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The U.S.’s first carbon-positive hotel comes with a forest

Its architecture, designed to reduce heating and cooling needs, takes inspiration from Colorado’s native aspen trees.

The U.S.’s first carbon-positive hotel comes with a forest
[Image: Studio Gang]

When a new hotel, currently under construction in downtown Denver, is completed next year, it won’t have any parking spaces. Instead of driving, guests are expected to take the train from the airport to a transportation hub across the street. It’s just one design feature that will help make it the first carbon-positive hotel in the U.S.—meaning that it’s responsible for capturing more carbon than it produces.

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The wedge-shaped hotel, called the Populus, will be sandwiched between streets on a corner that once was the site of the first gas station in Colorado. “There’s some sort of poetic justice there,” says Jon Buerge, chief development officer at Urban Villages, the sustainability-focused developer behind the project. “We’re building the greenest building in Denver, and it has no parking.”

[Image: Studio Gang]
By ditching parking, the building can avoid the carbon footprint of extra concrete used to make an underground lot while nudging guests to avoid driving. In the rest of the 14-story building, the developers are using low-carbon concrete. (The concrete industry is one of the biggest emitters on the planet, but multiple startups are pioneering new alternatives.) Other materials will be recycled, locally sourced, or otherwise more sustainable than conventional options. The facade of the building uses an extra-insulating material, so it requires little energy for heating and cooling.

The architecture, from the Chicago-based firm Studio Gang, takes inspiration from Colorado’s native aspen trees, with its windows mimicking the pattern of tree trunks. The deep windows also help naturally shade the hotel rooms, keeping them cool; inside, the windowsills double as seating, helping to replace some furniture in the minimally decorated rooms. The roof includes solar panels, though because there’s little space for them, the hotel will also buy offsite renewable energy.

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[Image: Studio Gang]
The choices were all made from a business lens. “Internally, we often say, if we can show people how to make money doing the right thing to change the world, it can be replicated,” Buerge says. “And so our projects are very profitable. We don’t ever come in saying, you know, well, if we use this material, and we reduce our return on investment, is that okay? It’s more saying, we’ve got to justify it. We have to make sure that the decisions we’re making are good for the planet and good for for the business.” The company’s investors are unusual in that they have a long-term horizon, he says, whereas most real estate projects are more focused on a quick profit.

[Image: Studio Gang]
The design choices can help shrink the building’s footprint but won’t eliminate it, so its developers also plan to invest in reforesting more than 5,000 acres of land to match the 4,397 metric tons of carbon they’re producing. “We’re going to be planting enough trees to offset that,” he says. “And what we’re now focused on is where can we do that with the greatest impact that also relates to ecological preservation.”

The company now wants to make all of its new projects carbon positive. “If we’re going to address climate change in any sort of meaningful way, we need to figure out how to build buildings that are responsible and that are giving back more than we’re taking,” Buerge says. “So our goal is to make not only every project we do, but our company itself, carbon positive moving forward. And we want to talk about it because our metric for success is not the handful of projects we build. Our metric for success is in trying to help push the industry in a certain direction.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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