Green Gets Gold

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One Napa Hotel Walks the Environmental Walk

by Robert P. Farmer

The sustainability conversation has long been on the table in Wine Country. Wineries and restaurants have led the earth-friendly charge here, with the results easily seen (and tasted) in bottles and on tables throughout the region. But the subtext here has always been the greater need to live sustainably not just in vineyards and at the Farmer's market, but everywhere and at all time.

A tall order, no doubt; but also no doubt necessary. Baby steps are required. Steps that are being taken boldly by many right-minded leaders doing their part to make a difference in Wine Country. One such person is Bay Area hotelier Wen-I Chang, whose Atman Hospitality Group is behind the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel (3600 Broadway St., American Canyon; 888-798-3777; www.gaiahotelnapavalley.com ), which opened in November of last year and which just recently achieved the world's first LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification is not easy to achieve at any level, especially for a hotel. The Gold-level is above Silver (of course) and the base-level designation of simply "certified." And while it is a rank below "Platinum," that level is usually reserved for structures that are near or completely "off the grid."

Gaia's Gold certification places it above such trailblazing hotels as San Francisco's Orchard Garden, which is remarkably "green" in spite of its baseline LEED certification. The Gold status is an admirably achievement in Wine Country, worthy of recognition for what it means in terms of its reduced impact on the environment-an environment that is jealously defended in this part of the world. So how did Gaia do it?

For starters, the hotel is a manifestation of hotelier Change's overriding philosophy of stewardship for the planet. The name itself-a term that refers to the interconnection among all living things on the planet (from the Greek "Mother Earth')-imparts the values with which the hotel was developed. The hotel's grounds were designed to create an atmosphere of tranquility, the prevailing mentality throughout the property. Each guestroom is named for a plant or animal and includes information about its namesake for the enlightenment of guests.

But beyond simple design and landscape, the hotel achieved its Gold certification with the nuts and bolts-that is to say, the actual construction and ongoing life of the building. Among the features: energy-efficient windows reduce glare and help manage interior temperatures; skylights reduce the need for electric lights during the day; a noiseless ventilation system mediates temperatures between rooms; some ten percent of the hotel's electricity is powered by solar panels; rooms have low-flow showerheads and low-flush toilets which reduce water consumption by 40 percent; wood used in the building's construction was from sustainable sources; carpet and other adhesive-based materials use low- or no volatile organic compounds (VOC), which vastly improves indoor air quality; and the use of native plants adapted to the climate reduces the need to water.

Remarkably, none of these seemingly laborious steps translate into a lack of comfort or luxury in the finished product. In fact, the hotel is quite guest-friendly, and features all the amenities you'd expect from a top-end hotel in service-oriented Napa Valley. Among the list of amenities is a fitness center with state-of-the-art equipment and a heated salt-water swimming pool. Rooms meanwhile are nicely appointed with the host of today's expected amenities.

Chang's stated mission is to foment change in the hospitality industry. By creating a hotel that strides the line between environmental responsibility and guest comfort (and of course, profitability), he's set a bar that all hoteliers ought to try and clear. He's already got a second Gaia under construction in Anderson, California, near Redding, and a third is in the works for downtown Merced. The fact that Gaia achieved Gold certification in Napa is validation not only that the idea can work, but also that it should be regarded as the new gold standard.

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