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November 23, 2014

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Architecture:

Design contest provides glimpse of ‘green’ hotel room of future

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Sam Morris

Hospitality Design Expo attendees peruse the winning entry in a “green” hotel room design competition on Wednesday. The room was praised for its eco-friendly features.

Facing the sun

A Trombe wall is a massive sun-facing wall separated from the outdoors by glazing and air space. It absorbs solar energy and releases it selectively toward the interior. It was patented in 1881 by Edward Morse, but popularized in 1964 by French engineer Félix Trombe.

In the hotel room of the future, you can forget about taking a long, hot soak in the tub because there won’t be one.

Nor will it have a bathroom per se.

It will, however, have a spacious, glass-enclosed shower lined with river rock and be situated next to the window — facing the bed. It will overlook a street, separated from the hotel’s glass exterior by a glass Trombe wall that will fill with water when not in use, absorbing the sun’s heat and releasing hot water when the shower is on. The sink also will face the bed for easy access. (The toilet, thankfully, is tucked into a small room with a door.)

The 400-square-foot space, on display at the Hospitality Design Expo this week, is far removed from the typical hotel room in Las Vegas and many other American cities.

Yet it won top honors in a first-ever “green” hotel room design competition sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council, the American Society of Interior Designers and the Hospitality Industry Network, judged by designers and executives representing hotel brands such as Fairmont and Marriott.

Hotel executives praised the room’s modestly sized flat-screen TV. It’s barely noticeable next to the floor-to-ceiling view and an outdoor deck accessible via a sliding-glass door. On the deck, lavender bushes irrigated by water from the shower grow in a planter next to a padded bench. A movable table fits over the bed and can be rolled to the end of the bed or outside for entertaining. A desk under the TV features a leaf that can be pulled out to face the outdoors or folded away for people who intend to lounge, rather than work, during their stay.

Some of the materials are obviously recycled, such as an old door used as the table. Others, such as the smooth floor of pressed wood scrap and a concrete sink flecked with glass and stone, are not.

Sustainable or “green” may be one of the most overhyped buzzwords in corporate America — one that’s often more about marketing gimmickry than environmental stewardship. And yet, luxury-hotel companies say operating buildings that are less harmful to the environment will soon become a business mandate, although it’s far from mainstream today. Contests and trade shows like this one are spreading that message in the hotel industry, which is behind others in adopting green standards.

Going completely green can add as much as 30 percent to the cost of a room, although that number is going down as demand for green materials grows. As an alternative, many hotels have adopted cost-saving measures that also help the environment.

Although some might think Las Vegas is an odd place for this discussion, the valley has some of the world’s largest green-certified buildings. The front desk at the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified Aria resort is made from recycled barn wood rather than freshly felled trees.

“The younger generation, as they’re graduating and going out in the workforce and traveling, they’re demanding these environmentally sustainable building types,” says Rajesh Chandnani, director of strategy at WATG, one of two design firms that created the green room.

Still, it’s questionable whether the room would fly in Las Vegas, even with the naughtiness of its peek-a-boo shower.

Most Las Vegas hotels don’t have balconies because they can spell disaster when used by drunken, rowdy or suicidal customers. The same goes for big windows or sliding-glass doors that open to the outdoors, which aren’t entirely welcome at the height of summer, during chilly winters or on a windy day.

Las Vegas casino designers contacted by the Sun declined to comment on the room because they had not seen it. They will soon get that chance, though. The room will be disassembled and rebuilt at the College of Southern Nevada, which will use it as a teaching tool.

Contingencies were built into the green room design that might work in Southern Nevada. Hotels can install misters to cool the outdoor space, although presumably guests would be reminded about water use. The outdoor deck can be removed and incorporated into a permanently enclosed room, view intact.

After unveiling the room, the design firms received requests for similar rooms from hotel clients in the Middle East, a part of the world familiar with hot weather.

As for the shower, it is meant to be enclosed in frosted glass, not the clear glass used for display purposes at the conference. As exhibitionistic as many Strip tourists are, maybe the clear glass would be popular here, though.

Hotels such as the Hard Rock and Palms have installed glass showers, complete with stripper poles, in living rooms or bedrooms. Obviously, designers weren’t channeling the stripper lifestyle when they designed the green room, although buildings can retrofit expensive technology that will automatically “frost” clear glass at the touch of a button.

Overall, the room succeeds because it would appeal to a variety of consumers, not simply because it is eco-friendly, says Eileen Slora, executive director of interior design for Canadian-based Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. Fairmont adopted green practices such as low-flow fixtures and recycling systems years ago, before green practices became a popular money-saving and marketing opportunity.

The challenge for upscale hotels is that while customers are more likely to want and appreciate eco-friendly details — they also tend to demand luxury as well. Low-flow shower heads must still offer a satisfying flow, and loud, low-flow toilets don’t work because they’re off-putting, Slora says. Naturally dyed fabrics, she says, may fade faster and need replacing more often.

The trick is to incorporate environmentally friendly upgrades that are also pleasurable for guests, Slora says.

The green room, with its “fun” shower, outdoor seating and a writing desk facing a sunny window rather than a wall, accomplishes that, says Slora, who was a judge for the competition.

Another judge, Helen Jorgensen, vice president of design and procurement for Host Hotels & Resorts, also embraced the room’s eclectic appearance. Many designs that didn’t win were “in your face” about being green and made guests feel guilty about using water or energy, Jorgensen says.

“As a guest, that could really turn me off.”

Rather than including typical suggestion cards for skipping linen service or fresh towels, designers of the winning green room went for educational humor, such as pillowcases edged with the message: “Love just gets more physical on eucalyptus sheets. Isn’t sustainability sexy?” Another message etched into the mirror above the sink reads: “You look marvelous. Our energy efficient LED lighting brings out your inner beauty.”

Designers at the conference say the room embraces trends spreading in high-end hotels, such as “open bathrooms” with glass-walled baths and sinks in bedrooms to maximize views and make rooms appear bigger and more modern. Another trend, they say, is making rooms flexible for different types of customers, such as business travelers who want to sit at a desk and families who want it out of the way. Outdoor zones are popular with travelers because they are relaxing and let people connect with the environment, judges said.

Bottom line, the room’s design is cost-effective, and cost is the biggest barrier to green design in hotels, Jorgensen says.

But there’s one more key feature: deluxe bathrooms.

“Bathrooms sell hotel rooms,” Slora says.

Tubs do, too, even though they’re not eco-friendly.

“I don’t know how many people sit and soak in tubs in hotel rooms,” but regardless of whether they are used, bathtubs are sexy and exude luxury, she says.

The hotel room of the future, then, may well have a tub after all, if only for show.

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