Ecofriendly in a Big Way

A green city grows in Las Vegas and defies a reputation for excess.

By Allan Richter

February 2010

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With its 24/7 partying, over-the-top shows and ubiquitous bright lights, Las Vegas is the undisputed capital of excess. Yet in the midst of this overindulgence, the city’s—in fact, the country’s—biggest private-sector development project to date is the very picture of moderation.

Behind that seeming contradiction are the six gold LEED certifications that MGM Mirage’s $8.5 billion CityCenter, a complex of hotels, condos, gaming, conference space, retail and dining, has won from the US Green Building Council. It is the largest project to garner the environmental stamps of approval for an array of sustainable practices that include recycling and cutting water and energy usage.

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From the organic and natural oils in its hotel spas to the recycled materials in its $40 million in art to its reuse of nearly all of the imploded Boardwalk Hotel construction waste, CityCenter is a portrait in green. “There could be aggregate from the Boardwalk Hotel on the ground we’re standing on,” said Gordon Absher, MGM Mirage vice president of public affairs, as he led a writer on a tour. In addition to its LEED certifications, CityCenter has won a Forest Stewardship Council award for its use of wood taken only from responsibly managed forests.

The CityCenter complex is set on the Las Vegas Strip just north of the Monte Carlo and south of the Bellagio resort hotels. It takes its lead from modern urban planning and aims to ease overcrowding, traffic congestion and environmental challenges with an unprecedented and highly dense multiuse blend of art, architecture and design.

Consider that the Bellagio contains 6 million square feet of space on 76 acres compared with CityCenter’s 18 million square feet of space housed on 67 acres. The close layout promotes pedestrian traffic and a monorail discourages driving in a self-contained area with amenities that aim to meet all needs.

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Rather than shoehorn sustainable concepts into existing development blueprints, CityCenter was designed around sustainability, says Cindy Ortega, MGM Mirage’s senior vice president of energy and environmental services. The result is a total estimated energy savings of 30% compared to a typical conventional development.

“When we started this at the end of 2005 into 2006, when you thought of a green building it conjured up an idea of a campus building or a library,” says Ortega, “but really nothing on the high end that you could draw people to. CityCenter proved that you can be environmentally conscious and still service the desires and needs of high-end guests or residents.”

CityCenter is the first Las Vegas Strip development with its own cogeneration power plant. The 8.5-megawatt plant lets CityCenter use the waste heat spun off from the power generation to provide all of the development’s hot water, including in its swimming pools. And because the plant is local, it provides an energy savings versus using energy that is transmitted over long distances.

CityCenter officials say Las Vegas resorts typically cool their buildings with forced-air ventilation, meaning plumbing is set in roofs and cool air is pushed down to fill a room.

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But people occupy only the bottom six feet of space, so CityCenter uses displacement ventilation from the ground up that uses less energy. It also provides cleaner air since rising warm air pulls up pollen, dust and other particles, MGM Mirage says.

In the casino at CityCenter’s Aria hotel resort, slot machines were designed with ventilation systems in their bases. Because the air has to travel a shorter distance than if it came from the ceiling, it is cooled to 68 degrees versus a typical 50 degrees.

Most of the lighting in both the public spaces and hotel and condo rooms are energy-efficient LED lights. CityCenter’s design incorporates a heavy use of glass and skylights for plentiful natural lighting, too. And to keep air conditioning use in check, horizontal bands of special glazes on the outside of the development’s glass buildings help dissipate the heat, as do shadows cast by narrow “eyebrow” overhangs over windows.

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Las Vegas would seem a natural for solar power, but executives said the positioning of shadows in CityCenter’s dense design and the development’s use of rooftop space for pools and other public areas did not lend themselves to the technology.

In other energy savings, the development’s Mandarin Oriental and Aria hotels smart-home technology lets guests control lighting, temperature, entertainment systems, wake-up calls, drapes and room service—all from a single remote control. After guests check out, the smart systems sense the rooms are unoccupied and shut lights and air conditioning.

A “water wall” by Aria’s entrance displays intermittent rather than constant streams, saving energy and creating more interesting patterns.

Where possible, CityCenter used local resources to minimize the environmental toll of long-haul shipping. For instance, a reddish rock that graces some exteriors comes from the Rainbow Quarries in Jean, Nevada, just about 30 miles from Vegas.

And with its eye on transportation, CityCenter’s fleet of 26 limos is the first to run on compressed natural gas (CNG), releasing fewer greenhouse emissions and costing less than gasoline.

MGM Mirage says it has cut water use by 60% for landscaping and 33% for bathrooms and restaurants compared with typical non-LEED buildings. Native foliage resists drought. And irrigation systems are equipped with sensors that alert when plants need watering or detect an accumulating puddle that signals a line break and need for repairs.

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CityCenter itself, with its many unusual perspectives through its glass walls, is a work of art. Many of the pieces of art within it, too, are ecofriendly. Behind the Aria check-in desk, Maya Lin, the artist behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, created an 80-foot cast of the Colorado River with silver reclaimed from medical and photographic uses. A Nancy Rubins sculpture uses recycled kayaks and canoes. Richard Long’s wall drawings use mud and natural materials.

CityCenter’s grand scope and MGM Mirage’s buying power helped create new green practices and products that the project’s vendors will be able to use in new projects, MGM Mirage and environmental officials say.

“It really demonstrates sustainab­ility on a large scale,” notes US Green Building Council spokesperson Ashley Katz. “For projects that might be saying, ‘I’m not sure if this is for me,’ they can really look to CityCenter as a project that was able to successfully fulfill all its environmental goals.”

Rick Roetken, vice president of marketing at Delta Faucet Company in Indianapolis, said the CityCenter work “helped shape Delta’s approach to broad-ranging water conservation coupled with high product performance.”

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Len Christopher, chief executive of Evergreen Recycling, cited a customer that builds glass construction products such as pavers. Because Evergreen brought it so much glass waste from CityCenter, the customer is now strictly reusing glass rather than creating it anew.
“It opened up some other markets as far as commodities just because of the sheer volumes,”

Christopher said of Las Vegas-based Evergreen’s recycling work for CityCenter. “If you have a lot of anything, you can usually find a buyer for it. It opened up avenues we did not have before. We have more outlets for material. Instead of one or two buyers for your steel, you have five, or you have half a dozen buyers for your paper projects instead of one or two.”

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CityCenter features the first energy-generation on the Las Vegas Strip through an 8.5 megawatt natural-gas co-generation plant that provides efficient electricity on site. It reduces emissions and uses “waste heat” to provide all of the complex's hot water.

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"Smart" sensor technology in the guestrooms at CityCenter's Aria hotel detect when guests have checked out and turn off any lights and other electronics.

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CityCenter's fleet of limousines run on compressed natural gas (CNG), releasing fewer greenhouse emissions and costing less than gasoline.

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Spas at CityCenter, such as the facilities at the Aria and Vdara resorts, pictured, use natural and organic oils. Wood at CityCenter, like that in the Vdara spa (bottom), is taken only from responsibly managed forests and has garnered CityCenter a Forest Stewaardship Council award.

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A reddish rock that graces some CityCenter exteriors was locally sourced, from the Rainbow Quarries in Jean, Nevada, about 30 miles from Las Vegas.

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Perched above Aria's reception desk against a panoramic window is the first work of art in Las Vegas by Maya Lin, who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Her 80-foot “Silver River” was inspired by the boundaries and topography of the Colorado River as it carves the desert landscape. In light of Nevada’s standing as “The Silver State,” Lin used reclaimed silver for the piece.

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A sculptor and artisan known for her grandiose works created from salvaged and industrial consumer goods, Nancy Rubins created “Big Edge” at CityCenter. Cantilevered over Vdara’s main drive and measuring roughly 57 feet wide and 75 feet long, Rubins’ work is a colorful composition of aluminum rowboats, canoes and other small river and ocean vessels finessed into an eye-catching, gravity-defying form the artist calls “a blooming flower.”

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Slot machines at Aria were designed with ventilation systems in their bases, meaning air does not have to travel as far as if it were pushed from the ceiling and can therefore be cooled to 68 degrees versus a typical 50 degrees. 

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