Sustainability and Luxury are not Incompatible.
(Published first in The Pioneer, March 2018)
Eco resorts are usually places where you pay to feel guilty. And they are very good at making you feel that way, littering their properties with sanctimonious notes wherever there is the slightest opportunity for you to indulge.
But all the spiel about environment friendliness; ‘ save water’, ‘save electricity’, and the endless dos and don’ts are in reality a broadcast of their own inadequacies.
Any property low on amenities, with little provision for example for water or power backup can now claim to be an eco warrior.
It also seems like a fine strategy to invest in the cheaper low-flow showerheads, or advocate bucket baths, have shabby heating or cooling provisions and save both money and hassle while claiming to be environment friendly. And should tourists ask for any missing amenity, they can be made to feel like irresponsible Neanderthals.
The fact is, all travellers, including environmentalists, communists and those on a budget, go on holidays to let their hair down. They expect luxury and not lectures on climate change.
Even conservationists, (and I have had quite a handful of them, at both my properties, because I offer them heavy discounts), slip into tubfulls of water, presumably wine in hand, unmindful of where the 150 liters or so of their tub water will drain.
And indeed no traveller, including them, should really give a damn. Travellers come to have fun and a property eco-friendly or not, has no right to ruin it, in anyway.
But more often than not, a property shifts the responsibility of eco-friendliness on to the travellers.
So when I decided to built my two properties in Himachal, about two years ago, I wanted them to be eco friendly but not at the expense of any luxury whatsoever.
In the little over a year since we opened Meena Bagh Shimla to travellers and over eight months since Meena Bagh Ratnari opened, we have found that sustainability is not only compatible with luxury but that it adds immensely to it.
Take water. In water plagued Shimla, the biggest luxury one can give travellers is adequate water. Shimla residents get water supply every alternate day and sometimes after three to four days in summers. However we don’t recommend water conservation.
We harvest rainwater using it for all our water needs including for the shower. The water from the showers and basins (grey water) is then run though our recycling plant and used for flushing toilets and gardening. We therefore have double recycling in place. The fact is, the more water you use, the better it is for the recycling systems. So we not only have high-flow shower-heads but also bath tubs.
We use the Municipal Corporation’s water only when absolutely necessary. About the quality of water supplied by the corporation the less said the better.
The only sort of water that we don’t provide, is packaged mineral water. We have RO equipped water dispensers instead, from where guests get unlimited drinking water.
For our hot water we rely on solar geysers which hold more water than conventional electric geysers so while you save an enormous amount of electricity you get an almost endless supply of hot water.
Another big luxury one can provide guests especially in Himachal’s biting winter is a warm home. Both our resorts are designed to keep the cold out and prevent heat loss from within. There is a heat loss of over 20 percent from the roof and over 60 percent from the walls.
We have used eco-friendly insulants on the walls and the roof which minimises the use of any room heaters even in winters.
Additionally we have paneled the walls, outer and inner, of both properties with recycled or ‘waste’ wood, adding to the insulation.
We also have mud- plastered walls which also help in providing an ambience of rustic warmth.
After the packaged drinking water, it’s the use-and-throw toiletries that generate the most plastic. This can be replaced with dispensers. Guests get an endless supply of body wash, shampoo, conditioner and body lotion while you need only to refill rather than replace.
Sustainable measures can often add not just to the comforts but also to aesthetics. For example, I had no intention or idea about making a fountain. But rainwater needs aeration, so we decided to build a waterwheel where the water splashes for a while before cascading back into the rainwater tank, adding character to our small garden.
Similarly the ‘waste’ wood that we sourced from the wood mills in Himachal, lends a traditional feel to our properties. This is the wood that Shimla’s mills discard as waste and is used by Shimla residents in winter for heating. Its simpler and cheaper of course to raise a brick and mortar house. But what is a hill house if its not wooden?