Proximity owner: Going green is easier than you think
By Taft Wireback
News & Record, January 4, 2009
Tips for going green
Greensboro businessman Dennis Quaintance led efforts to make the Proximity Hotel a marvel of energy savings and environmental sustainability. Here are some strategies that helped him succeed:
1. Put a careful review process ahead of predetermined outcomes. Make a list of objectives for your building (i.e., attractive, durable, affordable, energy efficient, sustainable). Test every decision against each item on the list.
2. Use local materials, craftspeople and artists wherever possible. Long-distance transportation increases pollution.
3. Check materials for recycling. Do they include recycled ingredients? Can they be recycled someday?
4. Install monitors to track energy use after the building is operating. Closely checking HVAC systems reaped an extra $2,000 every month in energy savings at Proximity.
5. Maintain high standards. Green solutions should look good and work at least as well as traditional methods. “Ugly is not sustainable,” Quaintance says.
6. It’s not always rocket science. Big savings can be netted from such well-established technologies as solar energy.
7. Test components. Quaintance tested in daily use everything from energy-efficient lighting to eco-friendly bathroom fixtures before making final selections. See No. 5.
8. Do it yourself. Keep control over your project, instead of letting the professionals (architects, engineers) make all the major decisions.
9. Don’t gamble excessively on new technology. Quaintance delayed installing a roof garden (to conserve water, insulate space below) until more was known about the best plants to use. He’s testing different varieties now. See No. 7.
10. Don’t go broke going green. The ultimate test of sustainability is staying in business. “You just can’t invent a new business model,” Quaintance advises.
Dennis Quaintance has some valuable advice for American industry as it faces growing pressure to cut energy use and play nicer with the environment.
His message is simple: Relax, it’s easy. And it will be good for your bottom line.
That’s the most surprising thing the Greensboro hotelier and restaurateur says he learned in building Proximity Hotel and the adjoining Print Works Bistro — the nation’s most energy-efficient and environmentally gentle hotel complex.
The luxury inn and restaurant on Green Valley Road is the only hotel to win the highest “platinum” award from the United States Green Building Council.
“We weren’t trying to be the highest-rated hotel,” Quaintance said recently of the accolade. “Environmental sustainability was not at the top of our agenda. In fact, it was low on the list, but it was always there.”
And nearly every time he applied a business exec’s toughest test — “Is this financially feasible?” — the energy-wise and environmentally smart option won.
It turned out to be true in matters of heating, cooling, electricity, water supply, cooking, cleaning, lighting, flooring, insulating, decorating and more.
Solar panels on the roof heat 60 percent of the hotel’s water, a major factor in keeping yearly utility costs $140,000 lower than conventional technology. The elevators use energy going up, then make back some of the electricity as they descend. Spacious windows limit the need for artificial daytime lighting. Everywhere you look, items such as interior walls and metal staircases appear new, but actually are made with large volumes of recycled material.
These days Quaintance is a popular speaker at regional and national gatherings of such groups as the Urban Land Institute and other industry or professional groups.
That’s because what he learned building Proximity breaks new ground on issues important to America’s future, said Todd Mansfield, chairman of the well-known land institute and chief executive of the major development company Crosland Inc.
The Proximity could serve as a road map for President-elect Barack Obama as he prepares to take office and put more stress on environmental stewardship, new energy alternatives and the development of green industries.
“You never know what will catch the attention of a new administration,” said Mansfield, who is based in Charlotte. “But to me, this is emblematic of the new direction we need to be taking.”
Quaintance’s feat is all the more impressive because it involved building a hotel, said William Chameides, dean of Duke University’s school of the environment and earth sciences.
“It’s very difficult to do it in a hotel because you have so many people you need to accommodate,” Chameides said. “And he did it not only in a hotel, but a classy hotel.”
Quaintance came up with the idea for Proximity several years ago with his wife and business partner, Nancy.
They had planned to build a hotel in the Triangle, one much like the O.Henry they opened on the outskirts of Friendly Center 10 years ago.
For a variety of reasons, their Raleigh plans fell through, and the Quaintances were at loose ends. On a walk one day, they decided what they wanted to do next was renovate an old building, preferably in Greensboro, and turn it into a top-drawer hotel.
That proved impossible because no such buildings were available.
“So we decided to build the industrial building we would like to have found,” Dennis Quaintance said, a 1930s-era “cut and sew” textile mill with odd corners and big windows.
They began departing from standard building practices almost immediately by staying directly involved in the project.
Rather than turning over the nitty-gritty to a team of architects and engineers, as many clients do, Dennis Quaintance assembled his own team of 56 professionals in all the jobs needed to build and operate a hotel. They met periodically; all major decisions went through Quaintance.
He threw out the rule book in planning, directing the group to “focus on process, not outcome.” In other words, the right outcome would emerge naturally from a good screening process of all key decisions.
Each element of design had to be structurally and architecturally sound, affordable, attractive and otherwise suitable for a hotel offering the best amenities.
Then the team considered energy conservation and the environment.
Some contractors doubted the wisdom of including green criteria, even at that level.
“I was skeptical about the cost on the electrical end because we always have a budget we need to stay within,” said Steve Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Modern Electric in East Bend.
But he came away from the project a convert: “If you can figure a way to turn the lights off in a room when it’s empty, if you can use a little less power to light the building, why not? It might cost a little more at the start, but the payback is obvious and pretty quick.”
Heating and cooling contractor Joe Millikan of Randleman gained insight into the huge differences that various types of material made in energy consumption and the building’s subsequent operating costs: “We looked at 10 different kinds of (window) glass before we found the one that gave him the best energy performance.”
Just finding the right system to vent cooking heat from the Print Works kitchen saved thousands of dollars in yearly utility costs. It involves range hoods with fans that turn on only when needed and at exactly the right speed. Heat rejected by the kitchen’s refrigerators is piped into deep wells where it dissipates in the cold, subterranean waters.
A traditional builder might simply vent that hot air into the kitchen, making the hotel pay to cool air that it just paid its refrigerators to heat (in the process of chilling what’s in the refrigerators).
Why would any businessman in his right mind ever do that? Quaintance asks.
Or why would anybody ever waste the momentum of a descending elevator when it could be harnessed to manufacture some of the electricity needed for its next climb? Yet Proximity has the first of its type made by Otis Elevator Co.
“You find out how it works and you say, 'Well, why doesn’t every elevator work like that?’ It just makes such perfect sense,” Quaintance said.
So many items had that no-brainer quality that Quaintance downplays the degree of innovation he brought to the table, saying it is embarrassing to get such acclaim for tapping into existing technology aimed as much at saving money as saving the planet.
Yet his many fans in the green-building movement see the spark of genius in applying those thrifty principles to the construction and operation of a luxury hotel.
Kevin Hydes, chairman of the World Green Building Council, finds it impressive that the hotel “looks like it was meant to be.”
“He showed us that green really is the traditional approach,” Hydes said. “It’s how we’ve been building the last 75 years that is not traditional.”