Developing a Spec Hotel
Adds Patrick Reardon, the firm's executive chairman: "The term 'generic' was specific to this developer on that site. They wanted us to redesign an existing scheme, which had been used to obtain the initial outline planning permission, and to make it more attractive to potential operators."
Both Reardon and Smith are quite adamant that, because every site is unique, there is really no such thing as a generic hotel. For instance, in the case of Bedfont Lakes, the hotel was oriented to face a landscaped area rather than a road. The site also drove the decision to provide an on-site restaurant, which would be optional in hotels surrounded by urban amenities.
Designing for Accommodation
Without knowing their specific client, however, Reardon and Smith were able to create "generic" guestrooms and bathrooms to internationally recognized standards and sizes for full-service airport hotels. The accepted standard guestroom size, for example, for international four-star hotels is 300 to 350 square feet (28 to 32 square meters). The firm does not expect any future changes to the guestroom design.
It was in the public areas where they expected the incumbent hotel operator to apply its own branding and specific requirements. So they developed a flexible solution for variable permutations of restaurant, bar, lobby, leisure facilities, and meeting rooms. When an operator client was eventually found, only these public areas needed to change to accommodate the brand of the hotel.
In broad terms, hotels have two distinct areas: "front of house," for the public domain and "back of house" where the staff works. Smith explains: "Our main aim is to keep the design simple, particularly in the workings of a hotel. We always aim to keep the distances short from the back of house to provide the service, but the paths must never cross with the public." It's in the front-of-house spaces where most of the operator-specific branding occurs.
Nonspecialists had drawn up the Bedfont Lakes initial design, which was obvious to Reardon Smith once they got to work. Smith recalls: "We saw immediately that we could increase the number of rooms. The original design had three bedroom floors. By reducing the heights of the rooms, we were able to introduce another floor within the same height plan and increase the number of bedrooms from 318 to 408." This meant that the architects increased the hotelier's potential revenue without increasing the overall volume of the building.
Reardon Smith wanted to make a gateway statement with a glass facade and atrium, but tough new insulation standards in the United Kingdom made them rethink their design of a glazed elevation. Although the hotel still has a glass clad front, about two thirds has insulated panels behind it to maintain the optimum energy efficiency.
Situated on a brownfield site, which is currently undergoing decontamination, it is anticipated that construction will start in January 2003.
"We're not sure if we have started a trend," notes Reardon. "It may be coincidental but we are now working with two different developers, in Moscow and Kingston, on exactly the same type of speculative 'generic' projects."
And yet the architects strenuously deny that they use 'generic' templates in their other hotel design. Reardon says, "there are no formulaic approaches to designing a hotel. We do not work to a 'cookie cutter' culture and if we did, we would soon be out of business." Instead, he would describe this work as "familiarity breeding the ability to address the main issues."
As if to illustrate the idiosyncrasy of most of their projects, they cite the Cumberland Hotel, being transformed into what its operator calls "London's coolest hotel" and the May Fair Inter-Continental, for which an extra wing is being added over an operating casino.
Most spectacular of all is the Sanctuary Santa Rosa Amalfi, a conversion of a 15th century Italian convent and National Historic Monument into a discreetly luxurious resort. Descending across five levels on a cliff top, the design ensures that the front and back of house lines do not cross by introducing a tunnel for the service functions.
Reardon Smith helped develop a twin bedroom module for a hotel client in Bracknell, Thames Valley, west of London. A module incorporated two bedroom-and-bath units linked by a corridor section. The modules were built in a factory, saving time and waste compared to in situ construction.
The size and quality of the rooms met four-star standards, yet they were within the dimensions required for transport by road. This meant that 48 complete guestrooms were transported to the building site and erected in just two weekends.
Hotel design is an exciting practice. Reardon says: "In the past, a familiar hotel used to be a point of reassurance in a strange place. Hotel guests are more self-assured these days and designs therefore have had to change. There is far more support of contemporary design today than ever before."
As an example, the reception desk in major brand hotels was always, predictably, opposite the main entrance. It was felt that guests would be uncomfortable if they could not see it when they arrived. This is changing. When you walk into the Trafalgar Hilton, for instance, you enter an expansive bar area with the reception desk set back to one side.
Understanding such principles of designing adventurous spaces, while respecting limited budgets and obeying the separation between front and back of house will be key in hotel design, whether generic or not.
Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, UK, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.