A'Swimming: Swans are among the calming sights and effects of the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel.
By Bruce Robinson
From the graceful fanlike entry façade down to the recycled fibers in its carpets, Wen-I Chang's new inn is a departure from lodging as usual. The 133-room Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa, which opened in American Canyon a few months ago, emphasizes its environmental credentials, beginning with its status as the first hotel in the nation to earn a Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the United States Green Building Council.
"This world, every species on it, is declining and I thought there's got to be some way that business should not only make a profit, it should also take care of the earth, Mother Earth," Wen-I explains. Applied to the hospitality industry, that philosophy becomes a concept Wen-I calls "responsible leisure."
To earn that prized LEED rating, the hotel's design and construction incorporated such nontraditional (and virtually invisible) processes as using only certified new-growth woods, employing chemical-free landscaping throughout the grounds, filling an outdoor swimming pool with saltwater and decorating rooms with special low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints. There are photovoltaic panels on the roof and numerous solar tubes that diffuse sunlight throughout hallways and the lobby area. An innovative heating and air conditioning system balances rooms in groups of six, to moderate their overall energy consumption.
Far more conspicuous are the swans that placidly ply the waters of a pond within their own permaculture micro-ecosystem (designed to use recycled water from the nearby municipal system) and the dual kiosks that stand in the lobby, offering a minute-by-minute account of the hotel's water and electricity usage and the volume of greenhouse gas emissions being saved through the facility's multiple conservation measures.
"The 21st century is the century of the 'experience economy,'" Wen-I says. "We truly want to transform people's consciousness while being their leisure experience."
That goal is furthered in small ways, too, such as the ultra-low-flush toilets and waterless urinals in every room, and the use of vinegar rather than petrochemicals for washing windows. Short poems about nature are placed on the nighttime bed pillows, rather than chocolates, and guests will find a copy of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth book stocked alongside Gideon's Bible in a bed-table drawer.
Creating the Gaia Hotel has been an eight-year process. The first two focused on a location in Half Moon Bay, which was ultimately rejected by the local community. Wen-I subsequently spent another four years securing his American Canyon site, and going through a series of three redesigns to fully realize his enviro-Zen vision. Altogether, the four-acre project cost $20 million to design and build, but Wen-I attributes 10 percent to 15 percent of that to "the learning curve" that he and his team hope to avoid repeating in their next hotel projects.
Designing and building a LEED-certified hotel from the ground up is an extreme example of green hospitality, but throughout the industry, climatic consciousness and energy-efficiency savings are becoming almost commonplace. MacArthur Place inn and spa in central Sonoma recently swapped out 1,021 incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescents, reports financial analyst Stacey Ward. "The ones we couldn't change, we either reduced the wattage or we already had dimmers in place." Those were converted to cold cathode bulbs, which unlike the compact fluorescents are dimmable. The changes have cut their power bill by $900 per month, Ward says, which in turn helped support a wholesale retrofit of their HVAC system. But a simple, inexpensive amenity gets more attention from guests. The hotel provides free bicycles for carbonless day trips to nearby wineries, as well as for getting around on the inn's 64-acre property.
At the nearby Sonoma Valley Inn, the swimming pool has been converted to a salt-water filtration system. Now, says director of operations Alana Wilson, "we're using a very minute amount of chlorine, so the water is not only better for the environment, but it is also better for the swimwear, which can be really pricey."
The inn also puts glassware in its rooms rather than disposable paper cups, and encourages guests to pull an extra blanket out of the closet on cool nights instead of turning up the heater.
Both Sonoma hotels encourage visitors to reuse towels and linens for a second or third day, instead of laundering and replacing them daily ("I don't change mine at home every day," laughs Wilson), and recycled toner cartridges and other office supplies are a given in their offices.
Other changes merge aesthetics with pragmatic considerations. Osmosis Day Spa in Freestone has recently finished an extensive project that refinished walls inside and out with organic textiles, recycled driftwood and nontoxic paints. Some spaces feature "natural clay wall surfaces created by the local crafts people from Tactile Interiors," says owner Michael Stusser. He's also working with a Sebastopol heating and air conditioning company to "evolve" a software-driven system that "monitors temperature and humidity in numerous locations inside and outside the building," Stusser explains. "When the conditions are right, it draws in outside air to supplement the AC and heating systems."
Osmosis is also a founding "seed" member of the Green Spa Network, a new trade organization that held its first meeting in Monte Rio last April, where participants agreed to develop and disseminate a "green spa toolkit" of sustainability practices for their colleagues. Mill Valley-based Auberge Resorts, owners of Calistoga Ranch and Auberge du Soleil in Napa County, is another charter member.
"Osmosis sees its greening as a first step in shifting the image of a spa visit away from one of pampering indulgence to a more grounded and holistic experience," its website explains. "The aim is to create a compelling 'green spa experience' that makes the obvious connection between personal and planetary wellness."
"Humankind is too far, too long away from our true nature," agrees Wen-I. He sees his green hotel as representing a "first step [in] walking back to our true nature." And not just in American Canyon. A second Gaia Hotel is already half built along the Sacramento River near Redding, and a third has been designed for a site in Merced. "We're going to develop eight and try to create a brand," Wen-I says. "Then we'll go to IPO and become an affiliation, like Best Western." The long-range plan envisions 100 participating properties, maybe more.
But Wen-I insists this is not just bottom-line-driven capitalist expansion. "My concept is that business should transform people's consciousness," he says. "That's pretty much the ultimate goal."