Pedro Szekely/Flickr

The sea of resorts, shopping centers, and convention halls located just outside Las Vegas’ city limits may be notorious for its excess, but some of The Strip’s biggest developers are now looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact. The result is infusing a new kind of green—from LED lamps to geothermal heat pumps—into a region with limited natural resources.

“We’re lucky because we are in a very small community,” says Cindy Ortega, chief sustainability officer at MGM International, whose Vegas portfolio includes six LEED Gold properties. “We’re able to take major stakeholders such as banks, utilities, resort companies, and municipalities, and work together on small platforms to advance sustainability.”

MGM is one of a growing group of developers who are taking their green ethos beyond prompting guests to reuse their towels to include larger in-suite and whole-building features that reduce resource use. MGM’s program, Green Advantage, combines energy and water conservation, waste management, and employee engagement. The Las Vegas Sands Corp., whose portfolio includes the Venetian and Palazzo resorts and a convention center in Las Vegas, has a four-pronged platform, Eco 360, that addresses building systems, its meeting programs, and recycling. In 2007, Caesars Entertainment launched its Code Green platform with the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 10 percent through 2013. The company met that mark in early 2013 with an 11.7 percent reduction while growing its U.S. footprint by 18 percent for the same period to total more than 50 million square feet of retail, convention, and guest-room space. 

“We are very intense, we are 24/7, and we have a lot of space,” says Eric Dominguez, corporate director of engineering, utilities, and environmental affairs at Caesars. “We have a small city under a roof and [as a result] need to approach sustainability a little bit differently than … [a property] that caters to business travelers.”

That’s because when it comes to resource consumption, what happens in Vegas doesn’t really stay there. An oft-cited 2008 report from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego helped to push water conservation efforts to the forefront in this region with the forecast that Lake Mead, a primary source of water for the southwestern U.S. that feeds the Colorado River, could dry up as early as 2021. NPR reported earlier this year that The Strip accounts for only 6 percent of the city’s water consumption. Still, the population of Clark County, which houses Las Vegas and Lake Mead, has skyrocketed—growing 45 percent from 1.4 million in 2000 to more than 2 million in July 2012, according to Census Bureau figures—making the need to conserve water more urgent.

And it’s being met by stakeholders from homeowners who are paid to remove the grass from their yards to resort developers that must also cut back without giving luxury short shrift.

One area in which developers are making inroads is their guest suites. The Sands Corp. has fitted its suites with features such as architectural LED lighting, low-flow fixtures, and low-VOC paints, coatings, and carpets, as well as occupancy sensors that sync with the thermostat to regulate the in-room temperature. Additionally, a master switch located near the door to the hallway allows guests to turn off all of a room’s lights at once. Caesar’s is also using occupancy sensors to help regulate the temperature of its guest suites. The company installed nearly 16,000 1.8 gpm showerheads in its properties during the last two years, and is in the process of swapping its CFL and halogen lamps for LEDs.

The goal, says Katarina Tesarova, the Sands Corp.’s director of global sustainability, is to make sustainability transparent to guests. “Lighting is a great example,” she says. “The best LED light is the light that no one notices is an LED, and that’s the way we look at [other] new technologies. They should not impact the way our guests see the property.”

MGM is upselling sustainability in its suites with add-ons that it says promote wellness. Among them: lighting to improve alertness, air purifiers, and a Vitamin-C-infused shower. While the Stay Well rooms, certified by Delos’ Well Building Standard, have been met with some skepticism, Ortega says the spaces serve as a testing ground for new features, eco-friendly and otherwise. “Companies have to try new research and development [strategies],” she says. “What they learn from that experience is to take away the best things and put them in their other offerings.”

Developers are making more pronounced gains through the implementation of property-wide sustainable systems. A solar-thermal system on the roof of the Sands Corp.’s convention center provides hot water for the company’s Vegas pools, spas, and several kitchens, as well as for the first seven floors of the Palazzo, Tesarova says. Additionally, a nanofiltration system processes enough rainwater to take the Palazzo’s irrigation off the water grid.

A combined heat-power plant generates 40 percent of the peak energy load for MGM’s CityCenter campus, while waste heat from the system provides nearly all domestic hot water for the properties, Ortega says. Additionally, at the end of the summer, MGM will energize a 20,000-panel solar array atop its Mandalay Bay Convention Center, for which a $66-million expansion was recently announced

Dominguez says that Caesars is retro-commissioning the central plants that generate steam and chill water for cooling and heating each of its properties. Among the updates are low-frequency drives added to air-handler units and improvements to building control systems for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing performance. All of which, he says, “are the types of things where you can impact consistency [across properties] to some extent without tearing the building down.”

An interactive graphic at the end of this article shares more information about the green features of The Strip’s properties. 

Challenges to Green
Developers attempting to incorporate sustainable products and systems face more than a few challenges. Many of the existing buildings on The Strip predate current sustainable design practices. Property owners such as MGM and Caesars, which have grown their sizable Vegas portfolios largely through the acquisition of legacy resorts in the area, must manage a variety of building types and ages. That can make implementing new features in existing properties a challenge, Dominguez says. 

“Even a master switch in a guest room is not an easy endeavor because, if the properties are already built … you’d have to go in and basically tear out walls and permit and run wiring,” he says, though advances in wireless technology could provide a viable alternative.

The vast scale of properties on the Strip is another potential holdup in specifying green products and systems. In an interview with Ecostructure  in 2010, Ortega explained that finding a manufacturer to make a urea-formaldehyde-free adhesive for use on bath vanities in the CityCenter project was a challenge. “To do a custom order, they would have to empty the glue out of the entire factory line, put in a glue they don’t normally use, make our cabinets, and then clean out the lines again,” she said. “At the size of our project, there are only so many companies that can make thousands upon thousands of cabinets.” 

One of the most notable challenges is combating the effects of smoking on indoor air quality in the 24-hour, high-volume casinos for which the city is best known.

At MGM, Ortega says, HVAC systems circulate air in the casinos 12 times per hour and bring in outdoor air, while CityCenter uses a displacement air-conditioning system. The casinos at the Palazzo feature non-smoking corridors that pass through the gaming floor to other parts of the building; those pathways are buffered by banks of non-smoking gaming machines while vents in the ceiling blow air down to create a smoke-blocking wall.

Caesars also uses demand-control ventilation. “As a company, I think we would support going away from smoking if there was an industry-wide ban,” Dominguez says. But in the absence of what he calls a level playing field, he says it’s hard to not offer a feature that many casino-goers expect. In the meantime, Caesars’ new construction properties will be built to LEED certification specifications, but he says they’ll likely have to forgo third-party green certification due to the smoking.

The end game for Vegas developers is for environmental sustainability to blend seamlessly into their business models.  “We’re not asking you to walk through [our properties] with a flashlight,” Dominguez says. “But we’re trying to scale small improvements to the way we operate [and] the technology that we use.”

Interactive graphic by Maggie Goldstone and Stephanie Orudiakumo.

Image by Flickr user Pedro Szekely via a Creative Commons license.