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California Hotels Go Green With Low-Flow Toilets, Solar Lights

By Ari Levy and Carole Zimmer (Bloomberg) - April 27, 2007

Visitors to the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa won’t find the Gideon Bible in the nightstand drawer. Instead, on the bureau will be a copy of “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore’s book about global warming.

They’ll also find the Gaia equipped with waterless urinals, solar lighting and recycled paper as it marches toward becoming California’s first hotel certified as “green,” or benevolent to the environment. Similar features are found 35 miles south at San Francisco’s Orchard Garden Hotel, which competes for customers with neighboring luxury hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont.

“I’m not your traditional Birkenstocks and granola type of guy,” said Stefan Muehle, general manager of the Orchard Garden, who said green measures are reducing energy costs as much as 25 percent a month. “We’re trying to dispel the myth that being green and being luxurious are mutually exclusive.”

The Gaia and Orchard are seeking to be the first hotels in California certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, which has authenticated 800 buildings across the U.S. and has about 6,000 in the process, including 30 hotels. San Francisco and other cities offer financial incentives to lessen water and energy use and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Seven years ago, the Green Building Council developed a rating system called the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. Buildings are certified based on their use of environmentally friendly features such as recycled construction materials, solar lighting, and efficient energy and water systems. Older buildings may be retrofitted.

Sleeping Well

“If that choice is available, why not take advantage of it,” said Josh Dorfman of New York, founder of furniture company Vivavi Inc. and a frequent traveler. “It’s a way to be able to enjoy traveling and to still feel good that I’m doing it in a way that supports a cleaner planet. It’s a win-win.”

Building green isn’t a priority for most publicly traded hotel chains, said Robert Lafleur, a hotels analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group in Stamford, Connecticut.

“The only green investors care about is the green that’s on the money, not the green that’s in the hotel rooms,” Lafleur said. For visitors, “it’s location, price, convenience and brand affiliation.”

Some chains are participating on a limited basis. Marriott International Inc., the biggest U.S. hotel operator, has one LEED-certified hotel in Maryland and seven under construction. Hilton Hotels Corp., the second-largest, received its first certification in January for a hotel in Vancouver, Washington.

“We have a social responsibility,” said Pat Maher, a senior vice president of Bethesda, Maryland-based Marriott. “It also makes good business sense.”

A Sea Change

Swinerton Inc., a San Francisco-based construction company, has worked on more than 20 buildings seeking certification. The 86-room Orchard Garden, completed last year, was its first hotel, said Grant French, a Swinerton engineer.

“There’s been a sea change,” said French. Some companies “are considering rolling out entire product lines of green hotels.”

Wen-I Chang opened the 132-room Gaia in the town of American Canyon last year. He’s building other green hotels in Anderson and Merced and said he hopes to develop at least six more within three years.

Shorter Showers

Chang said he became an environmentalist in 1999, when he couldn’t get a glass of water at a restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, because of a shortage in the area.

“I started thinking that there are many ways I can save water,” said Chang, 62. “I changed my shower habit from eight minutes to two minutes.”

Then he changed his building habits, after 10 years of developing Holiday Inn and Hilton franchises.

Chang said 43 cities have asked him to build green hotels. Some offer incentives to help cover construction costs, which were about 15 percent more for the Gaia. Chang said it’s saving 25 percent on electricity and almost 50 percent on water, which may enable the hotel to turn profitable next month.

American Canyon slashed Gaia’s transient occupancy tax by $1 million over three years. Anderson waived a $100,000 environmental impact fee, in part because a green hotel may encourage tourists to stay longer, said Scott Morgan, city manager.

San Francisco began giving priority to green projects last year. A developer may have to wait only four weeks to start construction instead of eight months, said Richard Chien, residential green building coordinator with the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

Getting Traction

“We need to get more traction,” Chien said. “We’re facing problems with global warming and climate change and we’re taking a cue to develop programs to address that at a citywide level.”

Any big new buildings California’s government erects must be designed for LEED certification, by order of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The state is working to enact green construction standards for all buildings, said David Walls, executive director of the California Building Standards Commission.

Efforts by the state and cities have contributed to a surge in green development, said Bill Worthen, a senior associate at Simon & Associates Inc. in San Francisco. The consulting company is getting a call a day for projects, he said.

“It’s a hip and trendy thing to do and one that’s actually good for the planet,” he said.