Dennis Quaintance, CEO of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurant & Hotels, landed his first job at age 15 as a houseman in a hotel in Missoula, Mont., and never left the business. Today he is the proud owner and developer of the Print Works Bistro and Proximity Hotel, a 147-room luxury hotel and restaurant in Greensboro, N.C., the first in the hospitality industry to obtain the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification, a designation reserved for the highest performing buildings.
That footnote, however, is certainly lost on the typical Proximity guest, who would be hard-pressed to see the small sticker discreetly placed on the bottom of a door at the property's main entrance.
When Quaintance began designing the project four years ago, he became personally involved in the selection of materials and technologies that would be sustainable, a method of using resources so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged. When he reached a decision on a particular technology or material, he consulted the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED manual to see if the idea would earn credits toward certification.
In every aspect of the project, a high level of attention was paid to detail and how it would impact the hotel's sustainability. Take a table top, for instance. "With the table top you would first do a life cycle assessment. We don't want to put something in here that we're just going to be throwing in the trash in a year or two," he explains. "Second, can we get it locally? Third, is it a renewable resource or a non-renewable resource?"
Renewable energy is energy generated from natural resources such as sunlight, wind and rain, and it is energy that is naturally replenished. Non-renewable resources such as coal, petroleum or natural gas, often exist in a fixed amount.
"Fourth, if this isn't awarded by LEED but it's consistent with our sustainable practices initiatives, can we buy this from a craftsman as opposed to a manufacturer? Can we support some local economy like that, and is that practical?" Buying local products and materials saves transportation costs as well as energy, thereby reducing the amount of carbon released into the environment.
Although LEED does not give credits to anything that can be removed from a building, the Proximity's guestroom shelving and its bistro table tops are made from 100% post-industrial recycled wood pulp with no added formaldehyde.
"We considered everything from the windows on and said, ‘Is there anything we can do with this that might affect energy usage somewhere else?'" says Quaintance.
The total cost of the Proximity upon completion in October 2007 was nearly $30 million. The premium to build to a LEED Platinum level came to about $3 million.
The cost for the 100 solar panels on the hotel's roof top were defrayed by state and federal tax credits as well as a five-year $500,000 loan at a rate of 3% from the North Carolina State Energy Office.
Not only do the solar panels provide 60% of the hot water used in the Proximity, Quaintance is also able to sell energy generated by the solar panels to the local energy company for $20,000 per year. In all, the Proximity saves approximately $140,000 in energy bills annually compared with Quaintance's second hotel, the O. Henry, which sits a mile away.
While there is little visually to remind guests of Proximity's energy efficiency or sustainable features, Quaintance does showcase the fact in his advertising materials. Hence companies looking for a green angle have sought out the establishment for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. For example, the national Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders association based in Santa Barbara, Calif. held an annual meeting there precisely because of the hotel's sustainable features.
"We don't brag about it with our guests once they get there," says Quaintance. "We brag about it in our advertising. But we think that a hotel is about luxury — especially a luxury hotel — not about using less energy."
Recently a guest, an interior designer from San Francisco, commented on how much she enjoyed the natural light in the Bistro, the open doors that allowed the fresh air to flow through at night, and the use of local artists and craftsmen. "I asked what she thought about all of the sustainable practices," Quaintance recalls. But the guest had no idea she was staying in a green hotel, he says.
For visitors to the Proximity who do want to learn more about the project's sustainable features, there is an hour-long tour. So far, 9,000 people have taken the offering. It is part of Proximity's education center for sustainable practices, which includes symposiums and outreach programs for students of all ages.
In the end, however, the whole project may be the result of a missed college education. "I've always worried that I don't know enough so I study a lot," muses Quaintance. "I just love to learn. I love my curiosity. I indulge my curiosity."