Sniffing out, or being sniffed out, by emerging green businesses is one of the most exciting aspects of my job. It reminds me of looking for Easter eggs as a child – you never know when another unexpected treasure appears in the most unlikely place.
So when I’m called to visit a ‘green annexe’ in town, I jump at the occasion. How green can a section of a hotel be, and what do they mean in this case by green?
When Mark Bleloch, electrical engineer, and a partner purchased a building adjoining the Hollow on the Square in the City centre, with his strong belief in green as an excellent niche, he was determined to redo this building the green and sustainable way.
‘With rising electricity costs, we had no doubt that looking after our carbon footprint would, in the long run, be a sound decision from an economic point of view. And then of course there is the huge marketing benefit of being first.’ With their close proximity to the CTICC, visited by international travelers who are sensitive to green choices, they knew the time was right to piggy back on the city’s green developments.
To find an accredited green establishment slap bang in the centre of the city was almost a contradiction in terms. Surrounded by the concrete jungle, you don’t really expect to find a synergy of natural elements with semi-zen clean lines, dressed in sustainable cork and bamboo, gently lit up by energy efficient lighting and intelligent electrically systems. But Mark was quick to educate me on the more technical aspects of how green this building really is:
Cork, bamboo and special glass keeps you cozy
Cork floors are warm and natural under foot. This is a natural and sustainable resource imported from Portugal by proudly Portuguese company Amorim. This is where cork oaks grow naturally up to 200 years old. In these plantations they don’t harvest the cork until the trees are 25-30 years old. Stripping the bark in sections by hand is a tradition of hundreds of years. This doesn’t damage the tree and it grows back fast and even smoother each time. So each tree can be stripped up to 20 times.
Not a single tree is chopped down and I love this natural substance’s sound and heat insulation properties. Nice and warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Just what we need in these variable climates we are adapting to now. Although it’s initially more expensive than carpets, it’s more cost effective in its low maintenance over 15 years. Also healthier, as you don’t have the problem of allergies and dust mites breeding underfoot.
Bamboo furniture, like cork, isn’t only eco, but beautiful too. All the furniture, vanities and skirtings are made of pressed or laminated bamboo culms or stalks. Another tree saving resource, bamboo grass grows new shoots where it was cut down. So no need to replant. The long list of credentials truly makes this sound like a magical material that’s durable, chip resistant, up to 50 times stronger than oak, lighter than steel.
The yield is 25 times that of timber, it sequesters 4 times more carbon than a forest of young trees and releases 35% more oxygen. As they are ready to harvest in 3 years from planting, we can hopefully rely on a more local source soon. The furniture was also coated in eco friendly water based sealer without the harmful chemical compounds in normal petroleum based varnishes.
Double glazed windows is something which is standard in Europe, but still not commonly used here. With a special argon gas in between two layers of glass, it’s amazing how sound-proof these large sliding doors are. Although you’re right in the middle of the city, it cuts out all street sounds. And of course the huge benefit of thermal insulation is keeping the temperature even inside the room and minimizing the need to use the special 4 star Daiken Inverter Technology split air-conditioning unit. Large sliding doors give natural light and fresh air to take advantage of a predominantly temperate climate, but when closed are very well insulated for those passing fronts or December/January heat-waves. The local principle was applied in the use of materials and craftsmanship as all the furniture were hand- made by a local craftsman and light fittings and bathroom accessories are local too.
- To my mind energy saving is the crown of the Green Annex, as Mark had applied his knowledge and interest in electrical engineering to, together with local experts Tim Stevens from Power-Star and Glynn Morris from AGAMA to ensure this building is energy neutral. Best of all is that the electricity consumption is monitored every minute in every room and this data is captured by a computer programme, which feeds the information to the office computers all the time. Interesting figures and graphs enable management to always be aware of their carbon and water footprints. This allows for immediate financial tracking too. The information is also available on their website for all to see, so transparent real time monitoring of consumption provides an educational aspect to this initiative.
- Rule 1 is turn it off. Electronics go off when you go out. LED 24/7 intelligent occupancy sensor and key cards monitor whether you are there or not.
- Low energy fluorescent and CFL globes are being replaced with LEDs. I loved the cute LED night lights next to the bed. Tiny but sufficient and ambient.
- Solar water heaters work with a pump circulating glycol and transferring heat from 12 solar panels on the roof to hot water storage tanks on each floor.
- Bar Fridges with special absorptive technology are not only completely silent, thank heavens, but use a fraction of the power of the standard compressor bar fridge.
- New energy star compliant LCD monitors and low energy PCs for the in room entertainment system also play a role in halving the consumption.
- Whilst the Green Annex is still using ESKOM power as electricity, they outsource clean electricity by purchasing renewable energy certificates each month from a hydro-energy plant to the same value of their consumption. This certifies the issuing, transfer and redemption of their energy consumption through Agama energy from the Friedenheim Hydro plant on the Crocodile River in Mpumalanga.
- Each of the 30 rooms consume 400 Watt average power when occupied, based on their February to May measurements. This sets a new benchmark and is typically ½ to 1/3 of that of a standard hotel room in a city setting.
Certification 4 leaf from Green Stay SA
- The Green Annex at the Hollow on the Square has a 4 leaf rating from Green Stay SA. Criteria that were assessed are construction, environmental management, energy, water, waste and chemicals.
- They have also engaged Green Leaf Environmental Standard, another rating agency affiliated with international travel companies (Thompsons and ECCO TOURS), to rate their hotel.
- Mark is also investigating applying for Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa accreditation.
- When GBCSA (the Green Building Council of South Africa) have adapted the Australian rating tool for hotels then they will look at applying for their rating.
- In time there will emerge a national accreditation standard which will be comparable with international accreditation standards.
- I enjoyed the excitement around doing the right thing and reaping well deserved benefits. Whilst green choices are initially more expensive, there is a payback period as low as 4 years.
Future calls for wind energy, organics and recycling
- The next upgrade planned for the solar water geyser is a heat pump as a backup when there is no sun, instead of an electrical element.
- As the Green Annex is part of a normal hotel, their next challenge is now to green up the functioning of their mothership. They are in the process of implementing recycling and the use of organic foods in the restaurant. I was not sure how pucker their cleaning materials and cosmetics were. If ingredients aren’t listed on containers, then there’s already a problem with transparency. It usually means some nasties hide inside.
- Mark plans to install photo voltaic (PV) energy and a wind energy generator to capture the city’s extensive wind resource for free power. They are waiting for ESKOM’s feed-in tariffs to be finalized for the smaller consumer.
- The plan is to expand upwards and add another 56 rooms above the existing 3 floors on floors 5 to 12.
- As leaders in the greening hospitality trade, they are keen to share what they’ve learned with others. In reducing their carbon deficit and footprint, they have also found a significant reduction in energy costs – a benefit which would become more and more pronounced with increasing electricity rates.
- The Hotel is to be used as a show case for tested green concepts.
Photography by Chris Cloete