Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Going Deep for Green Development

Dateline: 1:59 pm October 22, 2008 Filed under:

“It isn’t sustainable to go broke,” Dennis Quaintance explained to me during my tour of the Proximity Hotel, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Mr. Quaintance is the developer of the Proximity, the first hotel to be certified LEED Platinum by the USGBC. He was referring to careful balance between wanting to do the right thing and doing so in a manner that makes sense to the bottom line. Or as he put it, “you need to be idealistic and practical and not sell your soul to either.”

The Proximity is a great place. Highlights include rooftop solar panels for hot water generation, elevators that generate their own power through braking, reduced flow faucets, toilets and showers, and a restaurant patio that overlooks a beautifully restored streambed. It was a pleasure to wake up in the morning and shower using water heated by the sun the previous day.

Repeatedly on the tour he explained how the development team “went deep,” carefully researching various green elements to determine which, if any, were the best. He claims that he wasn’t chasing LEED points, and encourages us all to understand the difference between true conservation and slick marketing. “Beware greenwashing,” he says.

Indeed they went deep. One example is the decision on what, if any, low flush toilets, to use. Mr. Quaintance selected four different low-flush toilet models, and had them installed in his home. He was unimpressed with all, as they often required a second flush, something that just didn’t make sense, epsecially in a four-star hotel. So he called the CEO of Kohler in Wisconsin directly, and was guided to the toilet now in use at the Proximity, a low-flush model that stores additional water in the tank, which creates extra water pressure for each flush.

Well, enough toilet talk.

In some cases, they went with a conventional material. The limestone flooring in the lobby, for example, cost $7 per square foot. They considered a recycled flooring product, but it cost $18 per square foot and they couldn’t justify the cost. Nor could they find enough evidence that this untested product would last as long as the proven limestone. The cost/benefit analysis. What is sustainable, anyway?

He saved on the lobby flooring, but did he spend extra on any other green features? It is all a matter of perspective. He spent an extra $60,000 on a high efficiency chiller for the air conditioning system. So in one sense, he did spend more. He points out, however, that had it not been for integrated design, which reduces air conditioning costs by 35% (11% of total energy needs), he would have needed a larger chiller. In effect, he figures it is a wash, but he will benefit in the long run from the efficiency of the more expensive chiller.

Indeed, the short term cost versus long term savings is a key to the sustainability equation, something about which Mr. Quaintance is well aware. He points out that a developer looking to build a project and then flip it once it reached stabilized occupancy is far less likely to spend extra on green features, even if they create long term savings in operations. He has a very good point. This is one reason why institutional and build-to-suit projects so heavily populate the list of LEED buildings; the owners plan to hold them long enough to see a return on the higher up front costs. Although substantial progress is being made, this remains one of the largest obstacles to green development, particulary as it pertains to the lending industry and real estate as a commodity, and it will be an bigger issue for LEED-ND.

The Proximity uses 41% less energy than ASHRAE 90.1 standards, consumes 33% less water than normal hotels in its class, the elevators generate 30% of their power needs through braking, and they went big on local materials. Even part of my dinner on the lovely Print Works Bistro patio was purchased at the local Greensboro farmer’s market.

The developer went deep, but unless you spot the solar panels, on the roof, you would never know the Proximity is a green hotel. But come early November, when they receive their plaque from USGBC, everyone will know they are the developers of the first LEED Platinum hotel.

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