Gulf State Park hotel taps into disaster funding for sustainable development

The Skanska team behind the Gulf State redevelopment [from left]: Joseph Padgett, project manager; Dane Wooley, preconstruction manager; Megan O'Connell, project manager; and Scott Penton, senior project manager. Photo credit: Skanska USA

Sustainability is a choice, and in some cases it can be an expensive one. The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton hotel in Gulf State Park, Ala., set out to make a statement through the use of sustainable building techniques from start to finish, wrapping the hotel’s construction into a $140 million development to revitalize the region—and in doing so it spared no expense.

The roots of the project can be traced back to April 2010, when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig began to discharge an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of the spill, British oil and gas company BP invested billions of dollars into the revitalization of regions impacted by the disaster. The state of Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources used $140 million of these funds to revamp Alabama’s Gulf State Park, and a portion of this money was allocated to the development of a new resort hotel to aid the local economy, which struggled to recover in the wake of the spill.

Even backed with oil money, the development wasn’t going to be easy. The site chosen for the hotel was occupied by the bones of an abandoned development, shuttered in the wake of 2004’s Hurricane Ivan. Curtis Elswick, SVP and regional director of Skanska USA, a management services company based in New York City and construction project manager for the Lodge at Gulf State Park, said the site had to be cleared before any work could be done.

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“We connected with Volkert, the original designers of the Gulf State Park project, because they knew how to develop in Alabama,” Elswick said. “The [request for proposal] caught our attention due to its highly sustainable goals … so we brought our knowledge of how to develop highly sustainable coastal projects to the table.”

The Richburg, S.C.-based Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety certified the Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel, as the first-ever Fortified Commercial Hurricane structure in the U.S. Photo credit: Skanska USA

One Step at a Time

Construction on the foundation of the project began in February 2016 and was subject to strict environmental restrictions in the spirit of BP’s investment. According to Megan O’Connell, project manager at Skanska, building around the local environment posed a series of challenges. The development was located 200 feet behind a coastal line in a protected habitat for mice, predatory birds and turtles. Because of this, developers had to ensure there were no protected animals or nests in the construction site, and cranes idle for longer than 36 hours were forced to lower their towers—called booms—to prevent birds from nesting inside.

“We had to keep an eye out for protected species on a daily basis,” O’Connell said. “If we found a single mouse, it would stop construction.”

Sustainable elements in the Lodge at Gulf State Park, A Hilton Hotel:

  • The property was located more than 200 feet behind the region’s Coastal Construction Line in order to reduce the overall impact to the coastline
  • Native species of plants were used around the exterior to restore dunes and the natural habitat
  • Rainwater from the hotel’s meeting space is redirected into the region’s wetland and naturally filtered rather than directed into the city’s sewer system
  • A permeable parking lot was laid to allow accumulated rainfall to drain into the ground, preventing flooding and naturally refilling aquifers

Source: Skanska USA

Scott Penton, senior project manager at Skanska, said the company took on the development because of the limited instances of sustainable construction that take place in Alabama. According to Penton, if Skanska could pull off such a project, it might pave the way for future projects in kind.

“I feel like we were really changing the mindset of general contractors and subcontractors as we enforced the owner’s vision of the project,” he said. “We all bought into it, and it was challenging but hopefully it is a trend we can see more of going forward.”

The hotel is located directly on the Gulf of Mexico. Photo credit: Skanska USA

Waste Not

Because the property is also located close to the Gulf of Mexico and has contact with the region’s water table, developers took care to manage waste sustainably. Penton said developers diverted between 40 and 60 tons of waste and drywall that would normally find their way to a landfill, partnering with local peanut farmers to use it as a conditioning and binding tool for their fields.

A project of this scope would present a challenge to any developer, even backed by BP’s funding. But O’Connell said much of the sustainability efforts that went into the Lodge at Gulf State Park hotel could be replicated in other developments, particularly in wet climates.

“Any project that manages storm water can benefit from sustainable construction,” O’Connell said. “You are charged for dumping into the sewer, for example, so if you can reduce the sewer lines that you see, you will reduce charges. But there is more to it than that. Builders and developers and designers should be aware that owners and consumers are growing more aware of what they are buying. They are starting to ask questions, and they want to know for their own health. It's all about building intelligently.”