GULF SHORES, ALA.—The guests at The Lodge at Gulf State Park look like any other beachgoers in coastal Alabama, as they walk through the stylishly decorated lobby in cover-ups and flip-flops with toddlers and beach toys in tow. But when architect Rebecca Bryant sees these guests, she sees much more.
“These are travelers of the future,” she says.
Whether conscientiously or not, these guests have chosen to stay at a property that’s unique on the Gulf Coast in the way it conserves the natural beauty of the place.
“The people who visit the park come here because they want to have great experiences in nature. And the money they contribute to the park helps us to continue to fund the restoration and preservation of those ecosystems. It’s a great economic model that helps to improve the quality of life, not just for the visitors, but for all of us who live here,” says Bryant.
The guests at this Hilton-branded, beachfront lodge in Gulf Shores don’t sacrifice any luxury to make a minimal impact on the environment during their stay. Their state-of-the-art rooms have air-conditioning systems that cut off if the balcony door is open for more than two minutes. In their showers, they have large, refillable bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash instead of the usual travel-sized ones that create plastic waste. All the trash cans on the property collect refuse as well as recyclables. And those are just a couple of examples of the ways the lodge is leading the way in sustainability.
“Many people don’t realize that the Gulf Coast is an incredibly rich ecological area,” says Bryant, the founding principal of WATERSHED, a sustainable design and consulting firm based in Fairhope. “We live in one of 36 parts of the planet recognized as ‘biodiversity hot spots,’ meaning they are earth’s most biologically diverse yet threatened places. That’s amazing.”
Property Had Stood Vacant for 14 Years
The new lodge replaces the original Gulf State Park Lodge, which opened in 1974, with 144 rooms in 12 two-story buildings—plus another building with a lobby, restaurant and meeting space. It is sprawled across 42 acres situated right on the sand dunes near the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Ivan’s storm surge destroyed the buildings in 2004, and for 14 years the property stood vacant.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 provided the impetus and funds for rebuilding the lodge, this time on a smaller footprint and with the intent of protecting the natural environment around it.
The new lodge, which opened almost a year ago, has twice as many guestrooms on a fraction of the space—300 rooms on 16 acres—and the buildings are situated farther back from the Gulf to protect the dunes. “Instead of sod and crepe myrtles around a hotel, the lodge is surrounded by dynamic coastal dunes, and can even participate in their restoration,” says Bryant. “The more we restore the dunes, we not only provide a home for the beach mice and nesting sea turtles, and migrating birds, but we make our home stronger and more resilient.”
Bryant’s firm served as Gulf Coast sustainability specialist for the master plan and for the design teams working on the lodge, the interpretive center and the learning campus. Several years ago, when she saw the vision statement for the project—the goal was “to create an international benchmark in environmental and economic sustainability demonstrating best practices in hospitable operations”—she was excited to get involved.
“I think it’s really cool that when we mapped the people who participated in the master plan and responded to the online surveys, the distribution is really similar to the distribution and flyways of other animals that migrate through Gulf State Park, whether they are birds or monarch butterflies,” she says.
Lodge Seeking LEED Gold
All the new projects at the state park are seeking green site certifications, which should be awarded in November. The lodge is going for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold and SITES Platinum and will be the first SITES hotel to be certified in the world. The new interpretive center, at the western entrance to the park next to the public beach pavilion, is pursuing Living Building Challenge certification, meaning it creates more water and energy than it uses.
“After the oil spill disaster, our region had a hard reckoning with the reality that the our economy and environment are mutually dependent,” says Bryant. “People’s lives were deeply affected by the economic devastation of the oil spill, resulting from the environmental devastation. People protect what they love, and these projects will help more people fall in love with Alabama’s Gulf Coast.”
In March of 2018, Chandra Wright, a former lawyer and self-described “tree-hugger and sea turtle volunteer,” was hired as Director of Environmental and Educational Initiatives at Gulf State Park. She had become involved with the lodge project when she was invited to participate in a stakeholder focus group as the master plan for the park was being developed.
Her concern was that the new lodge, interpretive center and learning center needed to be done in the best, most sustainable way possible. “My bosses call me the conscience of the project,” she says. “We’re really a pioneer for the state of Alabama. It’s a quiet little spot on the beach, but we’re really doing amazing things.”
Now that the lodge has been up and running for nearly a year, Wright is still giddy with excitement about the way it turned out. This is her first job in the hotel industry, but she’s not one of those people who see their position as a steppingstone to the next.
“I say this is my first and last hotel job,” she says. “This is my home, and this is my personal passion project. It’s a legacy project for the whole state.”
11 Eagle Cottages on Lake Shelby
The lodge is designed so that guests will park their cars in the tucked-away parking lot and leave them there. Two pedestrian bridges (for walkers and bike-riders) at each end of the property connect the beach side and the park side, where there is a learning campus, a much-loved campground as well as nine cabins and 11 Eagle Cottages on Lake Shelby, which have been accepted into National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World program.
The design of all the buildings that comprise the lodge features louvers and screening to create shade and block wind, as well as beach architecture such as porches. The color palette is “pulled from the environment,” says Bryant. “It’s important that the style be ‘salty’ and have a rustic, beachy feel.”
The impressive, spacious lobby welcomes guests with a wall of windows overlooking the beach beyond. The glass in the windows is specially designed so birds won’t fly into them. With hardwood floors, exposed beams overhead and lots of seating arrangements of different types, the lobby opens onto the “back porch,” which is lined with rocking chairs and gliders with a beautiful view of the water.
Wright says she likes to think about guests who drive to Gulf Shores from faraway places like Michigan or Minnesota and walk into the lobby, having a cocktail and relaxing on the porch. “It’s so different from other properties on the beach,” she says. She recalls that, on the 4th of July, when the lodge was sold out and 1,000 people were out on the beach, she went to one of the top floors and looked out. She was surprised to see that it didn’t look overly crowded at all.
“It was our busiest day of the year, and our guests were still having an exclusive experience,” she says.
Furnishings and artwork in the lobby have been created by Alabama craftspeople and artists. One wall showcases “Loggerhead” by April Hopkins and Zach DePolo of Mobile. Made of fiberglass and sand, the piece was inspired by the idea of newly hatched turtles making their way to the water. The conference table is from Alabama Sawyer of Birmingham, which turns trees that are being removed by utility companies into furniture. The rocking chairs and gliders on the porch are made by Wood Studio in Fort Payne.
Each Floor Has a Park Theme
To one side of the lobby, a walkway leads to the three five-story buildings that house the guestrooms. Half of the rooms overlook the beach, and the others overlook Lake Shelby across Alabama Highway 182. Because the parking lot is located at a slight distance from the lodge, no one has a view of a parking lot. Where each building is connected to the next, common balconies provide a space for those facing the backside of the property to look out over the Gulf. Each floor has a theme that relates to something to do at the park.
On the other side of the lobby are the lodge’s restaurants as well as a ballroom with a beach view, conference and convention space. Easy-to-read signs throughout the property tout the lodge’s environmental initiatives in a subtle, educational way.
Located close to the meeting center, the parking lot has a permeable surface to let water seep through. Water is collected from the air-conditioning condensation generated by each room, filtered and used to top off the pool, saving 14,000 gallons of water per month. Rainwater flows from the oversized gutters down rain chains to be collected and diverted to wetland areas.
Recently, the park acquired 50 smart bikes that can be rented through an app so anyone can explore the park’s trails.
For Bryant, the project is especially meaningful “because it provides a model where buildings and development participate in restoring the environment,” she says.
“As so many people continue to move to the Gulf Coast, and development pressure intensifies, we need a strong vision of a future where a healthy, resilient environment supports a high quality of life and a healthy, resilient economy,” she adds. “Beyond these buildings, the dune restoration, bike lanes, bike share program, pedestrian overpasses, bird observatories and overlooks, 28 miles of trails in the park, and all the new environmental education camps, adventures and programming—all of these things are so exciting. They paint a picture of the future I want to live in, a future my kids are excited to see.”