“For the modern traveller, sustainability is not just a buzzword: It is something they are trying to make part of their daily life, and a huge selling point when they travel,” says Bill Bensley, the Bangkok-based designer and hotelier behind such eco-friendly properties as Capella Ubud in Bali, the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, and Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia. As a pioneer in sustainable hotel design for the past three decades, Bensley not only anticipated the shift toward sustainability, but is also now sharing his hard-earned knowledge with others in the industry. Earlier this year, he released a white paper called “Sensible Sustainable Solutions,” which outlines best practices and illustrates examples of successful hotel projects.
According to Bensley, building sustainable hotels is not only better for the environment, but can also increase a hotel’s profits over time. Unfortunately, there’s a common misconception that building green is inherently more expensive and a lack of knowledge about the effects of construction on climate change. “Most project owners don’t realize that the construction sector alone contributes to 23% of air pollution, 50% of the climatic change, 40% of drinking water pollution, and 50% of landfill waste worldwide,” Bensley says, adding, “They also don’t realize that they can make so much more money by building sustainably.”
In his white paper, which he has made free and available to download on his website, Bensley outlines the importance of building with a purpose beyond profit-making, which could be supporting the local community, championing environmental issues, providing guests with new experiences, or—ideally—all of the above. He encourages hotel owners to operate locally by planting a vegetable garden, for example, or sourcing food and other products locally, which reduces the carbon footprint of the hotel’s supply chain.
When it comes to building new hotels, Bensely emphasizes the need to create respectfully—protecting rather than destroying the land. He advocates for a model he calls “low impact high yield,” which prioritizes small hotels with rooms that command higher rates over large hotels with lower rates. It makes sense: A smaller architectural footprint allows for minimal intervention on the natural landscape and gives guests a sense of privacy as well as exclusivity. On sites in Thailand, Bali, and Cambodia, for example, Bensley has used temporary stakes and strings to create the layouts for tented suites and villas that work around the trees rather than cutting them down.
Energy-saving tips include creating layouts that incorporate plenty of natural light and allow for cross-ventilation, which will save energy. The choice of building materials is also important. “Concrete is the second most widely used material in the world (after water), and if it was a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world: its 2.8 billion tons are surpassed only by China and America,” Bensley writes in “Sensible Sustainable Solutions.” He lists alternative materials such as bamboo, recycled plastic, adobe, cork, sustainably sourced wood, Timbercrete (concrete and sawdust), and Ferrock, which is stronger than concrete but uses less carbon dioxide. It is also made of recycled materials like steel dust.
For the interiors, Bensley swears by upcycling. He’s known for his use of antiques and vintage furniture that gives hotels like the JW Marriott Phu Quoc in Vietnam, the Siam Bangkok, and Rosewood Luang Prabang a sense of place and personality. As he puts it: “Not everything needs to be brand new in a new hotel.”