Intercontinental Chicago

For a historic building whose initial purpose was to allow members to burn off energy in a high-end athletic club—complete with a running track, boxing ring and 14th-floor swimming pool—it perhaps is fitting that the InterContinental Chicago Hotel has made headlines once again because of energy use. In 2008, the hotel earned an Energy Star rating of 88, putting it within the top 12 percent of energy-efficient buildings nationwide, according to the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Intercontinental Chicago

The rating is the culmination of a multi-year effort by the hotel’s owner, Strategic Hotel Capital Inc., Coronado, Calif., to implement several forward-thinking measures to conserve energy, including new windows with low-E glass, occupancy sensors, and waste-reduction and recycling initiatives. The hotel, which tracked its energy consumption on a daily basis since installing these features, is so far the only hotel in Chicago to earn an Energy Star rating. “With these efforts, there’s a return on investment you can show your owner,” says Steve Karwoski, the hotel’s director of engineering. Karwoski is employed by the Swedesboro, N.J.-based InterContinental Hotel Group, which manages the property on behalf of its owners. “Even when there are higher up-front costs, we show them what this will do for them down the road.”

Intercontinental Chicago


Eighty years ago, the people who built the InterContinental Chicago had a sense they were making history. In the building’s cornerstone, they placed a copper box filled with coins, a newspaper and other items that would capture the period for future generations. The 42-story original building— completed in 1929 and now on the National Register of Historic Places—initially housed the Medinah Athletic Club, but it changed hands and was turned into a hotel after the Great Depression. In the past two decades, the hotel has undergone several renovations that have upgraded the interior and united the historic tower with a 25-foot (7.6-m) tower built in the 1960s. Today, the InterContinental Chicago boasts nearly 800 rooms, which represented a major challenge and a great opportunity for the engineering team. Hotels are major energy consumers with large footprints and nearly constant operations. The EPA estimates that utility costs for hotels nationwide have risen an average of 12 percent each year from 2004 through 2006, translating into an average energy cost of $2,196 per room per year, which Karwowski says is on par with what other commercial buildings are experiencing. Yet those costs also tend to be the most controllable. At the InterContinental Chicago, Karwoski and his predecessors knew that implementing hotel-wide energy savings would pay immediate dividends to the bottom line. One of the most far-reaching initiatives was the hotel’s 2002 installation of occupancy sensors tied to the thermostat system; this automatically lowers the temperature in rooms when they are not in use during winter and raises the temperature in summer.

Intercontinental Chicago

The hotel estimates this system has resulted in a 23 percent energy reduction. “A guest can certainly come in the room and crank up the thermostat,” Karwoski says, “but they do that no matter what. The savings come in when the room is vacant for a day or two and the sensor sets the thermostat back.”

Intercontinental Chicago

In addition, the hotel has installed compact fluorescent light bulbs in all guestrooms and corridors, as well as other fluorescents in back-office and support areas. Low-flow faucets and toilets have reduced water consumption and the energy required to heat the water. In all, the hotel estimates it has saved nearly 48,000 kilowatt hours of energy and more than 81,000 gallons (306585 L) of water as of summer 2008. “The guest rooms are where you can realize the most savings and where your energy is being consumed,” Karwoski says. “There are a lot of things, like your kitchen, that don’t change a whole lot and that form your base energy consumption. So it’s a process of elimination to go through the hotel and see where you can cut back on things, and the guest rooms are at the top of that list. It doesn’t make sense to use all that energy when you have a room sitting empty.”

A noticeable change in the hotel's energy consumption can be seen in the numbers recorded before Energy Star certification (2007) and after (2008).

Note the occupancy rates.
A noticeable change in the hotel's energy consumption can be seen in the numbers recorded before Energy Star certification (2007) and after (2008). Note the occupancy rates.

CUTTING BACK, GOING FORWARD The hotel has made strides in other areas, as well. Hotels consume massive amounts of food and beverage products and generate comparable amounts of waste. As part of its overall green initiative, the InterContinental Chicago’s food-service team has cut back its use of plastic water bottles, serving purified water in pitchers instead and has begun using biodegradable water bottles when necessary. The hotel is developing partnerships to acquire locally and regionally grown food and has a goal to send less than 10 percent of its waste to landfill. More than 265 tons (240 metric tons) of waste were recycled in 2008 alone. In addition, all renovations have incorporated low- and no-VOC paints, as well as sustainably harvested wood. Despite its success so far, the hotel is continuing to seek ways to achieve greater energy efficiency in the future. Karwoski says he is looking into replacing the CFLs with even more efficient LEDs. On one floor, the hotel now is testing “amenity dispensers” for liquid soap rather than relying on the standard small bars of soap, which are more wasteful. Hotel guests are asked to participate by reusing towels and other amenities. Another major driving force, Karwoski says, is Chicago’s Green Hotels Initiative, which challenged the city’s hotels to make sustainable changes to obtain a third-party Washington-based Green Seal certification. The InterContinental is one of five hotels in the city to receive this designation, and Chicago now leads the nation in the number of Green Seal-certified hotels. (To learn more about Chicago’s Green Seal-certified hotels, see “happenings,” page 17.) Despite its many green successes, Karwoski has much more planned. “We’re now into version two of our green renovation,” Karwoski says. “We’re always working to achieve greater efficiency.”

KIM A. O’CONNELL writes about architecture and sustainability from Arlington, Va.


• Low-flow aerators / Spring-Flo by Neoperl, Waterbury, Conn.,

• Toilet-tank water savers / Toilet Tummy by AM Conservation Group Inc., Charleston, S.C.,

• Occupancy-sensor thermostats / InnCom, Niantic, Conn.,

• Compact fluorescent bulbs / GE, Fairfield, Conn.,

• Toilet flush valves / Ecos Flushometer by Sloan Valve Co., Franklin Park, Ill.,

• Solar-powered public restroom faucets / Sloan Valve

• Tissue products / Kimberly-Clark, Dallas,

• Green-cleaning chemicals / Ecolab, St. Paul, Minn.,, and Onyx Distribution, Chicago,

• Green guest amenities / Damana from Ty Amenities, Miami,

• Virgin-material coasters and stancaps / Sonoco, Hartsville, S.C.,