The Interview: Wen-I Chang, Gaia Napa Valley and Gaia Anderson
Wen-I Chang is the visionary builder behind Gaia Napa Valley Hotel & Spa, the world’s first, LEED Gold hotel, which opened in March, 2007. Now the Taiwanese-born hotelier, who lives in California, is about to unveil his next green hotel, Gaia at Anderson, California. Built for $14 million the hotel opens on April 1, 2008. The new property will have 122 rooms and it features low-VOC paints, recycled carpets, and energy-saving air conditioners and heaters. The wood used in construction is certified new growth wood and the landscaping on the 11 acre site adjacent to the Sacramento River is chemical-free. Solar lighting is being used to illuminate the public areas of the hotel via SolaTubes, which focus the light of the sun. They replace electric lights and energy consumption during the day. Solar power provides more than 12 percent of the hotel’s electrical needs. And a real-time display in the lobby will show how much energy and water is being used by the hotel and keep tabs on CO2 savings. Naturally, Chang hopes to achieve LEED Gold status for this property as well. The LEED Green Building Rating System, by the way, is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. It was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. Chang’s next green hotel will be in Merced, California. He spoke with me recently from his office in California.
In ancient Greece, Gaia was the goddess mother of earth, mother earth. It’s the same idea in ancient China. The idea was developed and called the Gaia Hypothesis by Dr. James Lovelock back in the 1960’s. You have to think of the earth as a living organism like us. The rivers are blood vessels, the trees and grass are hair, the rocks and mountains represent our bones.
How did you become so invested in the green hotel and building movement?
It began in my childhood in Taiwan. My father was listening to the BBC on his shortwave and said, ‘Oh those Americans, wasting the gifts of God.’ The agriculture department was throwing surplus wheat into the Pacific Ocean to maintain the price of wheat. I asked my father, ‘Why don’t they give it to the hungry children in Africa?’
How did Gaia Napa Valley Hotel & Spa achieve LEED Gold status?
I never thought of LEED status. To be green is very natural to me, it’s in my nature, in my blood.
We’ve done much more. Gaia at Anderson is next to the Sacramento River and we’ve kept three fifths of the big trees on the site to preserve the natural setting and create oxygen and to cool the building. We’ve left two acres contiguous to the Sacramento River untouched. We also did one little thing, a little thing that’s a big thing to me. We hired an arborist and told him that we did not want to destroy any unnecessary trees. Now there’s a tree called an elderberry and there are longhorn elderberry bugs living in it. They are nearly extinct. So we saved the trees to save the bugs and we sacrificed 23 parking spaces to do that.
How much more expensive is it to build green?
The first hotel, in Napa, was maybe 12 to 15 percent more expensive to build. The second one, Gaia at Anderson, costs five to six percent more. The newest one, in Merced, will only three percent more. When we built the first one, there were not that many green products. If you wanted a green roof, there was one manufacturer. Now there are 20.
How have guests responded to the green practices behind the Gaia Napa Valley?
We have two types of guests. Those who are used to a real strong powerful shower head complain, because we use 1.4 gallons per minute. The water doesn’t seem that strong to them. And they say that the toilet flush is too noisy. Our toilets use .99 gallons per flush. They make a lot of noise with the high pressure. I say for the good of the earth, we have to sacrifice a little bit. We have to come back to our true nature. But so many guests love what we’re doing. One wrote me a letter that I’m the hero of the earth.
So they get it?
We don’t need a leader to tell us that it’s time to go green. Ours human brothers are awakening to all things green. It’s like a school of fish or a flock of birds. When they shift direction, they shift simultaneously. Grass root simultaneity is what I label it.