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The Butterfly Effect

Author: Kathleen Dreessen
March, 2007 Issue

Napa Valley’s Gaia Hotel is changing the way we perceive “green” construction.

butterfly effect (physics) In a chaotic system, the ability of miniscule changes in initial conditions (such as the flap of a butterfly’s wings) to have far-reaching, large-scale effects on the development of the system (such as the course of weather a continent away).

—McGraw-Hill Science and Technology Dictionary

While the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in the chaos theory of physics is generally beyond the realm of this business magazine, one hotelier’s vision may change the way we view lodging. Wen-I Chang is the developer and owner of the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa (Gaia is Greek for Mother Earth) in Napa County’s American Canyon. It’s destined to be the first West Coast hotel to receive a rating from the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Developers of the project are hoping for a gold rating.

LEED is a voluntary system that rates builders in five areas: land use, transportation and site issues; water use; energy use, air quality and atmosphere issues; materials and resource use; and indoor air and environmental quality. Projects are certified depending on the number of LEED credits they achieve. The United States Green Building Council contends that LEED-certified buildings have lower operating costs, healthier and more productive occupants and conserve natural resources.

“Any LEED project certification has four levels: certified, silver, gold and platinum,” says Lynn N. Simon, president of Simon & Associates, a San Francisco-based consulting company that helps projects incorporate and integrate green and sustainable building strategies. “This will be our firm’s first hotel to be certified. We’re also working on Mr. Chang’s green hotel project in Anderson, California.”

Simon acknowledges that every green project is different.

“Two features at [the Gaia] that stand out are its storm water reclamation and water efficiency strategies.”

It’s interesting that Simon mentions water conservation, since the roots of the Gaia can be traced back to a single glass of H2O.

The first flutter

“About 10 years ago, Gaia’s owner Wen-I Chang was having a meal at a restaurant in Santa Cruz,” says Gaia Sales Director Bobbie Freeman, who’s been with the hotel since its soft opening in November 2006. “He wasn’t served water and when he inquired, he was told that Santa Cruz was conserving water and the restaurant wasn’t giving it to diners unless they asked. He found this intriguing.”

Chang has a history in hotel building, having developed hotels under the Holiday Inn and Hilton Hotel brands. But once he started thinking about instilling public awareness about ecology into the design and operations of green hotels, he became committed to the concept.

Chang’s company, Altman Hospitality, tried to develop a green hotel on a nine-acre site in Half Moon Bay in 1999. After two years and reportedly $600,000 in fees and studies, local residents weren’t convinced of his motives. Chang looked toward the Napa Valley and found a four-acre parcel.

“[In Napa Valley] people advocate the union with nature,” says Chang in a general statement. “That idea fit the practice and idea of one minimalist architect, Mickey Muenning. He had designed my Half Moon Bay hotel project with a waving glass roofline to represent Debussy’s “La Mer” and also a water lily garden by Monet…this was the first time in my development life I’d been in contact with an architect who took sustainability seriously while enhancing architectural beauty. Mickey’s sense of beauty and conservation has made a big impact on my future thinking when it comes to preparing a hotel development.”

Chang wanted to launch innovative hotel systems that would revolutionize current industry practices. The author of the books Hotel Investment and Development and Global Brain Awaken, among others, Chang knew he could build an ecological and environmentally friendly hotel if he had city government and local residents on his side.

In 2003, the American Canyon City Council agreed to give the green hotel up to $1 million in transient occupancy tax (TOT) rebates over the first four years of operation, once it’s been certified by LEED. The city’s TOT rate is 10 percent.

Construction on the 88,500-square-foot hotel began in January 2005. It has 4,200 square feet of event space, including a 3,000-square-foot ballroom, a spa, fitness center, swimming pool and restaurant.

The 133-room hotel boasts many green features including new growth wood, extensive use of solar tubes to bring in natural light, and solar power along with water and energy conservation measures. A unique heating/cooling system manufactured by Mitsubishi redistributes warm air to cool spaces and vice versa. Carpets are a natural fiber and the type of paint used throughout the hotel is low emission, which doesn’t off-gas (a process in which emissions are released from a substance or material). Even the padding under the carpet is made of recycled materials.

Rooms in the hotel offer the usual luxury amenities such as a flat-screen television with cable access, wireless high-speed Internet access, microwave, refrigerator and pillow-top mattresses. In the spirit of eco-operations, the rooms have additional green features: soap, shampoo and lotion dispensers eliminate the waste of travel-sized bottles, and the pens are biodegradable. All paper products are made of recycled materials and cleaning methods are ecologically based.

Rates started at $129 per night, with the expectation that they would rise to $169 by summer.

Guests are reminded about recycling and being environmentally friendly through notes in their rooms and by an interactive touch screen kiosk in the lobby, which informs them of the hotel’s energy use.

“The monitors show guests how much energy is consumed by a traditional hotel and how much the Gaia consumes,” says Freeman. “They also show our water use and carbon dioxide emissions. Once the solar panels are installed, the monitors will indicate how much energy we produce.”

Flying high meets reality

The term “environmentally friendly” doesn’t translate to “inexpensive.” Freeman estimates the cost to build the same sized traditional hotel would be $9 million. Green construction design and techniques (along with the use of sustainable materials) shot the cost for the Gaia to around $20 million.

The original concept for the curving roofline proposed by Muenning for the Half Moon Bay project was necessarily altered after Chang learned it would add an additional $3 million to the project.

“Our challenge was to create a beautiful building that fit the budget and met the rigorous LEED criteria for a green building,” says Todd Jersey, principal of Todd Jersey Architecture in Berkeley, who completed the final plans for the Gaia. “The client is a hotel developer and it’s a competitive commercial product. I’m pleased with the results. The compromise for the original waves in the roofline was a curving trellis above the windows. That’s lovely and fits the budget. It’s got a nice visual impact for a low dollar amount and it’s also functional as a shade from the sun.”

Other exterior touches include recycled corrugated metal outside the lobby and a colorful mural that wraps around the front of the building. The mural was painted by New York artist Yuan Lee and depicts a wetland scene through each of the seasons in the Napa Valley. From an aerial view, the lobby resembles a butterfly.

“That was architect Mickey Muenning’s concept,” explains Jersey. “His original design is a little different from what you see now, but his was the original design. We worked together on the entire arched canopy design [above the entrance].”

Jersey says even though his firm specializes in sustainable design principles and strategies, they still learned something on the project. “It was the first project where we used SolaTubes [tubular skylights] generously and that was a big success. The hotel corridors are really bright with full spectrum daylight.”

Sam Kingore, of Todd Jersey Architecture, agrees. “The challenge and opportunity for the project rested in the fact that it wasn’t a chain hotel project but an independent developer who had a vision for the project and who tenaciously stuck to it,” says Kingore, architectural project manager for the Gaia Hotel. “Every project is unique. Here, we learned some things about site drainage, because the site doesn’t percolate well because it sits on a lot of adobe clay. We mitigated the runoff of water with swales.” [A swale is a ditch in the landscape contour that holds water and lets it gradually infiltrate the soil.]

Another challenge is that most LEED standards are geared toward commercial or office buildings, not hotels.

“For example, LEED said we needed to provide daylight, but that’s a particular challenge in a guest room,” says Kingore. “We wanted to put solar tubes in the rooms, but the tubes would have had to come with a blade in them to shut the light off. You can put a skylight in a room, but a lot of people want their room dark. Our best option was to install the tubes in the hallways that would typically have a light on 24 hours a day.”

Swans, koi and butterflies

Central to the hotel design is a lagoon that meanders through the center of the property. It’s stocked with large goldfish and a pair of swans; ducks will be introduced this spring.

Geoff Hall and Kamala Bennett, owners of Sentient Landscape Inc. in Sebastopol, designed the final configuration of the lagoon and the hotel’s landscaping.

“Our company is founded on an ecologically and environmentally friendly approach and that’s all we do,” says Hall, who began the business with wife Bennett in 1999. “We focus on saving water and filtering storm water and absorbing and holding onto as much rainwater as possible. We use drought-tolerant, functional and edible plants.”

Hall says the Gaia Hotel, like most commercial landscapes, posed challenges. “It’s not a typical part of the contracting model,” says Hall. “In most commercial landscaping, people typically distribute a pre-emergent herbicide—they basically poison the whole place to sterilize it and start over. Our alternative is called ‘sheet mulching,’ which doesn’t require any herbicide. We cover the existing weeds, weed seeds and landscaping with paper with mulch on top of it.

“The lagoon receives almost all the roof water from the lodge, retaining and filtering storm water. The lagoon also provides a passive cooling effect, and the waterfall in the center courtyard gives background noise that filters out the highway. The swans protect the fish and won’t let any other big birds in there. They chase out heron and geese, plus they eat pond algae. Ducks are wonderful gardeners; they don’t eat plants but they do eat snails and pill bugs and leave their manure.”

There’s a heavy focus on native plants and plants that attract beneficial insects (including butterflies).

Changing the marketing atmosphere

“This is a first for everybody,” says John Manderfeld, president of Marin Management, managers of the Gaia Hotel. “There are a number of hotel operators who try to do small things from an environmental point of view after a hotel has been built, such as recycling. This is different in that the developer has built it in an environmentally friendly way.”

Marin Management handles sales and marketing efforts for more than 30 hotels and manages a roster of more than 25. “We operate the hotel in many environmentally friendly ways, including using only recycled paper and soy ink for printed materials, chemical selections in laundry operations and so forth. But this unique hotel also must be uniquely marketed,” says Manderfeld. “We believe the hotel will have great appeal to environmentalists and nature enthusiasts and art, educational and government groups. Architecturally or developmentally oriented organizations will have a lot of interest in it because they want to see how these ideas can actually work. State and federal government entities have interest because it’s out of the ordinary. Also it’s in the Napa Valley, so it’s a great destination.”

Menderfeld believes Gaia will attract a broader range of tourists and not simply take business from other area hotels. “Unlike a typical branded hotel, we think this hotel will attract visitors who may not otherwise have been interested in coming to the area. Because of its unique design and environmental characteristics, many individual travelers and groups will come from other states and beyond. Also, because of the design—the pond with swans and giant wall murals—we think artists will love the hotel.

“This is an added value to the community; it isn’t just another hotel splitting the pot. It’s actually going to bring in people to the community. We think we’ll do a lot of regional meetings. Typically if a company or organization holds a western regional meeting, it wouldn’t go out of the area, such as Denver or Phoenix. But it might be more attracted to coming here.”

Menderfeld also thinks getting the information to the public will involve more marketing than sales. “Part of our marketing plan is to advertise in media that appeals to the travelers and groups I’ve described,” he says. “You have to get face-to-face with people to explain what it is. We’re independent, so we don’t have a brand out there for us. We do have to advertise more than a comparably sized hotel. Finding the right audience for the sales effort and finding out who’s really turned on by the concept are the challenges of the first year. I think we’re going to get a lot of referral business, with people saying they had a good experience, learned something and saw something unique. They’ll feel good about the buying decision they made and refer it to other people in their association, government or corporate office.

“The hotel will become a great attraction for high-end tours, an add-on to help sell the tour and a natural stopover for groups heading to the Bay Area, Monterey and even Southern California.”

Uplifting vision

“Wen says we’re educating people one by one,” says Freeman. “The Gaia is his version of cause-and-effect.”

As developer Wen-I Chang says in his book, First Green Hotel: A Journey: “All these [environmentally friendly methods and products] will make the travelers who stay at Gaia Napa Valley not only feel good, but also as one traveler said, ‘Reduce our guilt.’ They will go home with fresh ideas and information to start their inner journey on how to shift the mindset of separateness to the mindset of union with nature and human interconnection. The Spanish word destinaire has a double meaning—promise and journey. I am glad that Gaia Napa Valley has opened as California’s first true green hotel. Innovative ideas still come everyday.” 



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