Bruce Becker has spent nearly his entire adult life designing buildings – 33 years to be exact.
For the 62-year-old architect and developer, one building in particular has consumed his time for the past few years. In 2019, Becker’s firm, Becker + Becker, bought a local landmark and registered Historic Place in New Haven, Connecticut, for $1.2 million to realize his vision of a net-zero hotel – believed to be the first of its kind in the US.
“You have to reuse, recycle and reinvent existing buildings to be truly sustainable,” Becker says. “The culture we have of tearing down and building new is really inefficient, and particularly when you have a building like (this one) which has such a great structure and that’s built to last for another century, not to repurpose it would have been a real shame.”
The building will become a 165-room Hilton-branded property called Hotel Marcel. According to Becker, the entire premises will run independent of fossil fuel and be powered by energy generated onsite, primarily from solar panels that cover both the hotel rooftop and parking lot.
These panels are estimated to generate 700,000 kilowatt hours over the course of a year – the equivalent of powering nearly 70 American homes – which Becker says covers all the hotel’s energy needs.
Looking to the sky
Originally designed in the 1960s and completed in 1970 by renowned Brutalist architect Marcel Breuer (the inspiration behind the hotel’s name), the nine-story concrete tower has maintained a conspicuous presence along a major east coast interstate, largely because of the gaping void that slices through the two middle floors of the building.
Breuer’s design was intentional; the original use hosted the offices and R&D department for tire manufacturer Armstrong Rubber. With the administrative offices on the top floors, the gap was designed to dampen the noise coming from the research labs on the lower levels. Since then, it has switched hands multiple times with Swedish furniture giant IKEA taking ownership in 2003, but the company never moved in – leaving the building vacant.
Nearly two decades later, Becker’s plan for turning it into a net-zero hotel means approaching the project from two angles: reducing overall energy consumption and finding the most efficient ways to source alternative energy.
“We spent months and months figuring out how to insulate the building so that there’s no infiltration,” he says, adding “the amount of energy we have to spend on heating and cooling would be a quarter of what it would be for a new code compliant building.”
The building itself is conducive to reduced energy consumption – its precast concrete façade houses deep-set windows that provide natural shade when the sun is at its highest. Becker and his team also implemented triple-glazed windows meant to maintain more stable building temperatures and added all-electric kitchen and laundry systems. All the lighting will utilize an energy-efficient power and control system known as power over ethernet, or POE, which has traditionally been used in buildings for computer and phone systems.
Upon completion, Becker says these specific design choices will make it the first US hotel to be Passive House certified, a designation granted to buildings that meet stringent net-zero energy requirements.
Slow to sustainability
While green buildings have become increasingly commonplace around the world, Hotel Marcel stands out for its ambitious goals in an industry that is notorious for energy consumption.
“Certain building types are bigger energy hogs than others,” says Jason McLennan, founder of the International Living Future Challenge, a program focused on certifying regenerative building projects. “An office building uses less energy generally than a hotel. Hotels use a lot of energy on a per square foot basis.”
According to the UN World Tourism Organization, hotels and other accommodation are responsible for up to 5% of the global carbon dioxide emitted by the tourism sector. Research from the International Tourism Partnership says that, in order to stay within parameters set by the Paris Climate Accord, the hospitality industry will need to trim overall emissions by 90% in the next 30 years.
In the past decade, hoteliers large and small have implemented some sustainability practices such as cultivating honey on location or reducing single-use plastics and laundry loads – but the movement to convert properties across these extensive portfolios to be more energy-efficient has yet to gain steam.
“A guest experience at a hotel is different because it incorporates so many different building uses,” notes Corinne Hanson, corporate director of sustainability and impact for SH Hotels and Resorts, a luxury brand hotelier with properties across North America, Asia and Europe. “Having to combine all of these operational challenges makes sustainable hospitality unique.”
Becker acknowledges the industry’s adoption of net-zero buildings has been slow-coming due both to the lack of economic incentives as well as the unique challenge of renovating properties that are, by default, meant to be occupied at all times. But for Becker, driving the industry to change requires demonstrating how economic incentives are tied directly to energy consumption.
Becker admits overhead costs can be higher at the onset of developing net-zero buildings, but says the costs today are a fraction of what they were in years past – and are repaid in energy savings within three to four years.
“Good design requires a holistic approach,” Becker says, and that includes how the design “serves its purpose and function,” he adds. “How does it impact the larger world, the environment? Beauty, function, sustainability: you can’t have a beautiful building without addressing all three.”
Setting the standard
That impact is something SH Hotel and Resort’s Hanson says is inevitable: “We know that as brands adopt these changes, there will be a continued ripple effect across the industry,” she says.
For Kristin Campbell, Hilton’s chief environmental, social and governance officer, the addition of Hotel Marcel as part of the group’s Tapestry Collection represents the company’s intention of increasing its portfolio of net-zero properties, as consumer interest continues to grow for sustainable travel options. Campbell says the majority of its UK-based properties began running entirely on renewable energy in 2020.
The real test for Becker’s vision and its subsequent influence comes in early 2022 when the hotel is slated to open its doors to the public.
“We realize a lot of people are watching what we’re doing and if we’re successful,” Becker says. “Hopefully it’ll have a much larger impact than just one project can have.”