We're Still Light Years Away

Many of the latest and greatest hotel, resort and office properties claim to be sustainable developments – but are they?  A recent experience tells me that while recognition of the “need to be green” is all good, we have a long way to go before even the top level of architects and developers really understand how to design and build a sustainable property.

Of course, there are exceptions, and LEED guidelines assure us that a building is truly green.  However, developers have a strong sense that the incremental costs required to meet LEED Silver status, much less Gold or Platinum, are prohibitive. 

Here’s a real-world example.  Recently, a friend’s 50th birthday in L.A. gave us the opportunity to try out a brand new resort hotel, Terranea, located on the Palos Verdes peninsula at the old Marineland of the Pacific site.  This magnificent resort is built on over 100 prime acres of priceless land overlooking the Pacific Ocean.   The developer, Destination Resorts, purports to be fully sustainable and offers a “Destination Earth” section on its Web site which details the various energy saving practices employed by the company at the dozens of resorts it owns throughout America.

So, we check in, and while walking down the hallways, we notice it is about 60 degrees.  Why?  Nobody knows.  We asked the alert and attentive, young staff and they looked at us as if we had multiple heads.  It was a full 10-15 degrees cooler in the hallways – and these circuitous corridors are hundreds of yards long – than the rooms, which were plenty comfortable in the mid 70s even without the A/C engaged.  Yet the system was just blasting ice cold air in the halls, 24-7, for no apparent reason.

Even in good hotels, a low hot water supply is sometimes a problem.  Not at Terranea.  Turn on the shower, there is no “H” and “C”, just “H” and “S” … for scalding.   Again, think of the extra power needed to drive the hot water heater all day and night while holding the temperature at boiling point.  Unnecessary and what if you did want a cold shower?

Also, if you find yourself with an empty soda can or already-read newspaper, there is no place to dispose of it, at least, no place where you know it will end up in the recycling bin.  (Admittedly a recycling addict, my husband totes cans, bottles and reading material back home with us in his luggage, to dispose of them in our big blue bin that we know gets properly recycled.) 

Meanwhile, Destination Resorts boasts of sustainable practices on its Web site, including use of CFL light bulbs; re-using sheets and towels; sensor toilets; low flow showerheads, and the like.  We don’t mean to call out Destination Resorts, so much as point out that if the fourth largest resort company in America still has glaring non-green issues, just think about the other new construction that is still a very long way from being truly green. 

I had another disappointing experience at the Marriott in Oakland, Calif., at the Berkeley Meeting of the Minds Conference in 2007.   This conference was devoted to building city infrastructure systems green, and Steven Chu was the keynote speaker.   Although the conference content was top notch, I found it ironic that no one seemed to care that the rooms lacked recycling bins; plastic water bottles were frequently used on-site; and an extraordinary amount of food waste was not being composted, so far as I could tell.    Hotels’ and resorts’ eco-initiatives – especially at green conferences – should be a priority.  In fact, I applaud the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, Calif., for its efforts in making the Fortune Brainstorm Green Conference as sustainable as possible.  I never saw a plastic water bottle in sight the whole week I attended; they served organic meals; and recycling bins were readily available.    On top of that, carbon offsets were purchased to reduce the travel footprint for the conference. 

Local legislation is helping matters by virtually forcing developers to build green.  As environmentalists, we are constantly hearing about new buildings and developments that are truly striving to go green.  However, Terranea is a wake-up call for us to remember that when it comes to truly living green and thinking about the environment, even the good guys in some cases have a long way to go before really making the grade.

We’d love to hear your experiences with public buildings that are green, but not really.  Post your comments, thanks!