Asheville’s new hotel system awards points for sustainable lodging

SUSTAINABLE STAY: Solar panels on the roof of the Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park are responsible for heating 70% of the hotel’s hot water. The property was awarded a LEED Silver certification in 2009, says Stan Turner, vice president of Biltmore Farm’s hospitality division. Photo courtesy of Biltmore Farms

Goodbye travel-size shampoo bottles. Adios, styrofoam cups cloaked in shrink-wrapped plastic. See you later, energy-sucking appliances.

Of commercial buildings, hotels are among the highest energy and water users per square foot, the Washington D.C.-based Urban Land Institute shared in a 2019 report detailing sustainability trends in the global hospitality industry. And Asheville, home to more than 8,465 hotel rooms and counting, is providing a pathway for hotel operators to rack up some major brownie points by incorporating sustainable features and practices in plans for new hotel construction. 

“With Asheville being a tourist town, we have this great opportunity to kind of walk our talk and share the values we have here around protecting the environment, saving money and providing good, green jobs,” says Sam Ruark-Eastes, executive director of the nonprofit Green Built Alliance.

Hoteliers now have the green light to submit new applications for lodging projects in the city, following a February decision by Asheville City Council to resume development after a 17-month ban. Under the streamlined process, developers can choose to fulfill a series of criteria to gain automatic project approval by city staff.

Alongside requirements that guide where hotels may be located, how tall the buildings can be and what features the designs must include, developers also must demonstrate their commitment to a set of public benefits that aim to lessen the impacts of hotel development on area residents. At the direction of Council, developers selecting this path must contribute to citywide equity efforts by chipping in to finance the newly created reparations fund for Black Asheville residents or affordable housing development.

Depending on the level of the equity contribution, developers can also select other options that incentivize environmental and economic priorities.

But while local leaders are enthusiastic about the new linkage between development and community benefits, how the incentives will affect which hotels get built and how those new businesses run their operations remains to be seen.

Racking up points

Already, many hotels are implementing energy and water efficiency measures to drive down utility costs, Ruark-Eastes says. LED lighting is common, as are Energy Star appliances. 

But North Carolina state law prohibits cities from requiring sustainability standards in new development, he adds, leaving city-based incentives as the only tool for pushing developers toward environmentally friendly materials and designs. 

Asheville’s public benefits table is intended to do just that, says Todd Okolichany, the city’s planning director. His team met with staff from Asheville’s Office of Sustainability and local green building groups to determine realistic options for area developers. The strategies the staffers developed encourage a focus on water conservation, air quality, environmental health and climate change impacts and risks, said Amber Weaver, the city’s sustainability officer, in an email. 

According to the final table, a hotel with more than 81 rooms located in downtown Asheville, the River Arts District or Biltmore Village must earn at least 220 points to build without navigating an additional zoning approval process; a hotel of the same size located outside those three urban areas needs 160 points. At least half of the required points must come from a donation to the city’s reparations fund, housing trust fund or the construction of new affordable housing units reserved for residents earning 80% or less of the area median income. The remaining points can be earned through selections at the developer’s discretion. 

Within the city’s scoring system, a hotel certified through the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program can earn 60-120 points, depending on the level of certification. A Green Globes certification awarded by the Green Building Initiative can earn 40-120 points. Adaptive reuse of an existing building is worth 50 points, and a net-zero building that produces enough on-site energy to meet its energy consumption requirements would earn 210 points.

Thus far, a hotelier has yet to submit a lodging application under the new rules, though city staffers have been fielding calls from prospective developers asking questions about the new process, Okolichany says. As applications begin moving through the system, his department will monitor the public benefits table and make adjustments as needed. 

And just because equity-related benefits are the only required category doesn’t mean that sustainability is any less of a priority, Weaver said. “Understanding sustainability requires an acknowledgment of interrelated goals, such as the importance of affordable housing as well as the manner in which housing is constructed,” she said. “When the city focuses on equity, there will always be sustainable benefits folded in.” 

B the change

Also included in the public benefits table is B Corporation certification, a distinction awarded to companies that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.

The process to become a B Corp is “highly rigorous,” explains Moriah Heaney, community investment manager at Mountain BizWorks.

Asheville is headquarters for six B Corps, including French Broad Chocolates, digital marketing firm JB Media Group and investment bankers Big Path Capital, according to the company’s website. But B Corps hotels are still a relatively new concept, with just 19 in operation globally. 

Okolichany says the city was initially drawn to B Corp’s emphasis on sustainable procurement, environmental initiatives and a living wage. Adding the credential to the public benefits table to the tune of 120 points was a way to bring more awareness to the lesser-known certification program, a move Heaney agrees with. Many of the criteria assessed in the B Corp assessment are also found in Asheville’s public benefits table, such as paying a living wage or offering transportation for employees. 

“It’s an exciting thing, but it’s not for the faint of heart,” Heaney says. “If someone is just looking for a stamp of certification to get past the city’s hotel review board, I don’t think B Corp is the right fit for them. But if a strong desire to help the community is in your business’ DNA, a B Corp certification may be the right step.” 

Steve Linton sees the B Corps concept as a force for good. He’s the president of B Corp certified Deltec Homes and the chair of B Local Asheville + WNC, a group of Asheville-based B Corps committed to growing the program regionally. 

The number of B Corps nationally has doubled since Deltec’s certification in 2016, Linton says. If it were to double again, he envisions major changes around community engagement and environmental challenges. “It looks like more businesses using renewable energy, more businesses focused on equity and using their tools to make the community more inclusive,” he says.

Heaney also sees the potential for the positive impacts of more B Corps to ripple through every sector of the local economy. Companies seeking B Corp certification can gain points by sourcing all materials within a 100-mile radius of their headquarters, banking with local banks and providing a living wage to all employees. 

“I see it as a really exciting opportunity for a collaborative arrangement that is investing not only in the profits of a hotel, but also resulting in a real focus in the community and environmental benefits,” Heaney says. “If hotels were committed to sourcing all of the different elements that go into a hotel, be it sheets and mattresses to soap, within a 100-mile radius, that would be a significant multiplier in regards to local dollars reinvested in our community.”

Eco-friendly in action

Other sustainability certifications can still take new lodging a step beyond what’s now in place. According to the Green Building Initiative, the organization has yet to certify a Green Globes lodging establishment in Asheville; three local residential apartment complexes have received the recognition. LEED certification is becoming commonplace among corporate offices, government buildings and commercial establishments, but the Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park is the only area hotel with a LEED Silver certification, says Stan Turner, vice president of Biltmore Farm’s hospitality division. 

WATER CONSCIOUS: The LEED Silver-certified Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park hotel uses energy-efficient appliances, low-flow showerheads and touchless faucets to reduce the hotel’s water usage. Photo courtesy of Biltmore Farms

Solar panels on the Hilton’s roof are responsible for heating 70% of the hotel’s hot water, he says. To improve water efficiency, all rooms are outfitted with low-flow showerheads and touchless faucets. Recycling efforts divert more than 93,000 pounds of compostable material away from area landfills annually.

But it’s hard to quantify the return on investment for environmental initiatives, Turner notes. Guests are happy to learn about the LEED certification or the hotel’s recycling program, but there’s no way to tell how much business is generated from eco-minded tourists. He speculates other area hotels may not want to pursue a certification for that reason. 

“I’m sure there are lots of hotels in Asheville that are doing what we’re doing operationally,” Turner says. “There are so many things to develop when you’re building a hotel and sometimes, components that are a little bit costly get pushed to the side when you have to weigh each one to see if you’re going to get your savings back. Often, sustainable elements come in, but it’s not a fully certifiable commitment.” 

LEED certifications can be costly, Okolichany admits, but alternatives like Green Globes assess similar metrics at a lower price. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality also offers a free NC GreenTravel certification, with points awarded in categories like waste reduction, air quality, transportation, housekeeping and green purchasing. Though enrollment in the program doesn’t qualify for public benefit points, 33 properties across Western North Carolina are certified members. 

Until a hotel application makes its way through the process, it’s hard to know which benefits will be selected and how successful they’ll be, Okolichany says. 

Ruark-Eastes agrees. Theoretically, the points system is a way to prioritize sustainability in planning and operating decisions, but the uncertainty around hotel developers’ decisions leaves a big question mark — especially with signs pointing to an influx of tourists as the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end. 

“Asheville has this history as a place people come to feel rejuvenated and restore their health,” Ruark-Eastes says. “It’s best to have spaces that mimic the healthiness of this land. And all of these factors can keep us moving toward the side of sustainability and away from the side of resource depletion and overconsumption.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:49 a.m. on April 15 to reflect the correct spelling of the Green Globes certification and to clarify that three local residential projects have qualified for that designation.

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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