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Eco-friendly Hotel Targets Conscientious Travelers; Developer's
 Mission is to Change the World One Traveler at a Time

By Barbara E. Hernandez, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Dec. 15, 2006 - AMERICAN CANYON -- Today's hotels are trying for a new kind of audience: those who put their bucks where their beliefs are. And if you're thinking "green," chances are you want to stay green when you travel, too.

The developer of the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel is hoping to attract the more environmentally-conscious travelers..

Developer Wen-I Chang's motto is placed behind the front desk: "Our mission is to change the world one traveler at a time."

The hotel, which fuses natural light and recycled materials into a sustainable and environmentally sound motif, is hoping to cash in on travelers making their way to the plentiful Napa Valley.

From recycled carpets to low-emissions paints, the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel hopes to be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified. The LEED designation is a stamp of green approval by the U.S. Green Building Council, based in Washington, D.C. The level of certification is based on the score of each project. The higher the score, the higher the level. The certification goes from the basic certification up to LEED Platinum.

The 132-room Gaia Napa Valley Hotel wants to go for the gold, making it the highest-rated hotel in the state and the nation.

The hotel integrates scrap metal, recycled wood and rainwater runoff to create Swan Lake, home to two "territorial swans" that will run off any other birds looking to nest, said James Soule, general manager.

Other than the unique design that mimics the surrounding hills, the inside of the hotel looks like many others: rooms with a large television, large bed and high-speed wireless Internet access.

The LEED Green Building Rating System is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED conforms to and surpasses California's 2005 Building Energy Efficient Standards, or Title 24, that took effect Oct. 1, 2005.

According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, building construction accounts for a sixth of the world's fresh water withdrawal, one-quarter of its wood harvest and almost half of its energy and materials. Building green is a way to use resources more efficiently and create healthier buildings that improve savings.

A 1998 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reported that increased ventilation, low-emission products and good heating and cooling filtration can create better indoor air quality and reduce symptoms of allergies, asthma, respiratory disease and "sick building" syndrome -- in which people frequently get sick from poorly ventilated air.

According to Lynn Simon, the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel's LEED building consultant in San Francisco, the hotel should make silver if not gold by spring.

The Taiwanese-born Chang decided to place the hotel in American Canyon, where he said he was "embraced" by the city. "In Napa, (the response) was not so hot," he said. "And where else could I get 4.6 acres?"

The $20 million hotel is only about a block from Napa. The city of American Canyon promised Chang a $1 million tax credit and a break on transient occupancy tax.

Chang, who is the head and founder of the south San Francisco-based Atman Hospitality Group, also plans to create other LEED-certified hotels in Anderson, downtown Merced and Mt. Shasta.

Chang said his life changed about 10 years ago in Santa Cruz when he had to ask a waitress for water during a water shortage. That night, he shortened his shower from 10 minutes to two and realized that he had a role to play. As a hotel developer, he said, he also has a responsibility to the planet.

"Conscientious businessmen have to do something," Chang, 62, said.

His first attempt at a green hotel in Half Moon Bay stalled, and he changed his focus to the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel, which broke ground in 2001. The hotel, designed by Mickey Muenning and Todd Jersey, will have a restaurant and spa to go with the hotel's meeting and conference facilities by February. Green does not mean guests will go without pampering.

Soule said the hotel will offer everything any other high-end Napa Valley hotel does, only with better air quality and environmentally-friendly products. The emphasis is on the "New Age traveler," who wants the chance to make an ecological choice, Chang said.

Consultants said Chang's project shows courage and foresight.

"It all comes down to the free market," said Brian Gitt, executive director for the Berkeley-based Build It Green. "You either plan for the future and be an innovator or be a follower and drag your feet the whole way."

According to U.S. Green Building Council spokeswoman Taryn Holowka, only three hotels have achieved LEED status: the University of Maryland University College Inn & Conference Addition in Adelphi, Md.; the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Len Foote Hike Inn in Dawsonville, Ga.; and the Snowmass Golf Clubhouse in Snowmass Village, Colo., in which only the clubhouse has been certified gold. The Orchard Hotel in San Francisco is in the process of being certified by the agency.

Reach Barbara E. Hernandez at 925-952-5063 or


Copyright (c) 2006, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

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