By Rand Richard, Connecticut Magazine, March 30, 2022. Photo by Ned Gerard.
Star developer Bruce Becker is known for his eco-friendly projects across the Northeast. The architect’s transformation of New Haven’s iconic Pirelli building into the country’s first zero-net-energy hotel is his most ambitious plan of all.
Anyone who regularly drives I-95 through New Haven knows the city’s most distinctive building: a concrete Brutalist box whose third and fourth floors are missing, leaving five upper floors supported by stanchions. The see-through gap creates the visual paradox of a structure at once massive and yet lighter than air, almost levitating.
The floating building has a distinguished pedigree. It was designed by Marcel Breuer, the Bauhaus architect who fled the Nazis and landed in New England, becoming an influential educator at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Best known for the iconic curved-metal Cesca chair that he named for his daughter Francesca, Breuer moved to New Canaan in the mid-1940s and spent the rest of his life here in Connecticut, designing scores of structures in the New York area and across the U.S.
Opened in 1970 as the headquarters of the Armstrong Rubber Co., the New Haven building passed through several owners’ hands, including Italian tire maker Pirelli, before being abandoned in the ’90s. In 2003 it was acquired by IKEA, which built its superstore right behind it — and left it sitting unused, a castoff monument whose plight preservationists bitterly viewed as “demolition by neglect.”
Enter Bruce Becker. Three years ago, the Westport-based architect and developer bought Breuer’s mothballed masterpiece, and this spring he is unveiling the Hotel Marcel, a 165-room boutique hotel in the extensively renovated building. The Marcel is as unique in function as it is in form. Run wholly on electricity, generating and managing its own power with an impressive array of solar panels, storage batteries and state-of-the-art energy-saving technologies, it is the first zero-net-energy hotel in the U.S.
The project has garnered jubilant advance reviews, both in national media — “This Eco-Friendly Hotel Will Make US History,” gushed Travel & Leisure in December — and here in Connecticut. “Bruce Becker,” wrote architect Duo Dickinson in the New Haven Register, “is changing architecture more than any other practitioner in New England and perhaps America.” And so a structure created a half-century ago by an innovative designer is returned to vibrant life by another innovative designer bent on changing the way we think about energy, built environments and our future.
For Becker, salvaging Breuer’s masterpiece is the challenge and reward of a lifetime. He became intrigued by the building as a grad student at Yale School of Architecture in the 1980s. But the connection goes further back. “I grew up in the shadow of Bauhaus, and Breuer in particular,” the architect explains. Becker’s mother was a furniture designer who specialized in mid-century modern. His father, an office designer, had a Breuer chair in his own office at home. And after getting his Yale degree, Becker interned with Edward Larrabee Barnes, who trained at Harvard under Breuer. Throughout his subsequent career, the architect has been guided by Bauhaus principles: clean lines, minimal ornamentation, and a deeply social vision of design.
Just as important was growing up in New Canaan, which in the 1950s became a hub of modernist architecture. “The modern house I grew up in was a direct product of Marcel Breuer’s presence in America,” Becker says. “He trained a bunch of architects, and they came to New Canaan and did houses.” The chance to get his hands on a building designed by his idol dovetailed with the focus of his own career: the adaptive reuse of landmark historic buildings. Becker made his name with The Octagon, a 19th-century asylum on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island, which his firm, Becker & Becker, converted into a highly praised apartment complex. Here in Connecticut his accomplishments include the Wauregan in Norwich, a graceful 1855 hotel that Becker resuscitated as affordable housing. The former Shartenberg department store site in New Haven now hosts the 360 State Street apartment complex. And the old Hartford National Bank building in Hartford became the upscale apartments of 777 Main Street.
These projects saved landmarks threatened with extinction, furthering Becker’s long campaign against disposable architecture. “A place like the Wauregan has an amazing history,” the architect says, noting that Abraham Lincoln stayed there during his 1860 presidential campaign. “If it gets torn down, so much goes away with it.” His efforts to keep that from happening have won him awards and praise. “Bruce has made a profound impact on our state,” says Sara Bronin, an architect, attorney and professor who ran an environmental law center at UConn Law School and has worked with Becker on development and policy projects. “He has a sense of relentless optimism about what buildings can do and be.”
That relentless optimism belies a sharp sense of urgency vis-á-vis what Becker views as the defining challenge of our time: climate change. A pragmatist by training, soft-spoken and optimistic by nature, the developer seems an unlikely evangelist for a cause. When he discusses fossil fuels, however, a quiet firmness emerges. Last fall, in a keynote address at the Connecticut Architecture Conference at Mohegan Sun, he urged colleagues to rise to the challenge of designing buildings as beautiful from an energy perspective as they are to look at. Both for transportation and for buildings we need to go all-electric and 100 percent renewable, he insisted. “The goal is not to reduce use of fossil fuels,” he told his audience. “The goal is to stop using fossil fuels altogether.”
Becker is no newbie in the world of energy efficiency; both his Hartford and New Haven apartment complexes garnered LEED Platinum certification, the highest ranking from the green-building rating system. Yet when he speaks about those buildings these days, he winces. Despite significant energy efficiencies, both still had gas hookups. And to a sustainability purist, attempting to be environmentally conscious while having a gas hookup in your house is like dieting while keeping a pantry full of Twinkies.
Asked how he came to place energy sustainability front and center in his practice, Becker cues up a photo on his phone, showing a foot of water in his street in Westport, one block from the Sound. That’s no storm flood, he points out, just high tide during a recent full moon. “Climate change is literally lapping at my door. I can’t ignore it.” And it’s no accident. “What’s happening with our climate is the result of choices we make about the vehicles we drive and the houses we build. And it can be fixed. That’s been a big motivator for me.”
Eager not just to talk the talk, in 2019 Becker undertook to transform the house he shares with his wife, artist Kraemer Sims, into a net-zero home. A classic New England saltbox, built a century ago and enlarged by a previous owner, the L-shaped red house was “a huge energy hog,” Becker says. To reverse that, he began by replacing the oil furnace and water heater with highly efficient VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) heat pumps for heating and cooling. He installed solar panels — 63 in all — then air-sealed the house and insulated it with spray foam. He put in LED lighting, ditched the gas-fired appliances and installed super-efficient electric ones.
Two Tesla Powerwalls in the garage charge during the day and can be drawn down at night, providing backup for the house and allowing Becker to optimize energy efficiency. In the summer he exports electricity to the grid, and in the winter, when necessary, he imports. He shows me a phone app that monitors home energy use. It was a rainy winter day. “We’re only getting 400 watts of solar production right now, and we’re using 1.4 kilowatts. So today we’re importing. If this were a sunny day in summer, you’d be seeing three or four kilowatts being pushed back into the grid.”
The measures slashed the house’s HERS score — the Home Energy Rating System — from a spendthrift 253 to a sterling 19, a twelvefold reduction in net energy use. When you factor in energy-saving appliances acquired since, and subtract the component of electricity used to charge the family’s two Teslas, that number sinks to near zero — as evidenced by the year’s-end energy balance he shows me on his phone app. Net zero or very near net zero: in either case, a home that was an energy hog is now an energy miser.
As for the economics of it all, Becker’s spreadsheet shows his roughly $100,000 outlay repaid in five years. Anyone can make their house all-electric and net-zero, he insists. “All we have to do is just stop putting in the systems that the fossil-fuel companies and the Koch brothers want us to put in.”
The Hotel Marcel replicates the transformation of the Westport home on a larger scale. Twenty-six kilowatt-hours of storage has become 1,000. Instead of two electric car chargers, two dozen. Instead of a single 80-gallon, heat-pump hot water system, the first Mitsubishi large-scale commercial system in the U.S. An inverter — the brain of the system — synchronizes electricity from the grid, solar panels and batteries, allowing the building to operate as a true microgrid, with multiple sources of power and multiple uses. “It’s pretty sophisticated — and it’s all electric,” Becker says, with a gleam in his eye. “No gas connection anywhere.”
On a cold morning in January, I meet the developer for a site tour. Set in the Long Wharf area along I-95, the concrete building has a hunkered-down look that belies its gravity-defying geometry. Construction workers in yellow vests ply the area around its base, a fenced-off sea of mud. The solar-array canopies north of the hotel — boasting no fewer than 1,072 panels — look strangely like a small bus station. To the east is the elevated interstate; south, the big blue box of IKEA; straight west, the IKEA lot, ringed with industrial buildings. It seemed a bold move to be locating a boutique hotel in the middle of an enormous parking lot.
Becker pulls up in his gray Tesla Model Y bearing the license plate “Marcel” (a passionate Elon Musk disciple, he chairs the EV Club of Connecticut). He had a busy day ahead, and it began with a financing check-in. To fund what The New York Times called his “$50 million gamble,” the developer buttressed a $25 million bank loan with $14 million in state and federal historic tax credits — credits that can be sold to investors, in this case Bank of America — plus environmental design loans and considerable equity of his own. I sit with him in his car as he conducts a Zoom meeting with his lender, Liberty Bank, and its cost consultant. The consultant asks about a change order calling for custom trim in several paneled suites located in the building’s former executive offices. Becker explains that the cost is crucial to maintaining the period quality of the rooms.
“It’s gonna look beautiful,” he says. “It’ll be like walking onto a Mad Men set.”
Nimbly multitasking, he mutes his Zoom to talk with an energy consultant about the hotel’s projected peak energy loads. Moments later he jumps out of the car to direct a truck picking up defective window surrounds that had to be redone. He leaps back in just in time to join a discussion of The Marcel’s opening date. “Our team feels that the end of March would be a big success,” he says. “But it depends on a lot.” The paving couldn’t be done until asphalt plants — which close in winter — opened up again. The restaurant kitchen had to be finished before his hotel operator, Maryland-based Chesapeake Hospitality, could begin hiring and training restaurant staff. And how would that go during the Great Resignation?
“There’s a lot we can’t predict,” Becker tells his banker. He breaks away again to field a call from his building supervisor, with a photo showing discoloration on beams running through some lightwells. Did they need to do anything about that? Next, a Fedex guy calls to ask where to deliver a shipment of tiles for the bar floor.
It is daunting to see how many moving pieces there are to getting a hotel up and running. Becker scrolls rapidly down his phone. “Can you believe all these emails?” he mutters. The previous day alone, he’d gotten over 250. “This is the downside of being developer, architect and owner. You’re in the loop on everything.”
At 63, Becker has done many things, but opening a hotel is not one of them. He calls it the most challenging project he has ever undertaken — “a four-year, obsessive, 24-hour-a-day commitment.” He didn’t need to do it; he could have rested on his laurels. “Maybe this is egotistical, but I didn’t think anyone else could do it quite as effectively as I could,” he says, then elaborates. “I didn’t think there could be anyone who appreciated the building as much as I did and would also have the skills to develop it. So I felt compelled to do it.”
Becker takes me on a tour of his half-finished hotel. Shouting over the cacophony of drills and saws, the developer explains some witty Bauhaus-themed nomenclature he’d given the building’s two ground-floor meeting rooms. “This large room is The Forum, and the smaller is The Function Room,” he says, with obvious delight. “So right now we’re standing where Forum meets Function — and you can join them or keep them separate!”
We start up the stairs — though not before Becker, ever energy-conscious, closes a ground-level door that construction workers had been using. “Gotta save the heat,” he says. A few floors up, he stops to admire a bit of design mastery, examining the juncture where the staircase’s steel railing supports join the precast terrazzo stair tread. “Breuer was an artist. See how crisply detailed and well-thought-out this is? It’s angled together like sculpture and machined like jewelry.”
We climb up, passing the two-story cutout known as The Void, to a sixth-floor corner suite with a view of East Rock on one side and I-95 on the other. “Look at all those cars and trucks,” Becker says. “We’re a stone’s throw from a major highway, and you can’t hear a thing.” Working with an acoustical consultant, his firm installed triple-glazed, laminated windows — 525 of them in all. “The number one complaint people have at hotels is noise. This is like a thermos, there are so many layers of glass here!”
An electrician is installing power blackout window shades. Connected via ethernet wires and controlled by computer, the shades are operable from a touchscreen that also lets guests adjust heat and light. “And we can manage it centrally,” Becker says. “An unoccupied room can be powered down and we can shed load that way.
The electrician chimes in enthusiastically. “These shades are fully addressable, so you can change the setting from anywhere. You can make ’em go up staggered if you want.” He jokes about syncing all the shades to spell words visible from the highway. “It’s an amazing system,” he continues. “Makes the hair on my arms stand up.”
He and Becker trade notes on the building’s low-energy profile. The electrician seems to appreciate not only the hotel’s technological wizardry, but the larger mission behind it. “If you can reduce the bulk kilowatt consumption of a facility, then our whole green machine can gain more steam,” he comments as Becker nods approvingly. “It doesn’t even matter if everyone’s on board or not. If we can give the end user a product that makes them happy, we’re gonna move forward.”
In researching his Breuer project, Becker discovered that when it comes to energy sustainability, the bar set by the hospitality industry hasn’t exactly been high. He expresses bafflement at the industry’s laggard environmental performance. “There’s very little effort made. They do these superficial things, like, ‘Oh, let’s have bulk dispensers of shampoo,’ or, ‘Let’s not launder towels daily.’ Well, what does that do for the world? It’s just marketing.”
“There are high upfront costs associated with sustainable design,” says Mackey Dykes of the Connecticut Green Bank, which helps finance clean-energy projects in the state and provided Becker $2 million through a program called C-PACE (Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy). “As Kermit the Frog sang, ‘It’s not so easy being green.’ ” Those upfront costs often force developers to pare back sustainability goals. “There’s actually a cheaper operational cost over the life of the building. But you have to get there.”
By opening what will be one of a handful of LEED Platinum hotels in the U.S., Becker is showing the way, Dykes says. “A lot of developers don’t have a long-term approach. They just want to get something built and flip it. Bruce is different. He’s truly invested. It’s great to see him help Connecticut be a clean-energy leader.”
Developers need to be more forward thinking, says Chris Schweitzer of the New Haven Climate Movement, which supports education on climate change and advocates for policies that promote greenhouse gas reduction. “Whether it’s cars or homes or hotels, more and more people are factoring a concern for the environment and climate change into their decisions as consumers.” Builders should take heed. “The fact that Bruce is doing this right now is going to make it possible for others to follow suit. It’s a great model for what the future can look like.”
A great model — yet still an untried one for a hotel. And while Becker himself remains serene, observers view the project as a bold move. This level of sustainability “just doesn’t happen in the hospitality industry,” the CEO of Becker’s own hotel operator, Chesapeake, told The New York Times last November. “This is going to be a huge test.”
After a long morning of getting things done, Becker takes a break in the cafeteria over at IKEA, lunching on Swedish veggie balls before a window offering a dramatic closeup view of his new hotel. “I could look at this building forever,” says the developer. “I love the way it changes in the light.” He recalls driving past it with his family decades earlier, when he and his brothers were kids. “Back then we called it the Lego building.”
The Lego building has proved well suited to a sustainability retrofit. Its windows are unusually large, Becker explains, and also deep-set, a full 30 inches in from the façade. “In the summer, they’re almost entirely in shade, but in winter, when the sun is lower, the light pours in. It’s actually a perfect passive solar design.” Another key feature is the building’s ultra-high-performance concrete. “That concrete is as strong as granite. It will be here forever.”
Such durability speaks to Becker’s decades-long campaign against the wastefulness of throwaway design. Reusing buildings is inherently sustainable, he likes to point out. “It’s now well understood that if you build a brand-new, energy-efficient building, the process of building it will have a bigger carbon impact than operating it will over its whole lifetime.” That calculus relies on what’s known as “embodied carbon,” representing the overall greenhouse-gas impact of new construction, including producing, transporting and assembling materials. “But if you retrofit an already existing building, 90 percent of what you are using is being reused.”
We sit for a moment in silence, looking out at the Breuer building. The void at its center, I recall, had been carefully designed to frame a view of the city for drivers passing on the highway. Armstrong Rubber had wanted a simple, two-story office building, but New Haven’s mayor, Richard Lee, wanted to put his city on the map — and so he gave Armstrong this land for free, on the condition that they hire a world-class architect. It was fascinating to contemplate the duality of architecture, how adroitly it joins the beautiful to the practical, so that an office building might satisfy a tire company even as it conferred art on the cityscape.
Similarly, the Hotel Marcel will have to function not only as a cutting-edge, energy-saving machine, but a business as well. Its success relies on winning a diverse clientele: Yale and its community; architecture enthusiasts Becker refers to fondly as “the design crowd”; and also routine travelers, the average Joe who happens to be driving through Connecticut as evening approaches. The developer shakes his head at the challenge, calling the process of creating a hotel “10 times more complicated” than opening an apartment building. “The operating aspect has so much complexity,” he says, ruefully. “You have to sell the room every single day.”
To that end, he and his team haven’t stinted anything. Kraemer Sims, who assembled the hotel’s art collection, has worked closely with the Brooklyn firm Dutch East Design to give The Marcel’s décor its understated opulence, with custom wood finishings and retro mod furniture —some of it from IKEA — lending mid-century modern flair. A full-service restaurant, christened BLDG, will serve locally sourced regional fare.
The result has been garnering advance raves. Last fall,TimeOut instructed New York City readers “to start planning a quick trip to our neighboring state, Connecticut, home to a beautiful new hotel poised to become the greenest across all of the United States.” And in December, Architectural Digest showcased The Marcel on its worldwide list of “15 Most Anticipated High Design Hotel Openings of 2022” — an elite list that ranges from Vienna to Tel Aviv, and puts Becker’s hotel in some posh company.
“Bruce is very, very good at marrying the pragmatic with the aesthetic,” says Bob Gregson, a preservationist who helped lead the effort to get the Breuer building onto the state’s historic registry decades ago. Those decades saw any number of efforts to resuscitate the building come to naught, Gregson recalls. “It takes a special talent to figure out how you can repurpose a building without destroying it — and, in this case, with an energy twist added on it, making it very 21st century. Bruce is amazing. He is the only person I know who could do this. It’s pretty gutsy.”
Anyone who spends time with Becker can’t help but feel the pull of his irrepressible optimism. He’s our Captain Zero, a sustainability action figure doing battle against the forces of global doom. One afternoon, while interviewing a prospective website design team via Zoom, the developer offered a two-minute summary of his firm’s focus on energy sustainability. Six or seven minutes later, his wife Kraemer leaned in from the next room and gave an emphatic “cut-it” gesture with her hand across her throat.
“Bruce will go on forever on this if you let him,” she said afterward, fondly. “Sometimes you just need to stop him. You know that big hook they use on a stage?”
Maybe it’s not surprising that a designer-developer who has dedicated his career to rescuing historic buildings would map out a way to join our usable past to a viable future. And Captain Zero’s singular mix of pragmatism and prophecy might be just what we need to get ourselves there: hard clarity about our embattled environment, plus buoyant faith in our ability to do something about it. “We know how to do this,” he says. “And we have to do it now.”