rooms it owns across the city.

“What’s really exciting for us is, if we can do this well for the 94 residents at 160 Eddy, we can start to replicate this model of converting existing buildings to net-zero energy,” Lew told Fast Company. “We see this as not only a model for Chinatown Community Development Center, but also for other affordable housing developers in San Francisco and other cities.”

The report didn’t offer any other specifics on how developers planned to get the building to net-zero. GBA is seeking more information about the project.


-Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.

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