V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Environment "inn" style

Tucked discreetly at the base of slate-grey mountain peaks, hidden within a dense pine forest and eclipsed by an expanse of blue sky sits Aurum Lodge.

It's an unassuming property, chalet-like in appearance. But this nine-unit country inn was built with the fastidious vision of serious environmentalists, bent on making as minimal an impact as possible on its host land near Banff National Park.

It is also the only property in Canada to have earned a five out of five leaf rating with the Audubon Green Leaf Eco-Rating Program, a rigorous system that sets the bar high for environmental responsibility in the hotel industry.

Observers agree the "environmentality" that has gripped the Canadian public with the fervour of a new religion over the last year has also converted the hotel industry, some say out of necessity.

According to the Hotel Association of Canada, 60% of Canadians look for environmentally friendly hotels as an important part of their travel plans.

In the queue

About 600 lodging properties have participated in the association's Green Key Eco-Rating Program this year, with another 400 waiting in the queue to be assessed. That compares to 200 hotels that registered last year.

"People are more educated on the issue," said Kevin Gallagher, head of the Green Leaf program. "We're starting to see more properties trying to market environmental values."

But while plaques lining the walls of hotel lobbies may boast of green-mindedness, how accountable are they?

While one plaque means the hotel has invested heavily into sustainability, another may mean they simply bought a membership into a green association.

Green Hotels Association, based in Texas, brings guests towel and sheet-changing cards bearing gentle reminders to reuse linens and save water. A listing on its site or a green flag outside a hotel shows that the hotelier subscribes to environmentalism, not necessarily that it's made any measurable changes.

The Green Key program relies on the honour system. Hotels fill out an online survey and then receive an evaluation that gives them an eco-rating of one to five green keys and a congratulatory plaque. Random properties are spot checked.

But for Aurum Lodge owner Alan Ernst, that wasn't enough.

"I don't believe in self-regulation. In my opinion, it doesn't work. That's why we have speed limits on highways. Things need to be enforced."

Instead, Ernst chose to pay a premium with the Green Leaf program, which sends in a third-party auditor for a thorough inspection. The rating is good for three years, after which the property owner has to fill out the 100-point survey all over again. The survey looks at everything from energy and water consumption to staff training. Do cleaners dust the electric coils at the back of minibars, for example, which can save energy, or close room curtains in the summer to keep out the heat?

The program's also pricier, at $800 to register the property, and an additional $1 per room. That compares with $350 at Green Key.

Ernst is not one to shy away from paying a premium for environmental responsibility. He estimates he spent 40% more to build a sustainable lodge and knew eight years ago it would take 15 years before he would see any payback.

Superior insulation

He used R55 cellulose insulation, almost four times more effective than conventional insulation. The lodge is powered by solar energy about 85% of the time, though this month the Ernsts haven't had to kick in the backup generator at all thanks to clear skies.

Instead of settling for "acceptable," Ernst opted for state-of-the-art with a $50,000 septic system, knowing he wouldn't get any payback from it except perhaps extra assurance it won't leak into ground or surface water. Wood was locally sourced and they avoided oil and tar-based materials like offgassing paints and wall-to-wall carpeting which emits volatile chemicals over time.

Guests at Aurum Lodge consume 150 litres of water a day per person -- that's compared to a national per capita average of 335 litres in 2001. The lodge uses 90% less fossil fuels than comparable properties.

While Gallagher applauds green programs for pushing the environmental agenda, he points to an old adage: "You can't manage what you can't measure."

-- 2007

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