When asked what it takes to build a five-star green hotel, Malaysian architect Cheong Yew Kuan replies: "Good old common sense". He adds: "If we are frugal, the footprint is automatically reduced but most people want excess if they can afford it. Look at Dubai or the sprawling beach resorts sprouting up around Bali and Phuket."
Estimated to bear responsibility for approximately 5 per cent of global carbon emissions, the hospitality industry started slowly in their efforts to go green, but change is afoot. That note on the bed asking guests to consider sleeping another night on the same sheets and the little card in the bathroom encouraging us to hang our towels have evolved into a host of hi-tech innovations, such as hydropower turbines and solar cells aimed at lowering the strain on natural resources in line with the Agenda 21 Principles for Sustainable Development adopted at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio.
For the Bali-based Cheong, however, "especially in a resort context, we often do better to learn from the land". By this he means to follow the traditional wisdom that has allowed villagers for centuries to build without depleting natural resources.
"Indigenous respect for the environment will usually bring you to the most appropriate response to the elements, like heat and sunlight, without additional investment," he says. As in older, often raised village houses around Southeast Asia, Cheong explains, the thoughtful placement of windows in a resort guestroom can bring in more sunlight and create natural breezeways, thus minimising reliance on electricity and air conditioning. "Building green is about doing more with less."
Resort owners and developers embrace such low-tech sustainable solutions that will save them money, but many "still baulk at" what it takes to achieve the industry's "green star" EC3 Global EarthCheck status, a set of rigorous qualifications for water conservation, reduced energy consumption and the preservation of the natural environment.
EC3 Global's EarthCheck portfolio consists of more than 1,300 clients, including The Langham Hospitality Group, Design Hotels and Banyan Tree. The latter's Lijiang property was the first resort in China to reach the programme's Gold Certified status, an award that was presented to the Banyan Tree Group last year, recognising the resort's efforts to manage its waste and energy consumption. Earlier this year, Hotel Hellnar in West Iceland became the first hotel in Europe to receive the programme's Platinum Certification for its decade-long commitment to the established sustainability measures.
Green architecture then actually turns out to be about more than the architect. When asked what he looks for in a client who says they want to be green, Cheong's answer is immediate and succinct. "Have a discussion on budget."
Most investors unsurprisingly do not want to spend 10 to 20 per cent more upfront on the green infrastructure necessary to conserve or even create energy. One hotelier breaking that mould - Alila hotels founder Mark Edleson -believes that "good environmental building practice makes the best business sense". The EC3 Global EarthCheck certified Alila Villas Uluwatu in Bali is just one of his hotels designed by architects with established green credentials like the Singapore-based WOHA. The architects take going green down to the details such as building exterior catchments called soak ways to collect rainwater for reverse osmosis processing and adding Balinese batu chandi lava stones on the rooftops to act as natural insulator.
WOHA is designing Alila Villas Bintan in Indonesia scheduled to open in 2015 within a wildlife corridor, while Cheong is working on a new Alila resort near Kota Kinabalu that incorporates recycled Sabah timber into the façade. Edleson, a banker-turned-hotelier, admits that investing in environmentally efficient mechanical and engineering systems can be more expensive upfront than traditional alternatives, but says the green systems "deliver shorter and shorter pay back times as they become more affordable to purchase while the cost of energy inefficient utilities continues to rise".
Going green has already brought another kind of green to Alila's financial results. Edleson says: "Our green technologies have lowered operating costs and are generating higher operating profits. Results are two-fold: an attractive payback on the investment in a healthier environment."
Sometimes, clients simply need to be educated on the benefits of building green, says Bangkok-based star architect Bill Bensley at his recently completed InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort. The secluded 3,000-hectare beachfront site along Son Tra Peninsula in Vietnam, ringed by caramel hued sand leading up to thriving primary jungle, "took my well-travelled breath away", recalls Bensley of his first visit. But when the owner, with the best of intentions used earth-moving equipment to "make a deeper, and what he thought would be cleaner, more resort-appropriate pond, I screamed. We would have been messing with an irrigation system that had worked perfectly for a million years".
While Bensley says he takes "losing even one single tree that did not have to go down very, very personally", the Harvard-trained architect is also quick to share credit for the results of his green learning curve.
"This project was one of those perfect times when the client generously allowed us to experiment, which led to some really amazing, environmentally exciting results," he says.
The most innovative of these are his 16 Atrium Suites where only around 30 per cent of the total 1,400 square feet relies on air conditioning. Oversized windows and multiple doors encourage seamless in-to-outdoor living that takes full advantage of the property's position to catch cooling East Sea breezes along Monkey Mountain.
GOING WITH THE FLOW: WHAT’S NEXT
Three dedicated turbines will allow Bangkok-based star architect Bill Bensley to go off the grid entirely in 2015 at Shinta Mani Wild on 350 protected hectares outside Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Positioned among waterfalls along a river, the 15-tent resort will be powered by water running along a tributary to those turbines, while the guest experience will incorporate resident elephants and take advantage of the land’s position along migratory bird routes.
Meanwhile, Malaysian architect Cheong Yew Kuan is focusing on the verdant island of Sumba, 402km east of Bali in the Flores Sea, for New York investor Chris Burch (ex-husband of designer Tory Burch) and his partners, including hotelier James McBride who describes Cheong’s style as “geographically appropriate opulence”. This suits plans to develop a highly sustainable bamboo tented camp to be called Nihioka on a nearby stretch of land between rice paddies and the sea. High above sea level, Six Senses Bhutan integrates local building materials with energy efficient lighting, heating and plumbing systems that rely on Bhutan’s hydroelectric energy infrastructure. Further afield in Tunisia, the Bangkok-based brand long known for environmental architecture is in the early design phases of a beach resort that will rely on natural ventilation and thermal mass for cooling during the day and maintaining warmth during the evenings.
Closer to home and nearer completion is the WOHA-designed Oasia Downtown urban resort in Singapore’s central business district, a “furry tower” thanks to its living green façade of creepers and flowering plants that incorporates sky gardens and high volume low speed (HVLS) fans as kinetic sculptures to ensure thermal comfort without forcing people inside.