Hospitality firms are increasingly keen to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. However, too often they get lost in the complexity of the subject and limit their engagement to unimaginative solutions such as towel reuse in bathrooms. Much larger challenges loom in the physical infrastructure of the hotel itself. In this short paper we outline some important sustainability challenges for hotels from a building perspective.

It’s all about energy

When asked about the top three sustainability issues related to commercial buildings, most experts will tell you: energy, energy, and energy … This view is supported by many sustainable rating and certification systems. For instance, the popular U.S. standard LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gives a very prominent place to energy issues. But what exactly are the challenges to be taken into account when speaking about sustainability in hospitality? When the focus is on optimizing energy issues in hotels, three elements need to be considered: energy production, energy conservation and energy management/use.

Sustainable energy production includes a focus on sources of sustainable energy such as solar panels, heat pumps, etc. Conversely, energy conservation involves predominantly issues related to building insulation, which helps reduce the need for heating in cold seasons and the need for cooling in hot seasons. Last but not least, sustainable energy management encompasses monitoring systems that allow for the tracking of energy consumption as well as control systems that allow for the energy use to be adapted to specifc requirements (e.g. easy-to-use room thermostats which guests can use to modify the room temperature).

Combining these three approaches in the most effective way is primordial for hotels seeking to embark on a sustainability journey. Research consistently points out that hotels are among the highest users of energy and water per surface unit (square meters or feet). In part this may be due to the fact that guests use energy in a hotel room with less caution than in their home environment (e.g. keeping windows open while simultaneously heating the room). Another reason may be that energy conservation measures in hotels always need to be balanced against possible negative efects on guest satisfaction.

The greenest building is the one that is already built

When making fundamental decisions about sustainability in construction, the situation of a new construction vs. the renovation of an existing structure each pose unique challenges and opportunities. When renovating an existing property, the objective is to turn “old into new”. Many choices that could be desirable from a
sustainability perspective may be difficult or impossible to implement due to the physical constraints of the existing structure. Examples range from the difficulties of retroffitting under-floor heating or improved ventilation systems to insuficient storage space that may be required for a heating system using wood pellets.

On top of that, when a property is listed as historic monument or cultural heritage site, the corresponding limitations on building transformation may make certain sustainable choices either impossible or multiply their cost. For example, windows in historical buildings must meet with somehow difficult to reconcile goals. On the
one hand, the historical design (e.g. involving traditional craftsmanship), specific materials (e.g. exotic woods
for the frame or old glazing that no longer exists) and components (e.g. ironmongery) have to be respected. On the other hand, targets with regard to energy performance need to be met. The result is an increase in the price tag compared to standard modern windows that can range from 50% to over 100%.

As famed architect Carl Elefante pointed out, “the greenest building is one that is already built”. Hidden behind this statement is the fact existing buildings represent “embodied energy”, i.e. all the energy that went into manufacturing of raw materials, transport, construction and equipment of the structure. Demolishing an
existing structure and engaging in new construction destroys this embodied energy and may take decades to recuperate. As a result, even imperfect preservation and retroffitting may often turn out to be the more sustainable option, especially when the focus is on near-term and mid-term carbon emissions which are crucial in the current climate debate. In addition, environmental regulations in many countries imply that demolition of an existing building becomes a complex project involving substantial costs. This may be a good example of a situation where sustainability arguments and economic incentives are actually aligned.

Reconversion success cases

Several successful reconversion projects have made hospitality industry headlines. The renovation and reconversion of the Michaelsberg Abbey in Siegburg, Germany, into a state-of-the-art hotel and conference
center managed to transform the contemplative nature of the ancient monks’ cells into an asset for guests seeking a quiet and contemplative space. Constraints of the existing structure were bypassed by adding a modern annex to the traditional building which houses meeting spaces and restaurants. The Dexamenes Seaside Hotel in Dourouta, Greece, used the abandoned structure of an old winery as a starting point. The visible decay on the existing metal and concrete structures was not “renovated away” but left in place as an architectural counterpoint to the ultramodern furniture. In a similar vein, an early 20 century bank building in Budapest, Hungary, with spectacular ceramic-clad elements has been renovated into the Párisi Udvar Hotel belonging to the Hyatt collection.

When owners opt for a new construction, constraints are reduced and many opportunities for sustainable choices open up. First and foremost is, of course, the choice of sustainable building materials for the structure.
However, at least as important may be the idea of flexibility and modularity in floor plans. In the current pandemic crisis, many hotels tried to earn additional revenues by converting rooms into commercial surface or office space. The more the idea of modularity is incorporated at the design stage of a new building, the easier it will be to reconvert space in the most sustainable way. And, last but not least, there is nowadays an amazing choice of sustainable interior decoration materials, fixtures and furniture, which can reduce the footprint of the new hotel from the outset.