Rethink, Reuse, and Relax

Words by Emily Booth

The Gulf Coast of Alabama has long been a place held dear by tourists and locals alike. White sand beaches and stunning shades of blue have been the backdrop for memories created by families for decades. It’s a special place, a place people return to year after year in search of another perfect vacation. And while visitors love the region the way it is, there is one recent addition that’s changing things forever—and for the better.

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The Lodge at Gulf State Park is an eco-friendly Hilton hotel that’s setting the bar for sustainable tourism in the South. Think sea turtle-friendly lighting, recycled rainwater, the absence of single-use plastics—and so much more. This brilliantly architected 350-room masterpiece is part one of a three-phase master plan for the 6,125-acre park, with the Learning Campus and Interpretive Center set to open next. These will both serve as the educational components of the project where guests can learn about the surrounding ecosystems, recycling initiatives, and the functionality of the property’s building designs. The hope is that by encouraging guests to engage with this information, not only will they leave behind a smaller footprint on the Park, but they’ll also be able to apply what they’ve learned at home and in their communities. In this way and many others, it is truly the experience that keeps on giving. 

But this property hasn’t always stood in such glory. It has seen its share of hard times, and that is perhaps the most compelling part of the story. Built in 1974, the original Lodge was 30 years old when it was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The years that followed were hard, and just as the community was getting back on its feet, devastation struck again—this time, man-made. The Horizon oil spill of 2010 not only wreaked havoc on shorelines and beaches, but it also disrupted the ecosystems and bankrupted businesses, staining the Gulf Coast for years to come. The impact at every level was catastrophic, and as a result, BP was ordered to pay what would be the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history. Enter funding to rebuild the Lodge as we know it now. 

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The underlying tones of poetic justice are anything but subtle here. Every inch of the space is thoughtfully and intentionally constructed with the environment in mind. The commitment to sustainability is evident not only in the details, but also in the big picture. The original Lodge was dangerously close to the Gulf and built on a larger footprint. The new Lodge is set further back from the shoreline, making way for a larger and more resilient dune system. It also takes up 21 acres instead of the previous 30, yet it has more than doubled its occupancy. In addition, all non-native species were removed from the property, while anything native that was disrupted during the building phase was later replaced. 

And although the appearance of the Lodge has certainly changed, the aesthetics have in no way been compromised. The world-class, functional design is modern and resort-like, making for a relaxing and virtually footprint-free stay. While guests are enjoying their time on the property and in the Park, numerous systems are working flawlessly to ensure nothing goes wasted. Condensation from the HVAC system is collected and recycled to replace the water in the pool. A permeable layer called TRUEGRID sits on top of the gravel parking lot, allowing rainwater to drain into the ground for reuse. The woodwork on the outside of the building extends five to 10 feet outward to provide the structure with shade, ultimately reducing energy usage. And each building is strategically positioned to take advantage of the gulf breeze, increasing natural ventilation and lighting. 

As the list goes on, it’s no surprise that the Lodge, along with its restaurants, the Learning Center, and the Learning Campus are all seeking various levels of Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certifications. If all three phases are able to meet the respective standards, this will be the first facility in the world to hold all three levels of LEED certifications in one project location. And they haven’t stopped there. All of the Lodge’s buildings are also seeking a Fortified Commercial certification, ensuring the structures are more resilient in the face of a hurricane than ever before. And in the ultimate act of solidarity with the environment, the Interpretive Center is seeking recognition from the Living Building Challenge. In order to achieve this, the facility will have to produce more power than it uses, measured in a 12-month period. If certified, the Center will stand proudly on an international stage shared by only a few dozen others. 

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The eco-friendly highlights are enough to make any living, breathing human rest a little easier, but the Park itself has also benefited greatly from the project. The trail system was expanded by 13 miles and is now connected by bridges and boardwalks that cross lakes and ponds. Educational hiking and biking, Segway tours, a nature center, outdoor classrooms, kayaking, guided nature walks, and more all exist here—and on a white sand beach to boot. 

The Lodge didn’t neglect the foodies either. Both of its sustainable restaurants, Food Craft and Perch, are held to the same standards as the rest of the property. They feature produce and select meats from local farms, and of course, support the local fishing community and sustainable seafood. Every detail down to the beer and wine lists has been carefully thought through. 

The Lodge at Gulf State Park is quite literally breathing new life into the state of Alabama. This historic project is equal parts victorious and hopeful—perhaps a sign that more environmentally conscious times are upon us. If the certifications all go as planned, the facility stands to gain the kind of positive press that could put the region on a map in a big way. If the previous decade was tainted with doom and destruction, this is the decade of resurgence—and Alabama the Beautiful has never felt truer.