Behind-the-Scenes: A Chief Engineer’s View of St. Louis Benchmarking

September 16, 2020 | Alexandra Laney

The City of St. Louis just released its annual benchmarking report, which takes a collective look at 2018 performance data from 532 buildings across the city. The City’s Building Energy Awareness Ordinance requires buildings over 50,000 square feet to benchmarking and report their energy use each year. With carbon emissions from buildings representing roughly 80% of citywide greenhouse gas emissions, the latest round of data gives a high-level view of the progress needed to reach the City’s goal of reducing GHG emissions 100% by 2050. To get a sense of how benchmarking is influencing real estate management on the ground, IMT spoke with Chris Meinert, Chief Engineer for the Embassy Suites by Hilton St. Louis Downtown.

How long have you worked in your current role?

I’ve been with Hilton for 20 years and in this role for nine years. I was a regional manager for three years as well. I started as a lightbulb changer and worked my way up through their education program. Right now, I manage two buildings: the Laurel Building where the Embassy Suites is and the Mark Twain hotel.

How has the trend toward sustainability played out for the buildings you manage?

The Laurel Building is a historic building originally constructed in 1906. Hilton completely gutted it to do a rehab project nine years ago, re-opening the doors in 2011 as a hotel with a restaurant and apartments. The renovation was very focused on sustainability. We have low-flow toilets and other plumbing fixtures, LED lights, low-VOC paint and flooring systems, and a white roof to reduce heat. We also now have solar panels.

The multi-use aspect of the building can make it difficult to classify the energy use, but we did get a third-party inspection and earn a LEED Silver certification.

St. Louis passed its Building Energy Awareness Ordinance—its benchmarking and transparency law—in 2017. How have you been benchmarking your properties’ energy use since then?

Hilton has been doing sustainability work for 25 years. We have a program called LightStay™ that tracks performance across all hotel properties. I can look in there and compare myself to 50 other hotels and find out what I’m doing right and doing wrong. So I was doing that long before the regulation came out.I thought the ordinance was great. Everyone should be conscious about the environment right now.

How has the City of St. Louis supported you in continuing to reduce energy use?

I first participated in a city-run energy program a few years ago. The city had classes every other week and they were extremely willing to sit down and talk through details. Their team even came to our hotel once. They were willing to do anything that was needed to make the program a success. I still get emails every month with seminars.

How do you help your staff understand the regulations and energy best practices?

I’m very fortunate. My two guys have been here a long time. I want them to know everything I know so they can get my job one day or another one like it. I learn as much from them as they do from me. We have a great building automation system that we understand, and we check it twice a day. Typically I go to the seminars and come back and we all sit down and review until they are comfortable.

What is the energy use like for the Embassy Suites in the midst of the pandemic?

At the moment, energy use is way down because business is way down. Due to the pandemic, we had to completely shut down from the end of March until the end of June. We’re now running at 30% occupancy compared to 80% last year at this time. One floor of the hotel is still shut down. We went from energy bills of $35,000-$40,000 to $1,300. The savings is significant, but nowhere near enough compared to the lost revenues. In addition to reducing costs, my team is now taking over security shifts because an engineer can do more at night than a security officer. We’re doing everything we can to help out, down to buffing the floors.

How does sustainability fit into your overall operations strategy, especially given the other pressures from the pandemic?

Ownership is very much into making sure we maintain efficient energy use. In a normal year, they come out twice a year and review. The main thing right now is to reduce costs. For everyone in the hospitality industry, energy efficiency is a moving target. You have to walk the floors as the occupancy changes and check thermostats. It’s going to be a struggle for everyone and it requires a team effort. Even the sales team has to notify engineers when there’s a big event so they can adjust temperatures. By keeping the energy down, everyone’s making more money. The engineering department is all administration—a pure drain on resources—so when we can save money it makes us feel good.

How important is benchmarking to the future of building operations?

Addressing the footprint that we’re leaving for future generations is one of the most important things we can do right now. It’s huge in our field and our business.

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