Can the Hotel Industry Reach a Carbon Positive Future?

Construction has started on Populus, a carbon positive hotel designed by Studio Gang in downtown Denver. It’s the latest in a wave of hospitality destinations that are stepping up the sustainability factor.

Populus, an upcoming carbon positive hotel in Denver designed by Studio Gang

The environmental impact of new construction is both dire and intensifying. Not only do buildings account for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse emissions in the United States, but the world builds the square footage of New York City every 35 days. Seeking to circumvent this trend, real estate developer Urban Villages is envisioning a first-of-its-kind hotel opening in Denver next year. Designed by Studio Gang, the 265-room Populus will become the country’s first carbon positive hotel thanks to sustainable construction and a substantial ecological effort offsite that involves planting trees across 5,000 acres of forest.

Urban Villages found an ideal partner in Studio Gang, the lauded design firm helmed by Jeanne Gang, whose global portfolio is underscored with formal elan and a sensitivity to the natural world. That’s evident from the outset at Populus, whose facade ripples with distinctive windows informed by Colorado’s native Aspen trees and will be built using low-carbon concrete mixes and high-recycled content materials. Sloped “lids” over each window extend outward to shade the building’s interior, improving energy performance while neatly channeling rainwater to keep the facade looking pristine. It’s also located on the former site of Colorado’s first gas station and will become Denver’s first new-build hotel that lacks on-site parking.

“Improving the resiliency of our cities has never been more urgent—and it includes reducing carbon emissions as well as strengthening community bonds,” Gang says. “With its distinctive aspen eye windows, the building cultivates a lively pedestrian scene in its neighborhood, while simultaneously connecting you with views of the natural wonders beyond the city limits.”

Regent Sanya Bay and Hotel Indigo Sanya Bay by Büro Ole Scheeren

Carbon positivity is emerging as the next step in eco-focused hospitality, venturing beyond simply incorporating green materials, solar panels, water recycling, and plastic bans. Project Orange recently completed London’s Room2 Hotel, which became the world’s first hotel to reach net-zero emissions across its lifespan from construction to demolition. In Bali, the Katamama Suites and Beach Club at the sweeping OMA-designed Potato Head Studios resort are certified climate neutral, and each guest receives a “zero-waste kit” with a reusable water bottle, RPET tote bag, bamboo straw, and biodegradable slippers upon check-in. Büro Ole Scheeren’s Regent Sanya Bay and Hotel Indigo Sanya Bay, part of a striking resort scheduled to debut on China’s Hainan Island in 2026, aren’t completely carbon neutral, but vertical jungles, a stacked construction to minimize the physical footprint, and internal layouts designed to facilitate cross-ventilation step up its sustainability factor.

Like organic food products, the eco-hotel branding has become more style than substance. Studio Gang’s sustainable efforts at Populus should set a benchmark for both the travel and construction industries if we actually want to see tangible change.

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