How Africa’s Greenest Hotel Got $Millions Just For Being Green
There are not a lot of hotels near Cape Town International Airport. Most business and leisure travelers are in a hurry to get to Cape Town, or reluctant to leave, and understandably so, given the city’s many attractions.
That’s why the 145-room Hotel Verde, located about a three-minute drive to Cape Town International Airport, feels like such a game changer. I stayed there my last night of a recent trip to Cape Town and it felt like a glimpse into the future of the hotel industry.
Hotel Verde claims to be Africa’s greenest hotel, built from the ground up according to eco-friendly principles. Staying there, you are practicing conscious, sustainable tourism. It’s the first hotel in Africa to offer a carbon-neutral stay, meaning you know exactly how much or how little your stay impacted the environment, and that makes for a feel-good experience.
Being accountable for its footprint is the guiding principle behind this hotel, which opened in August, 2013. South Africa’s green building certification wasn’t sophisticated enough for Hotel Verde, said General Manager Samantha Annandale, so they applied for — and got – LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Annandale reckons the hotel got about 30 million rand (2.57 million USD) in free publicity just for being green.
Pulling up to the hotel, I knew it was going to be unlike anything I’d ever experienced when I saw the massive wind turbines spinning in the parking lot. But as big as they appear to be, they aren’t big enough, Annandale said. Though these are the most visible signs of green technology at the hotel, the wind turbines turned out to be probably its least productive investment.
“Return on investment (of wind turbines) is 20 years,” Annandale said. “We’d need to build (the wind turbines) bigger to make it worth it. We’ve learned from our mistakes. But they make a huge statement.”
Annandale spent a lot more time talking to me about the hotel’s eco pool, which uses plants and natural soil filtration to balance bacteria without chlorine. Water is clean and clear, but nothing like the hotel swimming pool international guests are used to, and some find it a bit weird, Annandale said.
Getting used to it requires a new mindset. “We cannot build hotels the way we used to build them,” she said.
Hotel Verde owners Mario and Annemarie Delicio have a 10-year lease on the wetland adjacent to the hotel where they built the eco pool. They took what amounted to a rat-infested swamp and turned it into an outdoor gym, with plants that attract birds and bees, owl houses and beehives that the hotel harvests. Kids staying at the hotel can go on a treasure hunt there.
Born in Italy and raised in Germany, Mario is a longtime South African resident and the shareholder in another hotel in Ethiopia.
One of Mario’s goals at Hotel Verde was to have zero waste to landfill. “We wanted to revolutionize that,” Annandale said. So far, the hotel manages to divert an 91-to-94 percent of waste from the landfill and they do that by recycling. The hotel has a composting room. Packaging is returned to suppliers. “One thing you can never control is what guests bring in,” Annandale said.
About 30 percent of the hotel staff’s time is spent educating school children, guests, tours and site inspectors.
Hotel Verde construction cost about 240 million rand ($20.5 million) and building it green cost about 20 million rand ($1.7 million) more than an ordinary hotel would have cost, Annandale estimates. It will take three to five years to see a return on the investment, she said.
Annandale is particularly proud of the room where gray water from guest showers is recycled. It’s fed into tanks, filtered by ultraviolet light, and then piped back up into the building to flush guest toilets.
The hotel also has a 40,000-liter rainwater harvesting tank for car washing, irrigation and cleaning.
To save energy on water heating, a geothermal loop system 90 feet beneath the surface of the hotel taps into the natural water in the earth, acting as a heat sink for the hotel water.
Engineers from the University of Cape Town visit the hotel, which serves as a model for the Stellenbosch municipality.
Art designed by local school children and South African artists is used to decorate the hotel. School children in the nearby townships don’t get art education, according to Annandale. Mario agreed to fund an art education project on condition the children learn about sustainability. In return, they created the designs for stunning tapestries that decorate the common areas on the floor I my room was on.
Using Recycled Products
One wall in the lobby was textured with recycled glass. The hotel’s carpet runners are made of recycled plastic. On the outside of the hotel, a five-story mosaic art installation was designed by Svenja, Mario’s youngest daughter.
There is free unlimited Wi-Fi and sensor lighting throughout Hotel Verde, and my room was paperless, in that all hotel information was on the TV.
One of my favorite places in the hotel was in the basement garage, where graffiti artists had been invited to come in and paint. This turned out to be a moneymaker for the hotel. Guests loved the basement art and some have paid to have banquets there, Annandale said.
But you probably want to hear about the rooms. I loved that the butter cookies I found on the coffee tray in my room were made by a local woman in Mitchell’s Plain, one of South Africa’s largest townships.
“We helped her become compliant in food preparation and now she employs two people,” Annandale said.
When you check out of Hotel Verde, you have the option to offset your carbon footprint and you can track where and how it was offset. Just knowing that made me feel good.
This story was originally published on Dec. 16, 2014.