Though somewhat late to the green building game, hotels have ramped up their efforts in the past few years. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, 26 hotels were LEED certified in 2009, up from seven in 2008, and as of press time, there were about 995 registered hotel projects total. Operators and developers alike are finding huge savings in energy and water to be worth their while financially, not to mention the added benefits to their marketing strategies. And architects have been pushing the envelope looking at everything from using guestrooms as laboratories to generating power on site and selling it back to the grid.

For New York firm Stonehill and Taylor Architects, the first step has been old-school recycling. “We’re lucky we have the opportunity, since most of our projects are in Manhattan, to salvage an existing shell. It’s really one of the most basic things you can do,” says principal Michael Suomi, who is working on several hotels registered for LEED certification in New York City and one in New Haven, Conn. Crosby Street Hotel, on track to become New York City’s first LEED Gold hotel and London hotelier Firmdale’s first U.S. property, features a meadow on its second-floor roof, courtesy of green roof design firm Goode Green. In addition, the property’s 11th floor soon will be home to another garden, complete with chickens to provide fresh eggs to the restaurant. And at a yet-to-be-named Hampshire Hotel at 94th Street, Stonehill is turning the green roof on its side, looking to cover the entire façade with a thick layer of vegetation “to create an envelope that cleans the air, reduces carbon dioxide, and provide some shading and cooling,” Suomi says. Also at 94th Street, Stonehill is doing seven model rooms to experiment with lighting; water saving; furniture, fixtures and equipment (FFandE); and room energy management systems.

“In terms of active systems, we’re looking at sensored and motorized window shading,” Suomi says. “When a guest isn’t in the room it would open and close to reduce heat load and help insulate windows in winter. It’s a new system that integrates the motor into the drapery system.” Stonehill also is looking at on-site power generation. “The inefficiency of America’s power grid is huge, and when you generate power on site, it’s a much more efficient way to harness electricity. With photovoltaics, when you combine state and federal incentives with the reduction in costs, the return on investment is getting really short,” says Suomi, noting a 16-month return on the Hyatt New Brunswick in New Jersey, which was anticipated to take four years.

Many operators are finding that without tax incentives, however, solar and wind simply don’t make financial sense. “We took a look at solar, we took a look at wind and a green roof, and all three of those items were just not cost effective,” says Steve Eckley, senior vice president of hotels for Amerimar, the owners of Hutton Hotel in Nashville. “Solar couldn’t even supply a small percentage of our energy.” Though not LEED certified, the Hutton Hotel boasts key-card-activated lighting in guestrooms, 85 percent LED lighting, dual-flush toilets, and waterless urinals. It also employs a low-albedo roofing system to help reduce the heat island effect, and EcoDisc elevators from Kone, which operate on a magnet synchronous motor and gearless construction that uses no oil and, as a whole, uses half the power of a comparable conventional elevator system.

In both retrofits and new construction, addressing the envelope remains key. “If you’re doing the whole building, the best thing to do is to focus on the façade and tighten up the envelope as much as possible,” says David Tracz, senior associate at OPX in Washington, D.C. As an example, he notes that glazing, high-performance windows, and spray-foam insulation helped contribute to LEED Gold certification for OPX’s work on a Courtyard by Marriott in Chevy Chase, Md. When it comes to new construction, for Gary Golla, an associate at SERA Architects in Portland, Ore., the best starting point for addressing the building envelope is by using a “climate responsive” approach, analyzing site-specific conditions to incorporate passive measures that can reduce energy consumption. On SERA’s work for Courtyard by Marriott in Portland, the firm used windows with taller, narrower proportions in comparison to other hotel rooms. “This, in combination with higher ceilings, allowed us to get better daylighting performance and views from a smaller window,” Golla explains.

In terms of energy efficiency for interiors, key-card-activated energy management systems that are popular in Europe have not taken off as quickly in the U.S. “[Adoption] is slow here,” says Jenny Carney, principal at YRG Sustainability, a consulting firm that recently helped Starwood develop its first LEED-certified brand, Element. “American hotel developers think that there’s lower tolerance on part of guests.”

“The efficiency of the mechanical/electrical systems and the building skin can go a long way to lower energy usage for the building,” says Tara Myers, project designer at Earl Swensson Associates, the local architect for the Hutton Hotel. “Although these systems may cost more on the front end, today’s energy modeling systems can provide owners with lifecycle analyses and show them the payback on paper. Facts and figures continue to speak louder than words.”

According to Carney, Starwood is looking at installing submetering in at least one guestroom, turning that room into a lab. “I’m hoping they can do it across the board, empower the operators to do all the piloting. It’s just great. And to submeter one guestroom is not going to be a huge expenditure; it’s really feasible.”

However, with Starwood, Carney says it wasn’t the more flashy systems that made the biggest impact. “The most paradigm-shifting move was to work with Kohler to make custom showerheads that are still luxurious to the user.” The design team at OPX found the same was true in working on the Chevy Chase Marriott property. “In the grand scheme it’s relatively easy to achieve a fairly significant savings with just choosing the right products,” Tracz says. “It’s really easy to change out faucets because all you have to do is change out the aerator, and you can get as low as 0.8 gallons per minute pretty easily.”

SERA’s team was able to get water consumption in the range of 20 percent to 22 percent for both the Courtyard by Marriott and The Nines hotel in Portland, Ore., part of Starwood’s luxury collection. “Via fixture flow, reductions as high as 40 percent are possible in hotels but there is a limit to what can be achieved,” Golla says. “To go beyond this, graywater reclamation or rainwater capture would be necessary. Using graywater for toilet flushing in combination with fixture flow reductions could create water efficiencies as high as 60 percent in hotels.”

The majority of industry experts also have their eye on any technology that can replace packaged terminal air conditioner (PTAC) heating and cooling unit that is standard in most economy and mid-level properties. Says Carney: “Moving away from PTAC would be a huge advantage, but the cost implications of that right now are pretty substantial.” Whatever the architectural system, as long as efficiency and profits remain aligned, it seems hotels are poised for real savings and innovation.

Tara Mastrelliwrites about hospitality design from Brooklyn, N.Y.