Posted in People on 28 July, 2022

From his love of bees to his dislike of buzzwords, Emma Kennedy talks to the driving force behind the world’s first net-zero hotel; room2 Chiswick.

Anyone with a passing interest in recent hotel launches, would be hard pushed to have missed the ongoing attention room2 Chiswick has received. For a relatively small hotel, in a leafy London suburb, it has a very loud voice! Following seven years of construction, the new build opened its doors earlier this year, and has taken the hospitality industry by storm, though not for the design-led reasons normally associated with this volume of publicity, but for its outstanding net-zero carbon credentials.

room2 Chiswick falls under the umbrella of real estate investment and developers, Lamington Group. The family run business was founded in 1967 by Managing Director, Robert Godwin’s late father, Stewart Godwin Senior. Based in the London’s Hammersmith, the focus was on residential development converting Victorian houses into small flats, a model that flourished until the recession hit in the mid 1980’s. With a steep fall in sales, Lamingtons established a lettings portfolio which by 2000 had turned its focus away from long term lets, to providing clients with short stay accommodation, thus marking their foray into the hospitality sector and subsequent launch of the room2 ‘hometel’ brand.

Keen to discover more about the man behind the launch of one of London’s most talked about openings of 2022, I made my way to room2 Chiswick to meet Robert.

Despite being a new build, the hometel is a good-looking building reminiscent of a Victorian warehouse with its clean lines, red brick façade and crittall style windows. Set back from Chiswick High Road, its location is perfect for anyone wanting an authentic London stay – with easy access to the centre, but far enough away to embody the ‘live like a local’ mantra. Once inside, the vibe is laid back and relaxed, with a mix of inspirations behind its design choices. The concrete ceiling brings an industrial flavour, softened by the terracotta colour-washed walls and the rich William Morris velvet-covered bar stools add a dash of luxury. Peppered with art and crafts from local artisans, it’s refreshing and authentic without feeling try-hard.

I quickly remind myself that for once I’m not there to consider the interiors, but old habits die hard, and I begin by asking Robert who is behind the design. “It’s mainly done in-house, but ultimately everything goes through a lens that I like to check before it’s signed off.”

As he expands on design choices and the room2 brand as a whole, it soon becomes apparent that Robert’s ‘macro’ lens is in sharp focus across every aspect of the business and I wonder if it was a foregone conclusion that he would join the family business? “No, not really. I became involved in 2011 after finishing university. My parents were trying to put together a website, and they were doing an awful job, so I helped them out.” he laughed. “It felt good to see the difference that made, and I felt proud to be a part of it. At that point there were just three people working – my parents and one assistant. I became the fourth member, dealing with the lettings and it progressed from there.” With Robert’s input, they soon had 50 serviced apartments, and recognising the opportunity for growth in the extended stay market, in 2014 the room2 brand was launched. Their first hometel, a 16-room large Victorian terrace in Hammersmith opened in 2016, followed two years later by room2 Southampton.

I ask Robert why they adopted the word ‘hometel’ as opposed to the more commonly used ‘aparthotel’ and what their point of difference is? “I always felt it was a clunky word, that didn’t fit emotively with what we wanted to offer. Looking at the competition, I could see a lot of inconsistencies, even when operating under the same badge; some had gyms, some didn’t, some had full kitchens while others had a small kitchenette and there was a vast difference in the services and amenities available. I wanted the room2 brand to be consistent, so guests knew exactly what they could expect. From a design point of view, I wanted to move away from the bland corporate feel and bring about something far more bespoke, relaxed, and comfortable. I could see Boutique hotels doing it well, and I could see an opportunity for us to do something similar.”

However, over and above what room2 offers in terms of design and amenities, their true point of difference from the rest of the industry is their net-zero-carbon status. I ask Robert if this was the ambition from the off, or if there was a pivotal moment along the way. “The turning point for me came during a family holiday in 2019 to a nature reserve in South Africa. We arrived in an area where 10 years of drought had reduced the 15 watering holes to just five. The elephants were all competing for the diminished supply and the food chains were all suffering. I then learnt that three of the remaining five watering holes were man pumped from aquafers underground. I was completely struck that the entire reserve was wholly dependent on the decisions of a man to put water in those holes. Away from the reserve, in that part of South Africa, there were billboards everywhere telling you to save water; we couldn’t have regular showers in the hotel, the pools were out of action and filthy…”

On his return, Robert felt compelled to revisit his vision for the future of the room2 brand and analyse the impact his plans for growth would have on the environment. “If we were to go ahead with the ambition of creating 5000 bedrooms by 2030, in 10 years’ time I would be looking back at a business that I had driven forward and would literally be contributing to the problem. It simply didn’t fit with my own values or those of the company. It can’t all be commercial; it has to be about doing the right thing for our customers and our team and my obligation to the business is to also support the global communities as well.”

Having secured the land in 2014, the complicated planning and push back from locals, added to the trials of constructing room2 Chiswick. Throw into the mix the ambition of creating a ‘whole life net zero’ hometel, fuelled by 100% renewable energy, a 200-metre-deep ground source heat pump and solar panels. One can only imagine the challenges involved. Further sustainable measures went on to include motion sensors in all the rooms and ultra-low flow showers designed to give the full impact of a power shower but using 40% less water. Two lab rooms monitor the efficiency of the building and how guests use power and energy in their rooms. Outside a green roof with 75,000 bees and wildflowers provides biodiversity and insulation, and a blue roof captures rainwater and reduces local flooding.  As a result, room2 Chiswick is set to use 89% less energy than a typical UK hotel, and guests don’t leave a carbon footprint.

All new builds are beset with challenges, but to build something fully sustainable inevitably adds multi layers of complexity and I wonder how these presented themselves. “In the beginning it was simply getting a grip over what the definition was. Which bodies we needed to align with, what frameworks and advice was available and what skills we needed to pull in to help us. At first, we had huge gaps in available skills, visions, and willingness-from both the internal teams and the consultants. It was a lot of sweat equity, and I was constantly telling everyone, from architects and engineers to the entire supply chain; ‘we must do better!’”

Sharing his knowledge and expertise, along with the data collected from the aforementioned Lab rooms has resulted with myriad companies wanting to partner with room2. Having already positioned themselves as leaders in the industry, the strategy is to also lead the sector in building net zero hotels and to date, there don’t appear to any serious challengers for that title. “I want room2 to be the world’s first net-zero hotel operator.” He concludes.

Given the lengths Robert has gone to achieve their impressive net-carbon status, I wonder how he views the rest of his industries approach to dealing with climate change. His response is very clear, if not predictable. “It’s comical. I like to believe it’s through a lack of understanding, people simply don’t know what the benchmarks are. I have been on a huge journey, and the more I dig down, the more I find. There is a lot of industry focus on the smaller things, like plastic versus non-plastic which is important but pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I think they know there’s more to do but don’t know what it is. In addition to this, I think the ownership models of most hotels is a restriction.”

Considering the climate issues, we are now faced with, I finish by asking Robert if he is worried that future travel will inevitably decrease? “No” he says “it is human nature to travel. We have more income; more wealth and leisure time and that’s not going to go backwards. The way to solve it is to have low carbon transport, which is on the horizon. I believe rather than fight it, we need to work with it. For example, when a guest comes here, there is no carbon footprint- if you go to a hotel down the road, there is a high carbon footprint which hasn’t been dealt with in any way- it hasn’t been reduced or offset. So, we say, ‘come and stay here’. That’s our business, we aren’t going to say don’t come, but we are going to do it in a responsible way. That for me is the solution.”

With three room2’s in operation, three in construction and 15 UK sites in the pipeline, room2’s ambition of 5,000 rooms by 2030 and becoming the world’s first hotel operator to have net-zero hotels is fast becoming a reality.

Robert Godwin is the real deal. He’s far removed from your average hotelier. There is little talk of profit and loss, and he visibly recoils from the buzz words used when discussing sustainability – questioning the very word itself. The interview is punctuated with hard facts and figures. His breadth of knowledge and deeper understanding is so thorough that at times it’s hard to keep up. What he and his team have achieved is truly remarkable and room2 Chiswick deserves every column inch of coverage it has received. I walked away from the interview with my head spinning, but ultimately encouraged that there are still people of Robert’s calibre leading the way forward.

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