Reflections of Green Hotelier

By Wen-I Chang | May 05, 2008

As the creator of Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa, America's first LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold hotel, I have long been concerned about the impact of our actions on the planet. Today we are at a critical crossroads and ultimately we are compelled to ask: Are we going to do business as usual? Or, do we have the courage to make a shift in our mindset and instead adopt a working, business philosophy of harmony with nature?

Triple bottom line
We in the lodging industry have the remarkable opportunity to enjoy a profit while protecting the environment and running a socially-responsible business. This type of business execution is called the triple bottom line: profits; protection of the earth; and socially-responsible, sustainable business practices.

At first, this was difficult for me to execute. As one who is on the forefront of green hotel developments, I was navigating through uncharted waters, noting the many trials and errors by green consultants as they went through their own learning curve. Fortunately, some guidelines have emerged. The U.S. Green Building Council and their LEED standards provide all of us with a performance-oriented rating system. LEED is exacting, stringent and fair for those among us who have chosen to pursue green building. 

Bringing the outdoors in
I have thought in minute detail about how to convey a hotel in harmony with the earth to our guests. For example, instead of bland room numbers, each hotel guest room bears the name of an animal species. We constructed a natural lagoon, Lake Gaia (which refers to Mother Earth in Greek mythology), complete with two lovely white swans. The lake helps create an emotional connection to nature for our guests. Migrating birds have also taken up temporary residence there. Painted on the side of the hotel is a very large mural showing a wetland scene, evidencing our respect for the natural world and local pride in a site that was formerly (and still remains, in part) a wetlands.

We have a real-time energy kiosk in the hotel lobby. There, guests can see how our solar system is performing, producing energy for the hotel while reducing the electricity we need to buy, and reducing the CO2 produced by a power plant. Through solar energy production and other state-of-the-art technologies, we produce or conserve approximately 24 percent of the hotel's energy needs; the rest is purchased from green energy sources, including wind farms.

What is unseen is also very important. Behind the walls, Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood was used to build the hotel. We used recycled carpets; low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints, special resins, finishes and glues. These are just a few of the more than 75 green elements that went into building the first LEED Gold hotel in the U.S.

We also kept every possible tree for their natural beauty and for their contribution in helping to shade and cool the hotel. To save one tree, I totally redesigned the site plan, resulting in the loss of twenty-three parking spaces. It was not a particularly beautiful Elderberry tree, but it had lived naturally on the undeveloped property for many, many years. And, upon closer inspection and research, it happened to be the home for a very obscure, nearly extinct group of insects. So, we kept the tree and the insects and redesigned the hotel.

Building for the future
We continue to learn and apply our green building experience and it shows on the bottom line. In developing Gaia Napa Valley Hotel, the additional cost for the green elements was between 12 percent and 15 percent. In developing Gaia Anderson Hotel, the additional cost for 'going green' was between 5 percent and 6 percent. And, in developing the Gaia Merced Hotel, the additional cost will be between 2 percent and 3 percent.

I attribute that positive evolution to two factors. As the marketplace matures, the variety of green products has increased and some of the prices for these products have become more reasonable. Also, live and learn. Having navigated through these uncharted waters, we can execute a little bit smarter with each new hotel.


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