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Margaret McMahon: Wilson Assoc.

Margaret McMahon, managing director of interior design firm Wilson Associates’ New York office, has been entrenched along the front lines of the hotel industry’s growing environmentally sustainable design movement for some time now and what she has observed has left her at the same time encouraged and frustrated. The comfort, of course, emanates from the fact that, yes, hotels are pursuing green design principles—finally. However, because of her knowledge of the potential of green design, she is equally bothered by hotel design’s current sustainability trajectory.

That path has enabled the industry to be, as McMahon noted, “led purely by [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] rankings. And that’s the only definition that seems to be out there and it’s driven by pure economics. It’s all about the LEED points.”

And while that’s all well and good, McMahon added, green hotel design has the potential to go far beyond what is merely possible under LEED. But to get to that point, she noted the hotel industry is going to have to find its own unique route.

“LEED is really not geared toward hotels,” said McMahon, who is currently working on the design of the future LEED-certified Fontainebleau hotel in Las Vegas. “We as an industry should create our own standards and submit them for governmental approval. We need to police ourselves and we can create standards that can exceed what’s out there now. We can create a new benchmark. But it will have to be government-mandated and more tax credits will have to be involved. Whereas today, you really pay a premium to get a true green building and to get there you really have to have a moral compass and the passion and commitment. Ninety percent of green buildings now just throw out the rule book from ground zero all the way to the end user because it’s all economically driven.”

Considering hotel owners and developers are understandably looking at sustainable design from a financial investment perspective, McMahon pointed out that many are even reluctant to simply pursue LEED certification, especially now in this recession, because it remains somewhat cost prohibitive. For example, McMahon said that Wilson Associates was originally tasked with designing a LEED-certified resort in Stowe, VT. But in the end, the developer chose not to go to such lengths because of the cost. The same can be said for the owners in every other hotel project the firm is currently working on, she added.

Consequently, when asked what the biggest obstacle is to the “greening” of the hotel industry now, McMahon said it starts and ends with the hotel owners. “It’s really all about convincing owners there’s value in going green,” she explained. “There are plenty of green product lines out there now. But for us it’s all about convincing. I have renovations we’re doing where the topic of incandescent versus fluorescent bulbs is still coming up. It’s incredible and mind boggling that we’re still having that conversation. Every owner usually has the best intentions to absolutely go green, but then they think it’s too cost prohibitive and the numbers don’t work out. But there are cases where it may be more expensive to not go green. So it comes down to affordability and awareness.”

And once those two aspects become more pronounced, McMahon is confident green hotel projects will simply be the future. “In 10 years I think everything will be green,” she asserted. “It won’t even be a question I will have to ask—I hope.”

—Christopher Ostrowski