The hospitality industry often has struggled with the question of whether sustainability and luxury can co-exist. How can hotels do right by the Earth and provide guests with a high-end, comfortable experience? It is a challenge that San Franciscobased Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group took on with its new Hotel Palomar in Philadelphia.

Long a proponent of practicing sustainability through adaptive reuse and renovation, the hotel chain chose the iconic Architects Building in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square neighborhood for the Palomar. Built in 1929 and designed by a group of prominent local architects, the 26-story Art Deco high-rise had long since fallen into disrepair. The Palomar project was the perfect opportunity to save an important piece of building stock. The architects at Gensler’s Morristown, N.J., office pushed for LEED certification from the beginning. “The client was progressive and interested in pursuing LEED, but there was a degree of skepticism,” recalls Matt Wolfe, job captain in Gensler’s hospitality studio and LEED manager for the project. “They were curious about the ROI and unsure of the costs, but they knew there was importance and value in it.”

“The building needed to be sustainable, but it couldn’t look or feel as though we compromised luxury,” says Jack Paruta, AIA, senior associate with Gensler and project architect for the hotel. “It needed to be a four-star boutique hotel experience and we had to be creative about how we integrated our green practices.”

The team originally targeted LEED Silver certification, but the 156,000-square-foot, 230-guest-room project was able to earn LEED Gold under LEED-CI. The interior designer, Los Angelesbased Powerstrip Studio, was charged with using regionally manufactured materials, as well as low-VOC paints, sealants, adhesives, and wall coverings. The project earned the 20 percent recycled content credit in LEED, and more than 90 percent of the construction debris (1,330 tons) was recycled. The façade underwent a partial exterior renovation, with the original single-layer glass windows being replaced with high-performing insulated windows with a low-E coating. The new windows had to match the existing windows in sight lines, composition, and color, as was required by the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service in order to qualify for historic tax credits. On the mechanical side, a water source heat pump helped the hotel HVAC system exceed ASHRAE 90.1 2004 by 40 percent. Ninety percent of all equipment and appliances, including the TVs, alarm clocks, and kitchen equipment, are Energy Star rated.

“Achieving a 20-percent reduction in water was one of the biggest challenges,” Wolfe admits. (A savings of 20 percent equates to 290,000 gallons of water saved per year.) “In a hospitality setting, a shower head is the largest consuming water fixture,” Wolfe continues. “The client’s charge was to be sustainable without compromising the guest experience. The two things guests remember about a hotel stay are the shower and the bed.” Several different shower heads were mocked up and tested until one was found that met guest expectations while achieving a 2-gallons-per-minute flow requirement that the design team had set as a project goal.

The project targeted a minimum 15 percent reduction in lighting power density over a similar building constructed to code. “Kimpton looks for these hotels to be moody and design-oriented, bringing a certain feeling to the interiors,” Wolfe says. “We explored a variety of compact fluorescents, but they didn’t work because the owner wanted dimmable fixtures. We wound up using a type of halogen bulb. It performs slightly under a CFL, but is higher performing than an incandescent.” With the right fixtures and artful lighting design, the hotel was able to achieve an 18 percent reduction in lighting power density. The narrow floor plates of the Architects Building presented some challenges, but also allow daylight to reach approximately 90 percent of the interior spaces.

A third-party agent was brought on board to provide enhanced commissioning. “They did installation and functional checks on the facility and assisted in training and writing the systems manuals for the facility,” Wolfe explains. “The operations team was very excited because often their buildings aren’t running at optimal performance.” The overall performance of the building is being tracked, but the data hasn’t yet been thoroughly processed. “We are working on that right now,” Wolfe says. “We are looking at an Energy Star rating and whether LEED for Existing Buildings would be a viable next step.”

One very quantifiable measure of success for any hotel is the occupancy rate. In this regard, the Hotel Palomar Philadelphia has been doing quite well. “Over the past year they’ve continued to exceed the typical occupancy rate,” Paruta says. “We’ve received a lot of positive feedback. It’s rewarding to take a lifeless building and bring it back to productive and vibrant use. It was an important project, not only for our client and Gensler, but for the city of Philadelphia.”

“One of the things drawn from this project is that green can be gorgeous,” Wolfe says. “We were able to achieve a luxurious, bold, artsy environment. It was great to see the client go from being mildly skeptical to really becoming advocates.”

Jim Schneider is a contributing editor to eco-structure and the editor of METALMAG.