The Scarlet hotel – glad to be green

12 October 2009 by
The Scarlet hotel – glad to be green

It's been touted as the greenest hotel in the country, but the Scarlet in Cornwall just wanted to reconcile luxury and conscience. Gemma Sharkey reports.

Curves are at the heart of the building which has a distinctive external copper (recyclable) wall, a special recyclable membrane on the zinc roof, uses 150sq m of solar panelling and is heated by a biomass boiler

Luxury and sustainability have never been the easiest of bedfellows. The former implies lavishness, ostentation and a to-hell-with-it-I'll-think-about-that-tomorrow attitude; the latter an allotment-owning, hemp-wearing, greener-than-thou one.

But something seems to have clicked of late. Everyone is desperate to be seen to be green.

To a cynic, the new Scarlet hotel in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall - which is being touted as the greenest hotel in the country - could be seen to be just another business jumping on the bandwagon. But general manager Nikki Broom is quick to redress this: "We actually don't want to beat the green drum too much. What we asked ourselves was: ‘How do you do green and ethical without turning into a hippy commune?' Our challenge was to reconcile luxury and conscience."

A challenge indeed.


But the team behind the Scarlet has managed to achieve a design that any eco-warrior would be proud of. As you drive up to the hotel it's difficult to make out at first. Although the building is arranged over five levels, its white curved walls are unobtrusive, hunkered deep down in the heather topped cliffs overlooking the sandy beach below.

Simon Baldwin, development director of the hotel, explains: "The building is curved because we wanted it to reflect nature and the natural curves all around us. Nature doesn't do straight, flat or angular in these parts. Curves are at the heart of this building." The roof is wavy, inside the corridors curve so you cannot see from one end to the other, bedroom walls are curved, and the changing cubicles in the property's spa are like snail shells.

The hotel is the brainchild of the three Whittington sisters who own the Bedruthan Steps hotel, located directly above the Scarlet at the top the cliff. For them, using eco-technology is not a new fad or cause célèbre, it's just the way they do business. They installed solar panels and grew grass on the roof at the 37-year-old Bedruthan Steps when such ideas were still considered hippy crazy.

The Scarlet project arose in 2006, when the defunct Tredagon hotel just down the cliff from the Bedruthan Steps came on the market and the sisters leapt at the chance of creating their dream from scratch.

Sustainability manager Suzie Newham says the environmental agenda was enforced right from the outset. She recounts how during excavations of the old site, builders had to relocate the reptiles found in the rock walls and slow worms from the ground. "We found new homes for them all. We gave all the old beds to a homeless charity, all the old insulation to a monkey charity for their bedding and the dug-away earth to a top soil company in St Ivell."


When it came to the design and construction of the new hotel, Baldwin says his brief was clear - build a hotel that is fit for the 21st century. "As the hotel is quite a family affair, it is seen as a more personal project, they can look after it for a longer period of time and it's viewed as a legacy to leave. For this reason a lot of what's informed the design has considered sustainability."

Materials used in the building's construction include FSC timber from Germany for the frame, a distinctive, external copper (recyclable) wall that provides both structural support and acts as a visual barrier that separates the guests from the beach, a special "al vitra" membrane on the roof that can be taken off and recycled, a zinc roof and wood oak laminate from the EU - solid wood uses more trees. Plymouth Harbour's surplus wooden groynes were commandeered for the outdoor areas to shelter hot tub users from the wind.

So far, nothing hugely groundbreaking. But it's perhaps in the hotel's day-to-day running that the Scarlet's eco-credentials really shine. A biomass boiler heats the rooms and water, fuelled with Cornish round wood - not pellets as they are more energy intensive to create. It also uses 150sq m of solar panelling situated over the car park, and the grey water obtained from rainwater harvesting is used to flush the toilets

One of the hotel's most eccentric features is its natural outdoor pool which is reed filtered and uses no chlorine or chemicals. But like anything innovative and forward thinking, it comes at a price. During the soft opening, the boiler stopped working, leaving customers without hot water for a morning. Then, the hotel was ordered by the council to close the natural pool because of the high levels of pathogens in the water. And don't get them started on the hot tubs, which they have now had to employ a separate person to maintain, so laborious is the process of getting them fired up and maintained.

Scarlet hotel
Scarlet hotel

"It has been a bit of a trial-and-error process to establish how much wood we need to use to keep the boiler going. And the government compared the water samples with a swimming pool - of course there are going to be more pathogens, it's natural! But people swim in the sea, they swim in rivers, in Germany it would be considered a perfect pool! But we really are breaking boundaries here - we have to work hard to convince people that this stuff is safe. You have to embrace and love this. You can't give up on it. Eventually it will become your friend," Baldwin adds with a smile.


Walking into the lobby of the hotel there's an immediate sense of calm as the eye is drawn to the glass wall at the back giving way to views of the infinity pool and the turquoise shimmer of the horizon beyond.

Today the sun is shining, glittering on the surface of the water and filling the entrance with light. It's stunning. Local artwork adorns the walls - a man made of beech husks curled up in the initial stage of a dive sits on a table to the right, a colourful artisan painting of poppies splashed with gold hangs on the wall of the lounge to the left and an Antony Gormley-esque man tilting his head back, mouth agape called "Taste the rain" sits in the restaurant's entrance. It's sensual and calming at the same time.


A member of staff wearing brown Thai fisherman pants and a smile immediately greets me, and over the course of the weekend I see each member of staff offering to show curious locals around the site at regular intervals, which they do with a sense of pride and willing that's hard to fake. Broom says staff recruitment was a huge part of carrying out the hotel's ethos: "We spent a lot of time creating a candidate profile, detailing the best attributes for each job even before we wrote the advert. It was really important for us to find staff that would embrace what we were trying to do. Part of each member's induction was to go through our whole philosophy."

Each member of staff has been trained to multi-skill: they can valet park, book tables at the Jamie Oliver-inspired Fifteen restaurant three miles down the coast towards Newquay, answer phones and work both front of house and in the restaurant. Broom also introduced the concept of balance into the working hours for staff, they each work four days of 12-hour shifts followed by four days off. "So far it's working!" she says, and even concedes that it has helped her to attract a better calibre of people, ones who "value time more than cash".


The hotel staff are now planning ways to make the most of the landscape that surrounds them, their philosophy is that the outdoors is the gym. The staff in the spa plan to introduce yoga lessons, as well as sessions of tai chi on the beach. They're liaising with local surf schools to add to the guest offer, and there's even Jasper the hotel dog, an energetic whippet that belongs to Broom, if you fancy some company during a bracing cliff tops walk.

But already the hotel is seeing more than anticipated success. Broom says that although she'd optimistically planned for a 54% occupancy rate in the fist few months to allow them to get established, she has already been forced to up this to 60% and is now turning people away.

"I grossly underestimated the success of the hotel. I've had to bring in temps to cover the phones to handle the amount of inquiries. I suppose it's a good problem to have."

Too right. Especially in today's climate, and considering the price of a room - from £160 per night. Luxury with a conscience doesn't come cheap, but as an inspiration to other hoteliers that could change the way we design and consume for the years to come - well that's priceless.


The team at the Scarlet take environmental credentials very seriously, something which is reflected in it's choices of kitchen equipment, supplied by Space Catering Equipment, which needed to offer energy savings or reduce carbon footprint. Examples include:

Ovens: Rational's energy-efficient combination ovens were used, along with a Mareno island suite complete with induction hobs to reduce energy consumption in the main cooking areas. The induction units only operate when the chef places a pan in the hob. The chrome fry-tops are more efficient than traditional cast plates and waste less heat through radiation.

Grill: Hatco's quick-therm grill is used for finishing but switches itself on only when activated by the product being placed under the heat source rather than being left running throughout service. The infra-red elements heat up in just eight seconds.

Waterbath: Small, low-energy Clifton water baths are used for sous-vide cooking of pre-portioned dishes, offering precision, control and consistent quality.

Refrigeration: Gram's range was used throughout the kitchen. It has scored the highest energy efficient ratings in the Carbon Trust's Energy Technology List.

Warewashing: Winterhalter's Energy Plus dishwasher that recovers energy from both the heat from the steam and waste water to heat the incoming water, so reducing energy costs over the life of the machine as well as creating less heat in the kitchen.

Grease management: Mechline's GreasePak system was incorporated to introduce enzymes into the waste water to minimise grease build-up in the drainage system. This reduces the use of harmful bleaches and caustics normally used to clear drains. The natural enzymes literally consume grease and bacteria that otherwise finds its way into the water treatment system.

Deliveries and packaging: The kitchen is designed with a large roll-in cold room and dedicated areas for butchery and fish preparation, so local suppliers can deliver whole fish and larger cuts of meat without unnecessary packaging. The delivery boxes are taken away and reused. Waste is eliminated by using a blast chiller and vacuum packer for longer-term storage.

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The food and beverage operation is also pushing boundaries, taking sustainable sourcing to new levels. As well as no orange juice on the breakfast menu - Cornish apple juice only - you won't find any Coca Cola, Schweppes or world wines on the list. Everything is sourced as locally as possible, within reason - they do have Barbados rum. The wines are all biodynamic, made with wild yeast without any added sugar or sulphur, and many are unfiltered and some unrefined. Even the coffee is roasted 30 miles up the road.

But does this ever create problems with guests? Michelle Hudd, food and beverage manager, says sometimes they need to explain what they are trying to do: "I've had conversations with guests where I've had to explain why we can't give them a Coca Cola. And they nearly always get it and appreciate what we're trying to do. It's about taking off your old school hospitality head and starting again. Everything is a challenge. But it's brilliant."

The hotel's restaurant is headed up by Ben Tunnicliffe, ex-owner and head chef of the now-closed Abbey restaurant in Penzance. Although he held a Michelin star for five years before selling to spend more time with his family, he says it isn't the main aim for him here. "I took 18 months out to spend quality time with my son after achieving and retaining a Michelin star for five years. I achieved more than I ever thought I could and I don't want to worry about that [guide books] any more."

Tunnicliffe fits the hotel's eco-maxim to a tee. He is fastidious about using all of his produce - you see things like bread and butter pudding made with chocolatines on the evening menu - and changes the menu every single day. He's also a stickler for buying locally and working with seasonal foods.

He speaks earnestly when he talks of his principles. "Local sourcing is not a marketing tool for me and I get really pissed off with people who think of it as that. You see gastropubs round here with boards outside that say locally sourced and I know it's not, but the customer doesn't. Sometimes I don't know until 4pm what the evening menu is going to be. I want to cook with fish that has come off the boat that morning. Great food comes from great ingredients."

It's clear this isn't just some PR mantra for Tunnicliffe. He works 18-hour days propped up by a quadruple espresso and clearly loves what he does. "It's about daring to be different, about considering what you do in life, in short - giving a shit," he says.

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