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Beyond Sustainable: How America's First "Carbon Positive" Hotel Shows What's Possible For The Planet (And Profits)

with Jon Buerge, President at Urban Villages

Together with

We’re also learning about:

  • How America's first "carbon positive" hotel shows what's possible for the planet (and profits)

  • How to attract more of the right guests with data and AI

  • The “hospitality maze”

  • Q3 and Q4 industry performance

  • …and much more

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Beyond Sustainable: How America's First "Carbon Positive" Hotel Shows What's Possible For The Planet (And Profits)

with Jon Buerge, President at Urban Villages

Jon Buerge, President at Urban Villages

Populus is going to be the first carbon-positive hotel in America when it opens in Denver in 2024, which basically means it leaves the planet in a better place than before it existed because it's removing carbon dioxide (C02) emissions from the air.

Populus Hotel / Credit: Studio Gang

Today, we’re going behind the scenes with the developer of the incredible project, Jon Buerge of Urban Villages, to hear all about how it got started and the opportunity it presents for all of us in hospitality.

I strongly believe that the real estate industry has to play a really critical role in solving the climate challenge that we're facing as human species. And I think that hotels in particular have the biggest opportunity to convey the importance of this work.

Why focus on real estate development for sustainability?

Over 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions today come from buildings. When we talk about ecological destruction, we talk about mass mining, we talk about deforestation, over 50% of the materials that we take from our planet go into the built environment. It also affects waste stream. Over 60% of the materials that we put in our landfills today are coming from construction waste.

You cannot effectively mitigate or correct the damages of climate change without looking to the real estate industry. And that's kind of surprising. Most people look to single occupancy vehicle mass transit, energy production, all really important aspects, but very little focus is on real estate. So for me, that's a really critical aspect.

What’s crazy is this is only accelerating.

It's estimated today that the world is building the equivalent square footage of New York City every 35 days. So if you think about what that means, between now and 35 days from now, we talk about late November, we will have rebuilt New York City in the world. And so when we talk about not only how are we building buildings, how are we operating buildings, how are we decommissioning buildings, it's a very critical part and it's an issue that's going to get bigger and bigger and bigger over time.

OK, but is sustainable building financially feasible?

Jon’s focus on creating projects that were not only sustainable but financially profitable accelerated after an early conversation with Urban Villages CEO Grant McCargo, who told him:

If you really truly want to make an impact, show people how to make money doing the right thing.

In our conversation, Jon addressed feasibility concerns, highlighting what he calls an “arbitrage opportunity” - referencing the European Union's implementation of the Paris Accord as a case study, noting that buildings that have not implemented decarbonization strategies and energy efficiency measures are actually losing value. Conversely, buildings that have invested in sustainability are seeing an increase in value. Jon believes there’s a strong financial incentive for building owners to invest in sustainability.

Populus Hotel / Credit: Studio Gang

Additionally, Jon emphasizes that investing in sustainability is not just about added costs but rather about being a responsible financial steward and preparing for the future. He notes that commercial buildings are going to have to be electric and in tandem with a cleaner grid and that it is irresponsible not to future-proof buildings when these changes are inevitable. He believes that the benefits of investing in sustainable buildings far outweigh the costs and that the industry is on the cusp of a significant shift towards sustainability.

Why are hotels so important in showing the potential of sustainable building?

Jon and his team are on a mission to build the greenest buildings possible that are financially viable, and that includes office buildings, student housing, multifamily apartment buildings, and hotels. Of all these projects, hotels and hospitality have a unique opportunity:

One thing that's really compelling about hotels is the fact that they get such heightened exposure over every other type of real estate.

If I build the greenest apartment building in the world, yes it makes a big impact, but it's only those hundred residents or whatever that live there for a whole year, who get to experience that and they get to really understand why that building makes an impact.

With a hotel, every night, there's a new audience that can experience what sustainability really, deeply means, that can experience how their consumption decisions can make an immediate impact on the health of the planet. So the ability to be able to have two full-service restaurants, to be able to have co-working and event space, to be able to have 265 rooms that people are going to be flowing through constantly, gives us an opportunity to be able to tell this story 500 times a day to new people. And in a fun and an exciting way that's not guilt-driven, but exciting.

Hopefully you leave that experience thinking “I just left the planet in a better place than I found it by choosing to stay at this hotel.” And you may go back to your hometown and start to talk about that experience. And then maybe other hotel developers start to do that or other apartment developers start to see that. There's more and more and more consumers that experience this and say this is a really cool way of thinking about buildings. I want more of it. And then that will just continue to grow and create more and more of an impact.

Populus Hotel / Credit: Studio Gang

Jon closed our conversation with something I want to leave you with as you think about the opportunity here:

Hospitality is like the megaphone of the real estate industry. It's the place in which more and more people can get exposed to these type of buildings and ideas.

  • More about Jon’s journey to today and what he’s learned in his career doing this

  • How to make more money by doing the right thing

  • Addressing developer hesitation

  • Definitions: What is "carbon neutral"? What is "carbon positive"?

  • Behind the scenes on building a carbon-positive hotel

  • Calculating carbon impacts

  • How the Populus Hotel got started

  • Collaborators on this project (their architect is amazing!)

  • Advice for the hospitality industry on this today

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