Modern hotel design goes beyond repeating cookie-cutter styles from one locale to another

The old axiom, “Location, location, location,” has taken on new importance in the modern era of hotel design. While it’s still up to the developer or owner to choose (and battle the city to secure) a prime site, more than ever the challenge for architects and designers is to customize hotels, even heavily branded ones, to their surroundings — all while meeting a demanding number of other requirements.

“A few years ago, a client would come to an architect and say, ‘I want to have a building.’ Then you designed a building and when the client was happy with it you would go to all the consultants,” says Charl G. Johnson, a partner and director, Hospitality and Project Development, at the Calgary-based BKDI Architects, which is working in collaboration with Lemay Michaud Architecture Design on the 150-room Le Germain Calgary, slated to open in November 2009. Now, he says all the players from suppliers to IT people are involved right from the start.

But even a complicated process entails preliminary steps. “As designers, our first task is really to take the strength of a brand and translate it to different locales,” says James Cheng, a principal at the Vancouver-based James Cheng KM Architects Inc. “Because a Shangri-La Hong Kong cannot be translated to a Shangri-La Vancouver. The staffing is different, the culture’s different and the clientele is different,” he says.

Cheng’s firm is designing the 412-room Fairmont Pacific Rim Vancouver, opening at the end of 2009, the 119-room Shangri-La Vancouver, opening early 2009, and the 200-room Shangri-La Toronto, opening in 2011. He illustrates the extent to which a hotel’s locale and its clientele dictate design. Toronto is more business-oriented, he points out, and a big part of the corporate culture is going to a bar for post-work drinks. “So we will have to design the Shangri-La Toronto to accommodate that.” His solution is to include street-level lounges and restaurants. “We wanted to create these light boxes so people can look in and see the bamboo and the palm trees and be attracted to come in and have a drink.”

In Vancouver, where tourism is the number 1 industry, the Shangri-La will cater primarily to leisure travellers. “The lobby is a place where you would sit, have a coffee or tea and look out into the courtyard — more of a West Coast casual lifestyle,” Cheng says. And because Vancouver is known as a garden city, the hotel will emphasize greenery and sport rooftop gardens and floor-to-ceiling windows. “It’s an integration of indoor/outdoor [environments],” Cheng says.

Although each brand has standards architects and designers must adhere to, Cheng says there is room for interpretation. “The good thing about [developers today] is they’re very understanding of locale. Not like the old days where one hotel model fit everywhere. Now they really understand local conditions, down to the food. The menu they’d create for Vancouver would be different than the one they’d create for Toronto.”  

When designing the 77-room Loden Hotel Vancouver, owned by L.A.-based Kor Hotel Group and slated to open this summer, Dave Hewitt, principal at Hewitt and Kwasnicky, says his team considered how a guest would know they were in Vancouver, as opposed to New York or Miami, just by looking at the hotel. “We developed a palette of materials and design elements that reflected the West Coast motif — that being the mountains, the forest and the ocean.” Thus, the building’s façade features heavy timber, recycled copper cladding, natural stone (quarried locally) and two shades of glass, which is scalloped to represent waves.

But regardless of location, one factor influences almost every hotel’s design. “One of the biggest trends we’ve seen lately is a greener approach,” says Harry Christakis, a principal at Toronto-based HCA Architecture. “It covers all the bases, from architectural design to selection of material to what kind of lighting you use right to the back of house.”

BKDI’s Johnson agrees green design is crucial. “The public is demanding it.” He rhymes off examples of eco-conscious products and equipment he favours: natural materials such as cotton and wool; rapidly renewable materials such as bamboo and cork; dual-flush toilets; and low-flow faucets and showerheads. He adds that hotels can also be designed to allow in the maximum amount of daylight.

At Hewitt and Kwasnicky, green design is an inherent part of the firm’s approach. “We’re not going for LEED accreditation on the Loden,” Hewitt remarks, “but it would far exceed the LEED standards.” Its energy-efficient systems range from low-voltage lighting to steam heat to rainwater recycling for landscape irrigation.

The Shangri-La Vancouver is LEED gold equivalent (the Toronto property’s rating hasn’t been established yet) and Cheng cites geothermal power and heat exchangers as two of its notable green design elements. Some of the heat produced by machines such as the hotel’s air conditioners will be recovered and used to heat the hot water in the residential units above the hotel.

The fact that there are living spaces above hotels at all is another phenomenon worth examining. “The most important trend that’s clearly emerged in hotel development in the past few years is the mixed-use model,” says Mansoor Kazerouni, vice-president of Design at the Toronto-based Page and Steele. Among other projects, the firm is currently working on Toronto’s 267-room Ritz-Carlton (it will have 135 condominiums), scheduled to open in 2010.

Le Germain Calgary will have 40 condos; the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto will have 118 condos; the Fairmont Pacific Rim will have 175 condos; the Shangri-La Vancouver will have 234 live-work residences and 66 condos; the Shangri-La Toronto will have 360 condos; and the Toronto Four Seasons will have 202 condos. Many have offices, retail and/or foodservice establishments, too.

The efficiencies built in to mixed-use properties benefit more than just the residents, who can take advantage of a hotel’s amenities, such as laundry and housekeeping. “The hotel obviously enjoys the revenue of all these services it provides to the resident,” Kazerouni says. “So there is financial gain.” He adds that hotels can bring operating costs down through shared expenses in areas such as waste removal and loading.

But is it a coincidence that as more properties are developed as mixed-use models, hotel design is becoming less institutional? Dan Menchions, a founding partner of Toronto-based II by IV Design Associates Inc., doesn’t think so: “Hotels are becoming a lot more residential in feel,” he says, noting the trend is particularly apparent in bathroom design. II by IV did the interior design of Toronto’s Cambridge Suites and is designing the 261 guest rooms and suites in the Trump Hotel, scheduled for completion in 2010. He adds that lighting is a great tool for creating a homey feel. “It’s about all the little touches…not just putting a floor lamp in the corner and two lamps on a table.”

Menchions points out another design trend: “All hotels are now competing on size, so they have bigger rooms.” Cheng agrees. “The room sizes are now over 500 feet. The old standard for five-stars was 450. Now it’s more like 500 to 550.”

While rooms get bigger, materials get finer — evident in the Loden’s indulgent use of exotic hardwoods and the Shangri-La’s unabashed use of marble. Still, Christakis says, “From a stylistic viewpoint, things are moving to a more luxurious, contemporary, casual elegance. Things are getting simpler, cleaner looking.”

An added bonus of sleek design, for an industry with chronic labour shortages, is guest rooms that are more easily maintained. “In the old days you would have had all these heavy, detailed rooms,” Johnson says. “The quicker [housekeeping] can change a room for cleaning purposes — if they’re spending 15 minutes instead of half an hour — that’s going to show in the bottom line.”


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