Motels Lag in Power Sustainability. One Mission Could Change That.

Hotels Lag in Energy Sustainability. One Project May Change That.

The hotel industry has lagged behind other real estate sectors when it comes to introducing energy efficiency measures. However, a developer in Connecticut is hoping to change that by converting an office building into possibly the most energy-efficient hotel in the country.

The $ 50 million gamble aims to transform the long-vacant headquarters of the Armstrong Rubber Company, a distinctive New Haven concrete box designed by modernist architect Marcel Breuer in the late 1960s, as a 165-room boutique hotel to revive what is known as Hotel Marcel.

Developer and architect Bruce Becker is building the hotel to meet net zero energy standards, which means it generates as much energy as it consumes.

"It's probably the most challenging project I've ever done, especially since we did it during a pandemic," said Becker, whose company Becker + Becker is based in Westport. "But I've been fascinated by the building, at least since I was a PhD student at Yale in the late 1980s, and I thought it might be fascinating."

Some major hotel brands and owners have set company-wide greenhouse gas reduction goals, but much of the industry has not taken steps to conserve energy and reduce operating costs, according to a report from the Urban Land Institute's Greenprint Center for Building Performance.

Barriers to widespread adoption include complicated hotel owner / operator models, lack of collection of energy usage data and concerns about the impact on guests, the report said.

"The hotel industry is very well positioned to benefit from sustainability – the owner / operator bears the burden of all energy costs," said Marta Schantz, Senior Vice President of the center. "The fact that this Connecticut project chose to do this from the start is the perfect, most affordable way to do it."

Ms. Schantz said she didn't know of any other net zero energy hotel in the United States. However, some major hotel brands are trying to reduce their carbon footprint by using various management systems and apps to track their progress.

One of the leading companies is Host Hotels & Resorts, a real estate investment company that owns around 80 upscale hotels in Brazil, Canada, and the United States. The trust aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 55 percent by 2025.

Such goals are of increasing interest to investors who regularly inquire about environmentally and socially responsible business practices, said Michael Chang, director of energy and sustainability at Host Hotels.

The trust uses a diagnostic tool that identifies ways to install energy-saving technologies like LED lighting and room thermostats with occupancy sensors that offer a good return on investment, he said. Trust makes the investment and it depends on hotel operators to use them efficiently. To this end, the company prefers to work with brands that have their own sustainability programs, said Chang.

The trust also hopes to increase the share of renewable energies in energy consumption by 30 percent over the next five years, primarily through external solar contracts.

"Even if we covered our portfolio with solar, we would probably only achieve 10 percent of our energy consumption," said Chang. "There is limited space to attach panels."

The Armstrong building on Interstate 95 near New Haven Harbor has an eye-catching brutalist design that features a two-story open gap between the office block above and the laboratory room on the ground floor. The beige exterior of the building is made of precast concrete and is lined with deep windows.

Locals also know it as the Pirelli Building; The Italian tire manufacturer moved into the room in 1988. Ikea bought the property in 2003 for one of its warehouse-like stores. Much to the conservationists' dismay, the company tore down a tail-like portion of the ground floor to provide more parking space, but left the rest of the building intact.

Over the past few years, Ikea has worked with the city to work out a plan to convert the historic structure into a hotel. Last year, Mr. Becker bought the building and about 2.5 acres for $ 1.2 million.

He recognized the compact shape of the structure as a naturally efficient shell – the ratio of surface to interior space is low, a plus for minimizing heat gain in summer or heat loss in winter.

"It is difficult to make buildings as efficient as possible," said Becker. "But with a highly efficient handling and building system, we can use around 80 percent less energy than a typical hotel building."

Mr. Becker has extensive experience with highly efficient construction, most recently in a modernist office building in Hartford, which he converted into a 27-story apartment tower. This project, called 777 Main Street, is fuel cell and solar powered. The US Green Building Council gave the building the highest efficiency rating, LEED Platinum.

For the hotel project, solar roofs over the parking lot and solar panels on the roof will provide all of the building's electricity, said Becker. Highly efficient air heat pumps are used for heating and cooling.

Other efficiency measures include triple-glazed windows, highly efficient insulation, an all-electric heat pump HVAC system and heat and energy recovery systems. These methods are designed to help the hotel meet Passive House standards, a set of design principles aimed at creating buildings with extremely low energy consumption, Becker said.

"It will probably cost about $ 5 more per square foot, but we're saving about $ 1 per square foot of energy every year," Becker said. “So it really makes a lot of sense. It's an opportunity to create a new paradigm that the hospitality industry can look at, study, and learn from. "

Scheduled to open next fall as part of the Hilton Tapestry Collection, Hotel Marcel has a restaurant, bar, meeting rooms and gallery on the top floor with views of Long Island Sound on one side and the city skyline on the other side.

The project is funded in part by a $ 25 million home loan from Liberty Bank in Middletown, Connecticut. The remainder consists of a mix of developer capital, solar tax credits, historical federal and state tax credits, and a grant for a utility program.

Christopher Arnold, Liberty's senior vice president and manager of commercial real estate, said that while the hospitality industry was facing extreme challenges as a result of the pandemic, the proximity of this project to Yale, its high visibility, and its inclusion on the Hilton network have given it confidence gave that it would be successful. The efficiency measures will help by lowering operating costs and improving cash flow, he said.

The hotel is likely to attract national attention because its level of sustainability "just doesn't exist in the hospitality industry," said W. Chris Green, president and general manager of Chesapeake Hospitality, a Maryland-based hotel operator who will manage the hotel property.

"I think this will be a great test," said Green. "Hotels are long-term real estate deals – it is valuable to save money on electricity, sewage and water."

Mr. Becker hopes to be able to inspire the industry with his all-in approach. Many sustainability strategies, like getting rid of single-use shampoo bottles and encouraging guests to reuse towels, are largely "superficial measures," he said.

"If you really want to change the paradigm, you don't have to use fossil fuels and generate all of your energy on-site," he said. "I think the time will come when what we do becomes the norm."


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