57 rooms, killer view, free wi-fi — and a synchrotron

Berkeley Lab Guest House lobby looks out across the bay. (Peg Skorpinski photos)

Mind-bending views are one thing. But not every hotel gets to brag that it stands in the shadow of light-curving synchrotron.

The Berkeley Lab Guest House can make that claim – not to mention the cyclotron right up the hill. It’s also the only hotel where guests can see the Campanile from above. And as an added feature, on certain nights they might be rewarded (or not, depending on their musical taste and wake-up time) with free audio from a performance at the Greek Theatre just down the hill.

Not too many people outside of the scientific world seem to know about the Guest House, which opened a year ago on the steep grounds of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, up above campus. It’s been running at about 50 percent of capacity, despite offering low rates with no taxes or charges for parking or wi-fi, says Jennifer Zerfas, assistant general manager.

But anyone with an email address at Berkeley or the lab can send visitors to stay there, as well as people from other UC campuses who have business at Berkeley. While intended as a convenience for scientists who fly in from all over the world to conduct research and attend conferences at the lab, the Guest House is open to anyone with business on campus — and that, Zerfas says, includes your Aunt Minnie from Iowa, if you’re faculty, staff or a student.

“If you have a Berkeley.edu or lab.gov email address or are sponsored by someone who does, you qualify,” she says.

Arc-shaped roof reflects UV rays

The hotel, a not-for-profit business, has complicated parentage. The University of California built it, and Berkeley’s RSSP (Residential and Student Services Program) runs it. But its mortgage and operations are underwritten by the federally funded (U.S. Department of Energy) lab, according to general manager Tom Farrell. That means, he says, that no campus resources go into the hotel; the lab reimburses RSSP for its expenses — Farrell’s salary, for example. The hope is, he adds, that it will become self-sustaining.

The three-story wood-sided hotel itself was built with sustainability in mind. The “cool roof” — a sleek arc that extends over both sides — reflects UV rays instead of absorbing them. Sensors turn hall and bathroom lights on only when needed. Heat trapped by bedrock under the ground floor moderates the interior climate. The air conditioning is high-efficiency.

Its 57 rooms are simple and very clean — built to offer more comfort than the desks and hallways at lab facilities, where, according to Zerfas and Ferrell, scientists would catch a few winks while waiting for precious time.

Competition is fierce to get time on the synchrotron, or Advanced Light Source, where light beams are studied, and other lab facilities open to outside researchers.  The “national user facilities,” as they’re called, operate 24/7 and run fully booked.

“When they come, it’s like 24 hours a day — they don’t want to waste a half-hour getting down the hill,” says Farrell.

Most of the hotel’s guests — Zerfas estimates about 90 percent — are men, reflecting the makeup of the scientific professions that use lab’s resources, including the Molecular Foundry, home to nanotechnology research.

Visitors have come from all over the world, including one from Turkmenistan. “I gave him a good view,” says Zerfas. “If it’s a country where I figure the view might not be great, I give them that.”

Conferences can fill the oddly pink two-story lobby with scientists busy trading insights, according to the managers. “There’s

Dining table, kitchen and other comforts of home are offered in a few suites.

synergy,” says Farrell. Room-high windows also offer a sweeping view looking out over the roof of the lab cafeteria below.

A big plus is the quiet, and the managers do what they can to encourage that. Although guests are free to bring wine, beer or spirits to sip in their rooms or the lobby, the hotel doesn’t have a bar (or restaurant) and isn’t marketing itself to the party crowd, Farrell says.

“If you painted yourself blue and gold for the football game or dressed as Oski the bear, it’s probably not the right place for you,” he adds.

Beds are not just better than a hallway floor, they’re super-comfortable, based on a quick but convincing test. The rooms have all the usual amenities — 32-inch flat-screen TVs with 200 satellite channels and Showtime, wi-fi, mini-refrigerators — and a few “suites” (bigger rooms) have small kitchens plus a dining table, dishes and silverware.

All of the rooms across the front look across the Bay to San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Tamalpais; the backside looks up the hill at lab buildings.

Food and drink are limited to free Peet’s coffee and tea, plus snacks and some microwaveable meals sold in vending machines — or the cafeteria across the street, or the Berkeley pizza, pho and other fast-food businesses that deliver to the lab. But as Zerfas points out, guests are only a short drive, shuttle or cab ride to some of the best eating in the country.

Access to the hotel requires a pass to get onto lab property through Blackberry or Strawberry. Passes are automatically granted with hotel confirmation.

The hotel is still building its business, putting out word to the campus and selling itself mainly on its views, convenience and prices. A room with one queen-size bed or two twins costs $129 a night (less if you are a lab guest or negotiate a group rate) — but guests don’t have to pay the city’s 12 percent room tax or for parking, which can add up in Berkeley.

Zerfas wants it known that the hotel is a good alternative for visitors in town for conferences on the Berkeley campus, parents visiting students, and faculty and staff from other UC campuses here on university business. The front desk is set up to take “chart strings,” allowing UC departments to pay the hotel directly through computerized accounting systems, she emphasizes.

If the Guest House were to run at capacity, it would break even, according to Farrell.

“We’re not here to make a profit,” he adds. “The reason we’re here is to further the scientific mission here at the lab and the research mission of the university.”