Renovating a 1898 historical building in the heart of Buenos Aires, turning it into a unique boutique hotel & doing it the eco-friendly way, was by no means been an easy undertaking. Especially not in Argentina where the eco-friendly consciousness has only just now emerged.
Here is the story of a green ‘Marcel‘ in the making.
A ‘ casa de renta’ originally designed by A. Christophersen
The first step towards realizing my dream was to find a suitable building I could renovate somewhere ideally located in the capital city of Argentina. Also it had to be a house or somewhat larger building I could afford.
Luck, a lot of luck was on my side. It took me 2 times half an hour on google to find the building I now call my home.
This casa de renta or casa chorizo ( for its rooms being interconnected ) has been designed by the best architect in Argentine history, Alejandro Christophersen. The building had been abandoned, only occupied by a couple pretending to be the housekeepers by the time I became the owner.
Preparing for Renovation
The 1898 Casa de Renta which now houses the boutique hotel ‘Marcel de Buenos Aires‘ was in fairly good shape when I bought it in January 2011. However, by no means suitable to move in with beds and sheets and kitchen items to start hosting travelers . It took two years to plan and get building permission before we could even start.
It took almost another 3 years of demolishing, building and re-building till ‘Marcel‘ was able to welcome its first guests.
That story is being written and will be the second part of my book ‘A Twist of Tango’ ( the first part available online for registered members as of October 2020 ).
Aiming for a eco-friendly hotel
During the almost 20 years I had been running my Phileas Fogg bed & breakfast in Brussels, Belgium, I dealt with tons of waste left behind by my ‘educated’ travelers.
Belgium has a very good waste policy. Every small town has a container park where locals can get rid of carton & paper, plastic, iron, chemicals, old paint, empty batteries … name it. Whatever is too good still to be recycled can be brought to second hand stores. If you are not a good citizen, you get a fine. That’s how committed Belgium and most other European countries have become on recycling.
The Search for eco-friendly solutions : a rewarding challenge
I take great pride to be able to say that’s where I come in. Several other hotels here claim to be eco-friendly but few to none are not.
Recycling & reusing the original hard wood floors
Some of the rooms still came with the original hardwood floors. For as beautiful as hardwood floors in a room can be, they are not hygienic. After reinforcing the floor basis throughout the entire building, we placed 60 x 60 cm ceramic tiles made in Argentina.
The wood was taken out and sent to a local artisan for cleaning and scraping. What came back as useful now lies in the ‘Marcelonious’, the in house salon where guests can read & relax or, after removing the furniture, take a tango class.
Eco-friendly bed & bath linen
Before I moved into my place I used to stay in rented apartments. The sheets were always hard and made out of nylon, which made it impossible to breathe on warm summer nights.
As with everything else ‘green’ in the hotel, the sheets and towels were not going to be an exception. And nature has it that Belgium produces one of the finest eco-friendly fabrics in the world : linen.
Libeco-Lagae, one of the three main national players, supplied the duvet covers, single sheets and cushion covers. The unbleached linen curtains in every room are from Libeco too.
Delvi TC, another Belgian textile company , signed for the organic bio-degradable cotton fitted sheets and bath towels. Labeled Cradle-to-Cradle, they are pioneers in manufacturing bio-degradable cotton fabrics.
Let’s lid up the lights
There is not one single lamp in the entire building that is not a led-light. Even with energy costs on the low side, we save a lot of energy. LED bulbs use more than 75% less energy than incandescent lighting. At low power levels, the difference is even larger. Bright LED flood lamps use only 11 to 12 watts while creating a light output comparable to a 50-watt incandescent bulb. At first difficult to find in Argentina, certain types of lamps are only available as LED now.
Also shipped from Belgium are the O’SUN ™ NOMAD solar lamp lanterns. Designed by Belgian Alain Gilles the “NOMAD” solar lamp has been designed for very different worlds.
(1) to meet the needs of families in the world that do not have access to electricity, and in particular in developing countries, and at the same time to provide an alternative to kerosene lamps which have caused many accidents;
(2) to be used in emergency situations: natural or humanitarian disasters;
(3) but also to be used in Western countries by people who need to light a terrace or a garden shed and who will appreciate the flexibility of a rechargeable solar lamp, its contemporary look and, of course, its environmentally-friendly aspect.
We at Marcel provide each room with one in case of a power cut and also use them on summer nights on the terrace.
We are a non-smoking hotel
Marcel bans smokers within the building. Smoking is only allowed on the terrace and the downstairs patio.
In Brussels I used to be a regular visitor of the flea market. So it’s no secret to find plenty of decorative elements in the Marcel I fetched from there.
The brick wall on the patio as well as the main facade are lit up by 3 up-cycled lanterns each. These lanterns were shining bright above the avenue Georges Rodenbach in Brussels. When they were being replaced by modern street light, the former owner of the building at # 6, which now houses the Train Hostel, placed six of them in his cellar buried under layers of dust for years. After months of insisting he sold them to me at last.
Here in Buenos Aires a metal smith took out the old mechanism, polished them and put in a new waterproof light fixture. They shine new & bright.
For an interesting read on up-cycling : "The Upcycle " , from the same authors as the 'Cradle-to-Cradle" book.
We love wood when re-cycled
I love the combination of brick stones, wood and metal, all I consider pure materials. In this 1898 building all of the three materials were and still are omnipresent.
Two wooden doors with glass give access to each of the 8 bedrooms. All of these doors are original and have been returned to their location after having been first removed for renovation.
Before renovation, the rooms were interconnected. One did not need to step outside to enter the room next door. For obvious reasons, these ‘openings’ were blocked up to allow for maximum privacy. But we kept the wooden doors. These doors are made of pine. 5 layers of paint had to be removed , new locks were put into place. They now give access to 2 apartments, the laundry room and our private apartment. Two of these doors have been embellished with a 19th century metal doorknob found at the Place du Jeu de Balle, the official name of the Brussels flea market.
There is more wood to be found in the “Marcel‘. The downstairs entrance , the patio and the floor in the cafeteria, the two terraces on the roof, all have been paved with recycled wooden blocks or ‘adoquines de madera’.
After several try outs with different types of wood to pave the Buenos Aires streets, – some imported, others national,- 1895 marked the introduction of wooden blocks of algarrobo, a noble autochthonous tree. According to one estimation, some 600 000 square meters ( 6 and a half million square feet ) of street surface in Buenos Aires had been paved with wooden stones at the eve of the 19th century.
My mind was set on paving parts of the hotel with recycled wood, having visited the Pulpería Quilapán years earlier during my very first visit to Buenos Aires in 2007. I had to drive out of the city for many miles to find a demolisher in Haedo who sold me 12 trucks of wood mixed with earth and dirt.
The result is amazing. Even after heavy rain they are dry the next morning. And those coming out of the roof top pool under a burning sun won’t burn their feet.
Back to the entrance for the staircase and then jumping up to the main kitchen where we used ‘durmientes del tren’, (the Spanish word for train sleepers) made of quebracho wood, to build the stairs and the kitchen island. In the early 90s most of the railway system in Argentina has been privatized and 90 % of the tracks soon made redundant. As a result, thousands of these train sleepers were removed.
It pains me to admit that the 90+ years of exploitation of the natural quebracho forests in the northern provinces ( Santa Fe, Chaco, Santiago del Estero ) has led to massive deforestation of the natural woods. The province of Santa Fe alone lost 86% of its forest, leaving a desert like landscape behind.
The main culprit has been Forestal, a company founded in Argentina by English entrepreneurs. With the aid of French and German capital they managed to buy 2 million hectares ( 5 million acres ) of quebracho forest .
We’re also ‘green’ in the kitchen
All of the rooms as well as the 5 kitchens in the building have FV water-saving faucets installed.
Whenever we rinse or wash fruit or vegetables, we collect the waste water where we can. As Summers can be dry we then feed that same water to the plants.
Coffee ground is what we feed our plants too. We may have a Nespresso machine installed, but we do not buy their overly priced and polluting coffee capsules. We buy organic coffee in beans from a small importer in stead. We then prepare each individual cup of coffee with a Stainless Steel Refillable Pod perfectly fit for Nespresso machines. The coffee ground can be easily removed. When available we also grow oyster mushrooms by mixing coffee ground and micelia. For a nice example , I urge you to surf to www.permafungi.be .
It’s soooo eco-amazing what they do !
As plastic bags are still not banned in Argentina, and in spite of shopping with reusable bags, they tend to pile up under the kitchen sink. We use them to gather the waste we generate in the kitchen or place them in the waste bins in the rooms. But we also stack them for a local company Modesta, who transforms them in amazing handbags and accessories.
We’re not the police so we find it difficult to forbid our guests to walk in with plastic bottles. Yet, we strongly encourage them to drink the filtered tap water we supply for free. To that extend we use the Saint Felicien Rosé bottles the German waitress at Aramburu restaurant left me two six-pack boxes of empty bottles with on my way out.
And yet in spite of that we still collect too many plastic bottles after our clients are gone. For the main local children’s Hospital Garrahan, the largest in Latin America, we collect the screw caps from the plastic bottles left behind. The Hospital Garrahan foundation runs a recycling program. The screw caps, carton paper, old keys they collect are sold to recycling factories. With the revenues they can then invest in buying new medical equipment.
Whatever we cannot recycle or return, – plastic bottles without the caps, empty wine or beer bottles , – we bring to the nearby green container. Unfortunately Argentines are still unfamiliar or unwilling to make an eco-friendly contribution. You’ll find that they throw in anything they find suit.
We supply napkins made from recycled paper.
More re-cycled and up-cycled details
- ‘Patagonia’ the penguin made by French artist Mathilde Meyer from recycled industrial metal parts
- The bedside tables & the stools in the cafeteria are custom made by a local carpenter active in the Tigre Delta where he collects the wood from boats no longer used.
- We have three bikes at our guests’ disposal to explore the city on a nice day.
- Metal boards on the brick patio wall indicating Belgian destination. Found at the flea market too.
And when our guests check out, they receive a personalized bio-degradable pencil they can plant when they reach the end. These pencils will grow basil, parsley, cilantro or rucola.
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