As the newly revamped W Hotel in San Francisco shows, green is as much in the mechanisms as it is in the metaphors. The architect for the hotel’s renovation of its public spaces, Natoma Architects’ Stanley Saitowitz, drew his metaphor from lines penned by 19th-century San Franciscan writer Ambrose Bierce: Careful now. / We’re dealing here with a myth. / This city is a point upon a map of fog; / Lemuria in a city unknown. / Like us, / It doesn’t quite exist.

Lemuria is a mythical ‘lost land,’ whose elusive borders shift according to the whims of a fleeting desire. The fog in San Francisco is an equally transient creature, able to transform the city through interplay of light and shadow. Saitowitz’s redesign uses the ideas of ‘map’ and ‘fog’ throughout the design to inspire a new, contextual sort of hotel experience that corresponds to the W’s mission to create an ‘eclectic urban retreat.’ “We took a very contemporary approach to . . . that interpretation of San Francisco,” says Michael Pace, general manager for W San Francisco. “The whole pattern of this design is woven into the public space.”

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Upstairs at the W Hotel in San Francisco, which received simultaneous energy and aesthetic overhauls. It was the seventh hotel in the country to reach LEED-EB Silver. Photo: W San Francisco 

Originally constructed in 1999 and designed by architects Hornberger + Worstell, the 385,000-square-foot hotel in the heart of downtown San Francisco’s NoMa district received LEED-EB Silver certification in 2010, predicating Saitowitz’s redesign of the 31-story building, completed in 2011. The two separate initiatives set the precedent for what the W brand is moving forward. “This was the third hotel for the W brand, and the first one built from the ground up,” Pace says. “It became a sort of prototype for what a new build would look like for the future, in terms of both design and sustainability.”

Saitowitz’s renovations began at the tail end of 2009, when the hotel was putting the finishing touches on its LEED-EB submission. The subsequent certification made the hotel the seventh in the United States and the first major hotel brand in the world to achieve this level of certification. “When I came to the W in 2007, the hotel team approached me to help them put some green initiatives in place—it was literally a grassroots initiative,” Pace says. “After analyzing the hotel, I was also committed to putting the brand first and not putting any sustainability initiatives in place that would deter from the brand experience.”

Michael Pace - W SF General Manager - Spencer Brown photo

“It became a prototype for what a new build would look like for the future, in terms of both design and sustainability,” says general manager Michael Pace of the W Hotel San Francisco. Photo: Spencer A. Brown

Beyond treating the hotel as a prototype for branded architecture, Pace initiated and oversaw a concerted effort to incorporate sustainability into the W’s prototypic schema—an effort that is now continuous for all of the international brands overseen by Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which aims to reduce energy by 30 percent and water usage by 20 percent in each of its hotels by 2020.

In speaking with some of his former partners, Pace realized that LEED Silver would be easily attainable for the building, which has 404 guest rooms, 15,000 square feet of meeting space, two bars, and a restaurant in its program. In the interest of serving the triple bottom line, Pace hired two LEED APs, who were enrolled at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, to consult on the W’s green overhaul. “With two students and sheer sweat and tenacity, it took us under one year—with no capital improvements—to help us earn LEED Silver,” Pace says.

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The concierge area of the renovated W San Francisco. The artwork on the wall is a stylized map of the city. Photo: W San Francisco

Since 2008, the hotel has reduced its energy use by 20 percent and its water use by 32 percent. As an aspect of the overhaul, more than 70 percent of the lighting was attached to motion sensors, and the bulbs were changed to CFLs and LEDs in public and back-room spaces. The waterless urinals in the public bathrooms save 300,000 gallons per year, and 1.0-gpf toilets and 2-gpm faucets and showers reduce water even further. Additionally, the hotel recycles and composts more than 85 percent of its waste, and by reusing laundry bags and clothes hangers, more than 250,000 plastic laundry bags and 350,000 metal hangers are diverted from landfills every year.

“We also introduced variable frequency drives on our hot-water heater and installed a third, smaller water chiller to take the energy load off the two large chillers when the hotel has a low occupancy,” Pace says. “The two chillers that were on the roof were far larger than they needed to be. It’s amazing how much energy we started saving when we added the third chiller.”


The dynamic glass façade of the W Hotel uses View glass to let in plenty of daylight without glare or heat, aiding the building in its energy-reduction goals.

One of the W’s most visible energy-savers is the hotel’s dynamic-glass façade, engineered by View (formerly Soladigm). A demonstration kiosk in the lobby shows how the glass uses electrochromic technology to transition from clear to variable tint, reducing heat gain and glare without shades or fritting.

Although the redesign was too late to contribute to the LEED rating, all elements included by Saitowitz were designed to respond to LEED guidelines with low-VOC finishes, LED lighting, recycled construction waste, and other subtle sustainable features. “We really wanted to revamp the food and beverage experience of the hotel,” Pace says of the redesign’s primary goal. “The public spaces needed a remodel, so we took the two bars, the restaurant, and the area we call ‘the living room’ and gave [Saitowitz] two criteria: we wanted to continue building to LEED standards and to design with the idea of W’s New York aesthetic export with respect to the local culture.”

In the public area of the hotel, Saitowitz mimicked the ‘fog’ idea by removing the doors to create an interior flow to the space and adding a dot pattern on the ceilings and wall covers, and the LED-backlit grid forms on the walls represent the grid pattern of the city. The hotel restaurant, Trace, echoes the sustainable initiatives set by the brand, focusing on farm-to-table food concepts; local produce, draft beers, and wines; and honey gathered on-site from the hotel’s rooftop beehives.

Based on its reputation for sustainability, the hotel has been a focal point for green building organizations such as Greenbuild, which targeted the W as a gathering place for its 2012 conference. “We have a really good relationship with Greenbuild and other organizations, because I want people to know what we’re doing,” Pace says. “I want to tell people the story about how we can make a positive impact on the environment and also manage the brand integrity.”