As you drive through Denver, past the new construction projects popping up on seemingly every empty patch of land, have you ever wondered if anyone is paying attention to the impact all those new buildings—and their occupants—will have on the environment?
The good news is, local developer Urban Villages is, so when you notice their latest project taking shape at the intersection of Colfax Avenue and 14th Street this year, you can rest easier knowing that this 13-story building, called Populus, will be the first carbon-positive hotel in the country.
And you will definitely notice this one-of-a-kind structure. Designed by international architecture and urban design firm Studio Gang—whose principal, Jeanne Gang, has a reputation for boundary-pushing designs that has earned her a spot on Time magazine’s 2019 list of the most influential people in the world—the triangular building will feature lidded windows inspired by the eye-shaped patterns on the trunks of aspen trees. Those “lids” stretch outward to provide shade, making them one of many sustainable design and construction features that will help the building not only achieve net-zero carbon emissions, but actually benefit the environment by facilitating the removal of additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“To truly impact our earth, carbon neutral developments are no longer enough,” says Grant McCargo, Urban Villages’ co-founder, CEO, chief environmental officer, and partner. “Populus will be entirely carbon positive, starting with its construction and continuing through to its ongoing operations, while acting as a vibrant social center for locals and visitors.”
To achieve this lofty goal while also targeting LEED Gold certification, Populus’ team began by calculating the building’s carbon footprint, considering every stage of the structure’s life, from the origin of construction materials to the carbon footprint of creating and transporting them to the hotel’s ongoing operations.
During the design phase, Studio Gang incorporated a heat-recovery system, a green roof terrace, windows with low-e glass, and a light-reflecting façade. “The windows and façade are tuned for high environmental performance—self-shading, insulating, and channeling rainwater—as part of the architecture’s larger green vision,” Gang says. One thing the architecture firm didn’t add was on-site parking, which will make Populus the first new-build hotel in Denver without a dedicated lot or garage. (The latter would have been constructed with steel and reinforced concrete, which require carbon-intensive manufacturing and transportation.)
During construction, which commenced on Earth Day 2022, design/build firm Beck Group will use low-carbon concrete mixes and high-recycled-content materials, while minimizing waste and the use of finish materials. The project will also include a substantial offsite ecological effort, including an initial commitment to planting trees that represent more than 5,000 acres of forest, which will offset an embodied carbon footprint equivalent to nearly 500,000 gallons of gas. Once the hotel opens its doors, every guest stay will also be offset by the planting of more trees, making ongoing operations carbon positive as well.
What will it feel like to stay at Populus, which is set to open in late 2023? As guests enter the building and explore the lobby level’s restaurant, cafe, and retail outlets, they’ll continue to feel the neighborhood’s vibrant energy, thanks to dramatic arched windows as tall as 30 feet. Inside the modern guest rooms, those distinctive windows won’t just frame views, but will function as seats or desks that bring guests as close as possible to their natural surroundings.
On the top floor, the barriers between indoors and outdoors recede even more. The public rooftop—which will include a bar and restaurant with unobstructed views of the mountains, city skyline, and Civic Center Park—will feature an expansive garden terrace planted with regional vegetation. By naturally cooling the building while providing a lush place to gather, this space embodies Populus’ connection to nature and its surrounding neighborhood.
“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. “We’ve designed Populus to be a new destination in downtown Denver that combines these environmental and social ambitions. 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.”
Adds McCargo: “Not only will Populus be the country’s first carbon positive hotel, but it will be a stunning architectural landmark by Studio Gang that will forever alter Denver’s skyline and contribute to the architectural legacy of the entire Mountain West.”