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Credit: William Anthony

CityCenter, the mixed-use, multi-property project that opened in December in Las Vegas, is turning the desert metropolis into an oasis of sustainability. Thus far the development, which spans 67 acres, has garnered six LEED Gold ratings from the U.S. Green Building Council for individual buildings in the complex. Senior vice president of energy and environmental services for MGM Mirage Cindy Ortega recently spoke with eco-structure about the green giant in the desert.

It’s interesting that this project focuses onbuilding efficiencyin a city that is known for excess.

I always say Las Vegas is like a Broadway play. The hotels are the set, the employees are the actors, and the whole thing is designed and carefully choreographed to provide the visitor with an experience. A large part of that experience for certain segments of our business is to feel like you’re at abandon in an adult playground where you can do what you want. But that does not mean that is how we, as a shareholder-driven business, operate. That’s just the play we’re putting on.

Most people don’t know we recycle because it is not obvious. They don’t see recycling bins in the front of the hotel. The same is true with energy conservation, water conservation, and waste management. Part of being in corporate America is decreasing operating costs as much as possible. We have been driven by quality and cost control for many years. That really isn’t anything new. When we put in a combined heat and power plant, we know that it’s one of the most sustainable attributes of a project, but for us there also is a very strong ROI that drives that decision.

Given the complexity and scope of CityCenter as a cohesive project, did you develop sustainable goals for the development as a whole or were they tackled on a project basis?

First, let’s lay a bit of foundation. When it started, CityCenter was the single largest privately funded construction project in the history of North America. It is a mixed-use project with diverse elements that range from hotels and retail areas to convention centers, theaters, and residential units. One of the biggest challenges at the start was handling the complexity of these different uses. I think one of the single biggest accomplishments of this project is that we proved that sustainable design and construction can be done on the luxury scale and in a very complex project. It’s important to know that every day we were working with 1,500 to 2,000 professional architects, designers, engineers, and the like. If you also include construction, vendors, and associated partners, we were working with more than 10,000 people at any point in time.

In terms of sustainability, the overriding template was provided by our company values. MGM Mirage has a corporate value that says we will minimize our impact on the environment however we can. LEED provided a means of measuring our goals because the system gives you an analytical framework to work from.

The reason our corporate values ranked higher than just achieving LEED certification is that there are additional sustainable attributes in the project that were not done [in order to garner] LEED credits. We did them because they simply were a better way of doing things.

One example comes from the fact that in the southwest dust control and water conservation are very high priorities. We realized that in our cooling towers, once the heat was extracted from the water, that water would go down the drain. We thought if we could take that water and send it to a reclamation center to be reused for dust control, we then could avoid using hundreds of thousands of gallons of potable water [for dust management]. If we had not made this a priority, it would never have been done because, as it turns out, we had to go through a special permitting process. We had to keep our determination to do things like that.

How do CityCenter’ssustainable initiativescompare to other properties both in MGM Mirage’s portfolio and in Las Vegas as a whole?

Within MGM Mirage, CityCenter constituted only about 15 percent of my workload. The other 85 percent was focused on greening our other properties. We started that process 18 to 24 months ago with a “do-before-you-say” strategy. During those two years, we deployed capital projects that decreased our energy consumption by 6 percent. We provided education to 40,000 employees by launching a “conservation begins at home” program and gave away low-flow faucets and compact fluorescent bulbs to raise their awareness. CityCenter was the seed that planted it all because as we started the project, we realized that not only are the buildings of the future sustainable, but the businesses of the future are sustainable, too.

What do you think are the biggest sustainable achievements of CityCenter?

It hit me when I walked through the doors of Aria. Even though I had seen all of the designs and the materials, and I knew the energy savings and water savings, when I walked through those doors I saw a building that was so beautiful and green. It was the opening of a new generation of green buildings. Now, when architects and designers are trying to convince a hotel owner or developer to do things sustainability and those owners say it can’t be done, they can show them Aria or the Crystals retail district. There is no excuse to not do the right thing.

What would you say were the biggest concerns and challenges in terms of sustainable initiatives?

It was very important to us to do things that were the right thing to do and to avoid window dressing. We’ve had quite a few questions about why there is no solar on the project. We evaluated a couple of different placements but it really would have been just a demonstration project. We want to feel good about what we did, knowing that we couldn’t do everything and that every day a better idea, product, or material was going to come along.

I think that if you asked the lead architects, head designers, and LEED project managers what their biggest challenge was, they would say availability of materials. There’s no question that their biggest challenge was getting something that was new, fresh, and beautiful that reflected what we wanted in CityCenter yet also fit into our sustainability palette.

Here’s an example: We sought an air quality credit that meant we could not have added urea-formaldehyde (UF). UF is a toxin usually found in gluing materials for woods and when we got ready to fit bathrooms with vanities, there was material in the vanities that had UF in it. We couldn’t get a vendor to do a custom order because it cost too much or they would not warranty it. To do a custom order, they would have to empty the glue out of the entire factory line, put in a glue they don’t normally use, make our cabinets, and then clean out the lines again. And at the size of our project, there are only so many companies that can make thousands upon thousands of cabinets. It was challenging to get sustainable alternatives at the volume we needed. [Editor’s note: The vanities were not used and CityCenter received the air quality credit.]

Some manufacturers responded [to the challenge]. For example, we couldn’t find a showerhead that met both our water conservation goals and our design goals. So, we partnered with Delta Faucet and it engineered a showerhead that uses air in a different way. We had the market wherewithal to buy 10,000 of them so the company was able to justify production. But it’s also sold thousands of those showerheads to other buyers.

Are there plans to monitor and improve environmental performance going forward?

We have a continuous improvement model for all of our properties, where each property is pushing to improve its individual metrics. We want to continue to reduce [our impact] because our mantra, so to speak, is continuous improvement.

Strategically, as a company we looked at our environmental footprint and identified five major components to address: how we use natural resources such as water, gas, and electricity; how we approach construction, remodeling, and retrofitting; how we handle our waste; how our supply chain and procurement processes function; and how we communicate what we are doing.

How do we manage that across the properties? If you want to focus on natural resource minimization and specifically on energy consumption, you could go to each of our nine properties in Las Vegas and each one could tell you its strategies to reduce electricity usage in 2010. It is the same with waste and water use. It is well planned and very strategic.

For more details on CityCenter’s sustainable attributes, visit citycenter.com/environment.