How to incorporate sustainability into design, operations

The past year was not kind to the hospitality industry, but with vaccines rolling out and plans in place to bring the pandemic under control, there are reasons for optimism. Moreover, after months spent confined in our homes, people will be eager to come together, whether it’s the workplace, the neighborhood bar or on vacations. Our innate drive for connection bodes well for the future of hospitality. 

One demographic we anticipate will take to vacationing in big numbers once it is safer to do so: the millennial generation, ages 25-40. They also want to support companies that align with their values. Case in point: A 2019 Pew Research Center study found more than half of millennials and Generation Z agree that human actions contribute to global warming. As a result, they will look for hotel brands that demonstrate tangible commitments to climate action. 

To be successful in the years ahead, the industry must take heed of this trend and look for ways to incorporate sustainability into design and operations. Doing so will not only benefit the bottom line, but also help contribute to a cleaner and healthier environment. 

A Multifaceted Approach

There are a number of ways to design a more resilient hotel with adjustments in architecture and electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems. Each area offers the ability to thoughtfully incorporate environmental consciousness into a property’s design. 

It can begin as early as site selection. By choosing sites that allow for more north/south room orientation, solar gain is cut in half. Adding south-facing balconies can further reduce heat levels while simultaneously functioning as a guest amenity. Where balconies are not desirable, a deeper-set window can achieve similar results. 

Many properties already use sustainable systems such as condensate capture for irrigation and fountains, lower-flow water fixtures, LED lighting and local control over guestroom mechanical systems. Others such as variable refrigerant volume systems are being explored because they can deliver cooling only when needed, enabled by a mechanical system with compressors that work quietly—a must in every hotel. Layering in these components within an integrated building- and property-management system can help a property lower its overall energy usage 25 to 30 percent or more. 

Rooftop mechanical equipment, which could be air handlers, condensers or cooling towers depending on the system design, is another area worth examining. An efficient approach for guestroom air conditioning can help reduce the equipment footprint and free up space that could be used for a solar array. A second solar array over the parking garage could potentially account for the full energy needs of the building over the course of a year. Because these projects can be undertaken at any point during the life of the building, the property owners can put a plan in place to achieve net-zero energy use without the need to commit to the capital cost on day one.

The Impact of Technology

We know the mobile phone is an indispensable travel accessory. It already allows us to check in before we leave home, but it will become an increasingly vital part of one’s visit as the hotel key, mode of payment and the ability to control the thermostat or even request services such as maintenance or roomservice. 

To that end, we may begin to see the increased use of Wi-Fi to connect all these services together to create a more seamless experience for guests. Power-over-ethernet lighting systems have also come a very long way in recent years. This begins to open up the idea of working with surrounding businesses to supply emergency lighting. We could also find ourselves in a setting where we can start looking at reducing or eliminating emergency generators.

With the heightened focus on climate change, governments, industries and our local communities are all heeding the call to action. The good news for hotel owners is there are multiple options for designing environmentally friendly properties that can help generate cost savings, as well as enhance the guest experience. 

Pete Chalfant is a studio director and hospitality practice leader at Gensler Austin.