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Incorporating nature into hotel design

The pool at the Arrive Phoenix hotel The rooftop pool at Arrive Phoenix is surrounded by greenery. | Photo courtesy Studio Alcott

Nature nurtures. The healing power of the outdoors—whether it’s a gold-soaked sunset, a hike in the woods, or the songs of birds—transports us away from our troubles. And in a year that has seemed so inside out, bringing the outside in has become more important, especially in hotels. 

As properties around the world are making changes in lodgings to ensure safety, many also are employing biophilic design, a concept that invites nature into guest rooms, lobbies, and other public spaces to promote well-being and the human connection to nature. 

They’re retrofitting once sealed windows to open, where practical and safe. Some are replacing surfaces with natural materials, such as wood or stone. Carpeting is on its way out in some places, replaced with throw rugs or sometimes polished concrete. These changes are meant to make cleaning easier and help assure you that you’re in a COVID-safe zone. 

“The health crisis caused by the pandemic is also a design crisis,” wrote Steffen Lehmann, professor of architecture at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, in an email. That not only suggests significant design changes for new buildings, “but more important, in the replanning of existing environments–retrofitting existing buildings, including hotels.” 

Biophilic design soothes in frenetic Bangkok

Capella Bangkok

Large glass patio doors face the Chao Phraya river at the Capella Bangkok | Photo courtesy Capella Bangkok

Take the Capella Bangkok, about 20 years in the making and just opened in October 2020. It sits along about 1,000 feet of the Chao Phraya, Thailand’s snaking main river that is “the lifeblood of the city,” says Gerry Jue, principal of the BAMO interior design company in San Francisco. 

“We collaborated with the architect who had designed this U-shaped building,” he says. “All the rooms face the river, and all had some sort of balcony and outside terrace—which is unheard of in Bangkok—but some also with views looking back toward the city. The way it was situated, it’s an oasis from completely frenetic Bangkok.”

Its interiors are sophisticated and rely on the natural elements—the nearby river and its breezes that fill the lobby, the large rooms, and the seven villas—to help impart calm, Jue says.

The Capella is built with an eye toward biophilic design. “Biophilia is love of the natural world, and so biophilic design really promotes the connection between the occupants of a space and the natural world,” says Naomi Darling, an architect who has her own practice and who is also a professor of sustainable architecture at Mount Holyoke and University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

“Architects have been thinking about the view and connecting occupants of a space to the outside for a very long time,” Darling says. “I think with the pandemic we are noticing those features consciously as opposed to subconsciously.”

You’ve seen walls of green in hotels and office buildings? That’s biophilic design. Indoor gardens? Biophilic.

Part of the fun of travel, Darling adds, is seeing the differences of a new environment. Hotels can help bring that into focus as easily as using windows or sun-filled spaces, “so you can see how the sky is different in California than it is in Massachusetts.” 

Forest bathing at a resort in Canada

The lattice roof over the pool lets natural light inside. | Photo by One Tree Studio

At the AAA Three-Diamond Fairmont Le Château Montebello, the lattice-style roof over the pool lets natural light inside. | Photo by One Tree Studio

For an example, Darling points to the AAA Three Diamond Fairmont Le Château Montebello, a historic resort about 90 minutes from Montreal, which she visited with her family in pre-COVID times. 

Its deep-woods setting makes it a year-round destination for summer and winter activities, but if you were to forget that somehow, the lobby, with its massive stone fireplace as the jewel in this cedar-logged crown, would quickly remind you.

The pool, connected but in a separate building, also incorporates the indoor/outdoor feel by beckoning abundant natural light through the lens of a wood lattice ceiling.

In the 1930s, it was a construction feat—completed in just four months—and an architectural marvel well ahead of its time that holds ideas and lessons for our newly awakened or re-awakened need for the natural.

How nature influences design in a desert

A patio at the Arrive Phoenix hotel

Plants brighten a patio with a fire pit at the Arrive Phoenix hotel. | Photo by Constance Higley / Studio Alcott

The new Arrive Phoenix hotel also allows the landscape to work its magic, courtesy of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. 

This adaptive reuse project that combined two midcentury-modern buildings in uptown Phoenix has an outdoor orientation to show off desert views, says Lorenzo Perez, a designer and co-founder of real estate developer Venue Projects. 

Like the Capella, the Arrive, which opened in September, wasn’t designed with COVID in mind, but the property’s biophilic aspects are a benefit. Many of its rooms have outdoor sitting areas or balconies or both, letting guests enjoy as much or as little nature as they wish. 

Rooftop pools aren’t all that uncommon. But the one at Arrive is. Taking the intense desert summer sun into account, the pool area is shaded with canvas awnings and umbrellas and lush greenery.

Connecting to the power of nature

The yoga studio at Amrit Ocean Resort and Residences will take advantage of its waterfront location. | Illustration courtesy Amrit Ocean Resort and Residences

The yoga studio at Amrit Ocean Resort and Residences will take advantage of its waterfront location. | Illustration courtesy Amrit Ocean Resort and Residences

Then there’s what might be called biophilic with a purpose. That’s the thinking behind the grounds at the new Amrit Ocean Resort and Residences, a hotel-condo development on Singer Island, about 20 minutes from Florida’s Palm Beach International Airport. It is scheduled to open in April 2021.

The landscaping strives to reconnect those who have lost touch with nature, says Gage Couch, founding principal with Cadence, Landscape Architects, which is designing the 3-acre grounds.

For Amrit, which has been in the works since 2016, that means using vegetation native to the area, Couch says. Further, he’s employing a palette of native coastal plants “that will encourage wildlife, birds, and butterflies … to give the sense that you’re immersed in nature.” Hardscaping—those inert parts of design such as walls or benches—is also native to the area and includes coral stone and oolite from south Florida.

He also has created spaces that adapt and change. To accommodate the demands of what he called “COVID times,” the flexible spaces can host a range of group sizes consistent with social-distancing needs.

The future of hotel design

Although much remains unknown about how future hotel design will address the complexities of coping with coronavirus, ensuring physical safety will be top priority to earn guest confidence.

There will be changes that don’t require nature’s intervention—touchless elevators, for instance, that are programmed to deliver guests only to their floor. Or the use of ultraviolet light to ensure cleanliness. 

Many areas that touch travel need rethinking, Lehmann says, including airport lounges, restaurants, hotels, and hostels, along with “questioning old ideas of infinite growth, globalization, tourism, and travel.”

Science will continue to find better treatments for COVID-19, and a vaccine will release some of the constraints under which we now live. 

Jewel Changi Airport

A nature-themed complex at Singapore's Jewel Changi Airport. | Photo by Piotr / Adobe Stock Image

But what won’t change is our need for a respite to help heal our collective psyche scarred by this scourge. Green spaces, wildlife, oceans, and more will continue to play starring roles in our recovery and the regeneration of hope.

In her 1956 essay, “The Sense of Wonder,” American biologist Rachel Carson wrote, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Catharine Hamm is a former travel editor of the Los Angeles Times.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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