Inside the Sustainable Hotel Everyone’s Talking About

It’s been hailed as the nation’s first net-zero hotel—but what does that mean on the ground?

Hotel_Marcel_Publicist_Seamus_Payne

The Hotel Marcel breathes new life into a disused office space.

Photos by Seamus Payne

A disused office building by a busy highway interchange and an IKEA warehouse isn’t the likeliest place to encounter innovative hotel design in New Haven, Connecticut, let alone the rest of the United States. But to Bruce Becker, the president of Becker + Becker, a Northeast property developer whose portfolio prioritizes sustainable design, the brutalistic building was the perfect place for a climate-conscious architecture experiment.

Now, the building has recently reopened after decades of underuse as the Hotel Marcel, a 165-room retrofitted property that has been touted as the first net-zero hotel in the country.

But while the hotel is currently awaiting certification from the two leading efficiency organizations—the U.S. Green Building Council and the Passive House Institute—what does the unofficial designation of “net-zero” actually mean? To those in the environmental world, buildings labeled as net-zero aim to use no more energy than they can generate, ideally through renewable electricity and energy efficiency measures.

During a recent visit to the renovated property earlier this summer, I saw evidence of the hotel’s energy efforts as soon as I reached its front entrance—in the form of three solar canopies. The canopies serve double duty, blocking the sun from turning cars into portable lava pits during the hottest summer months while absorbing that solar energy to create the electricity that powers the hotel year round. They provide the property with about two-thirds of its power needs, but a planned expansion across the parking lot will eventually supply over 80 percent of the power.

“The most important thing you can do if you want to build a building that’s built to be sustainable is to make it all electric,” said Becker, leaning back into a rosy coral couch in the Hotel Marcel’s lobby, adding that he believes the grid will be completely powered by renewable energy in the coming years. “I think the only way to really know if you’re not having a carbon impact is to make the energy yourself on site, so that’s what has guided us, and I think it does make economic sense, too, by lowering ongoing operational costs, earning credits from the connected utilities, and making the property eligible for different subsidies.”

More solar panels line the hotel’s roof, where Becker said it was too breezy for a roof deck; the roof panels provide the remaining third of the property’s power needs. Despite the roof’s naturally quite blustery conditions, Becker and his team didn’t opt for small wind turbines because the money spent on such an installation went “three times as far investing in solar panels.”

Thanks to Connecticut’s energy policies, Hotel Marcel can sell any excess power to the local utility—and a room of battery racks tucked away on a guest floor stores extra electricity for moments when more juice is needed. Triple-glazed windows help further reduce energy demand (and noise concerns) by providing significantly more insulation than single-glazed types.

Reducing energy needs from laundry, food, and elevators

Inside the hotel—first created over half a century ago by acclaimed architect Marcel Breuer, whose works include one of the Whitney Museum of American Art buildings in New York City and the Atlanta Central Library—further choices reduce the property’s energy needs. That extends to choosing electric models instead of traditionally gas-powered appliances, like clothes dryers and kitchen equipment.

“It costs about the same amount of money to buy an electric [clothes dryer],” said Becker. “And as long as we’re producing enough electricity, it’s basically having a free dryer as opposed to being hooked up to natural gas.” To mitigate the electricity demand of the fryer, the kitchen appliance using the most energy, the hotel is developing a lower-carbon menu that reflects fewer fried foods and meals that require warmers. The all-electric kitchen plans to use local ingredients when possible to minimize transportation miles.

Starting in August, two different types of electric vehicle chargers will be available for guests who drive in: 12 Tesla Superchargers and 5 level-2 dual chargers. An electric shuttle will take guests to the New Haven Union Station and some of the city’s largest attractions, like the Yale University campus. That in turn would help cut down on transportation emissions created by tourists driving around New Haven’s popular neighborhoods.

Even the elevators help contribute to the net-zero goal, using regenerative braking technology akin to the technology in hybrid vehicles that essentially directs the excess energy generated during ascent and descent and pushes it into the building’s power system, creating electricity as the elevator descends. (In the past two decades since the technology hit the market, its cost of implementation has dramatically declined, making it a popular and “effective method for improving a building’s overall energy efficiency,” according to Amy Blankenbiller, executive director of the National Elevator Industry, Inc.)

To help make the project financially feasible, Becker stuck with specs set by federal and state historical preservation officials to maintain the character of the hotel’s 1950s-era brutalist facade. Adhering to the guidelines helped ensure eligibility for financial preservation incentives, as well as energy savings–related subsidies.

“Retrofitting an existing building into a hotel is such a logical thing to do, as there are very few buildings that can’t be turned net-zero,” he said. “Energy systems are pretty easy to change out; you can now just replace your boiler with a heat pump that is electric and not much else and quickly move from a fossil fuel–based system to an electric one.”

However, he notes, basic rectangular buildings are better for net-zero retrofitting than buildings “that have a lot of ins and outs, a lot of surface area that is harder to make efficient.”

Hitting a moving target

Even after the inclusion of a variety of modifications and installations, maintaining a net-zero status will be continual work. The status is “dynamic,” more of a floating target than a one-and-done achievement, Becker said. The energy needs of the property will shift over time based on guests’ behavior and occupancy. While occupants of buildings like offices and residential apartment towers are predictable in their energy habits, a hotel attracts people for innumerable reasons that lead to different energy use patterns, or energy profiles.

Net-zero “is something that you can really only define for a certain time period,” said Becker. “Then you have to measure it.”

“The buildings that are a little bit less predictable are ones [like hotels] where we don’t know exactly how they’re going to be used,” said Karen Walkerman, a self-employed energy efficiency consultant. She paints a picture for properties like the Hotel Marcel using computer models to determine energy usage assuming different factors, such as when people take the hottest showers, when they are walking around the most, even when the linen dryers are most often used. “You hope this hotel will be super popular, it’ll be occupied all the time, but we don’t really know going into” a grand opening.

But why not just assume the largest amount of power demand and either sell off or store the rest of the power? “You can’t keep producing excess energy and store it indefinitely because having enough batteries to store that amount of power for one location would be too expensive,” said Walkerman. “As far as selling any excess electricity, this would be a wonderful solution, except that the utility companies usually pay far less for electricity on the open market than they charge individuals for it.”

Whether weather patterns follow earlier predictions also weighs on the accuracy of initial energy models, Walkerman said, although she noted that her past projects with Becker, including a former bank building’s conversion into an apartment tower, generally “had really good alignment between the energy model and the actual energy use.”

So to ensure the Hotel Marcel actually remains on track to maintain its net-zero status, she will reconfigure her models based on data, like utility bills and occupancy rates, at 6 and 12 months after opening. If the hotel’s energy consumption is higher than expected, Becker noted that he would likely look into adding more solar canopies if necessary.

Hotel_Marcel_Interior_PR_Seamus_Payne

Creating sustainable spaces doesn’t mean sacrificing comfort or style.

Photo by Seamus Payne

Some hotels do seem to be reducing their energy consumption somewhat, according to a 2021 sustainability study conducted by the Cornell University Center for Hospitality Research. The report’s authors found that between 2018 and 2019, roughly 7,200 full- and limited-service U.S. hotels (that provided complete information) saw their total energy usage on a per-square-foot basis fall by 2.7 percent.

But given the colossal impact the climate crisis will have on the livability of cities, coastal towns, islands, and ecosystems that the hotel industry relies on to attract guests, why aren’t more hotels working to reduce the amount of energy their properties use?

Looking beyond price when building

Industry observers give multiple reasons, including how hotels are typically managed and financed.

“A major barrier in my view is the large-chain hotel franchise model,” noted Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, an international nonprofit that sets criteria for sustainable travel, in an email. “Most hotel chains do not own any properties, and sustainability doesn’t appear in a big way in the franchise licensing agreements between the chains and the owners.”

He added, “As such, it’s mostly up to the largely invisible owners to step forward and make it happen.” Those include the owners of small hotel chains, because “smaller portfolios tend to either be owned by the brand or have a small cluster of owners that agree better than do hundreds of separate owners of properties branded by giant” hotel chains.” Six Senses, Centara Hotels, and Mandarin-Oriental hotels are among those he thinks are putting in the work.

And because hotel investors often want relatively short-term payouts in return for their financing, renewable energy or efficiency projects that save money in the long-term might not be incorporated in order to meet financial goals sooner.

“I think if you’re willing to take a longer view than just ‘what’s the cheapest building I can build,’ and you look at . . . what additional money you can recoup just looking at three to five years, then almost every one of these initiatives pays for itself,” said Becker, who owns the hotel, which is under the Hilton Tapestry Collection.

Investor desires aren’t the only potential holdback. “There is a little motivation to reduce energy consumption for a hotel, but not enough,” explained Berthold Kaufmann, a senior research scientist at the Passive House Institute. Energy costs are still too low to incentivize “good energy efficiency measures,” he added, even if in the long-run operational costs are lower than with cheaper, more-energy-intensive technologies.

Another challenge in the minds of some hospitality industry observers is ensuring that guests don’t perceive efficiency measures as signs of a diminished experience. Becker stressed that guests have complete control over their window shades, room thermostats, and lighting, so they don’t have to lose comfort in the spirit of sustainability.

A hotel stay “has to be a seamless experience” regardless of its sustainability bona fides, said Tim Soley, a property developer in Portland, Maine, who shares Becker’s passion for climate-conscious design. “Because the vast majority of the customers aren’t really thinking, ‘I care about where my power is coming from,’ they just care about, ‘can you turn the lights on’ and ‘is the water hot when you turn the shower on.’”

While some may not yet think about the environmental impact of their tourism, a good number of travelers claim they are. For example, a recent analysis by Booking.com identified that 61 percent of global travelers reported that the pandemic made them want their future travel to be more sustainable, while nearly half said there weren’t enough sustainable options. The research was released last year after surveyors collected responses from roughly 29,000 travelers in 30 countries and territories.

Mike Smith, a recent guest at the Hotel Marcel who was traveling from his Sarasota, Florida, home to see his daughter graduate from Yale University, said he agrees with that line of sustainable thinking. Smith said that he and his family try to be sustainable in their “everyday lives to be very efficient in terms of how [they’re] traveling and miles driven” and intend to purchase an electric vehicle soon.

For Smith, the Hotel Marcel and its net-zero status was “very much” influential in his booking decision.

Bridget Reed Morawski is a freelance reporter focused on energy, environment, conservation, and food issues. She compiles and writes a daily newsletter on energy and climate updates in the U.S. Northeast for Energy News Network. Since going freelance, she has written features and daily news articles for publications including Popular Science, Architectural Digest, Modern Farmer, the Washington Post, Mainebiz, and numerous local publications in Washington, D.C.
More From AFAR