SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — As the 2019 HOTEC Design conference got underway here at The Phoenician, A Luxury Collection Resort, several hospitality design experts gathered over lunch to discuss the ever-growing trend of biophilic design, which moderator Cindy Kaufman, director of marketing for Interface Hospitality, defined as “our innate affinity for other life forms [and] nature, and our connection to the natural world.”
Hospitality design, Kaufman noted, has been shifting toward the "experience" era for a while, and that theme dominated the talking points during the panel. Bill Browning, managing partner at environmental strategies research and consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, noted that “pattern languages”—a method of describing good design practices—have evolved from referring to things to referring to patterns of experiences. “We’re trying to tease out our experiences that impact us in beneficial ways, psychologically and physiologically, without cultural or gender filters,” he explained. “We’re trying to find universal responses.”
Browning noted his "14 Patterns of Biophilic Design" study, which categorizes design elements into three major classes: nature of the space, nature in the space and natural analogues. Nature in the space includes adding natural elements like living plants and running water, while natural analogues include representations of natural elements. Nature of the space is less obvious, and affects how guests feel in any given room thanks to its layout and furnishings. For example, a booth at a bar helps them feel protected, and if angled correctly, allows them to see their surroundings while relaxing in what they perceive as a safe environment.
Browning noted that Terrapin Bright Green is adding a 15th pattern to the list: Awe can include the sense of being part of a space much grander and bigger than oneself—for example, a massive John Portman atrium lobby.
Lorraine Francis, design principal for Cadiz Collaboration—who helped design the ballroom in which HOTEC's deskside meetings were held—noted that awe also can be about “places that touch your heart and soul.” A designer should want to create spaces that have a positive impact on everyone, she added.
Positive impacts come in a wide range of forms, of course. Brian Vickery, senior director of design and construction Europe, Middle East and Africa for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, noted the connections among biophilia, sustainability and wellness. “The whole point of biophilia is to address wellness, and it’s hard to imagine a better environment for wellness than a well-designed biophilic environment,” he said. At the same time, he acknowledged the considerations of both cost and return on investment, and Terrapin’s study noted the financial benefits of biophilic hospitality. Francis agreed. “If we don’t show ROI, it’s a hard story [to tell hoteliers],” she said. “The hospitality industry has been slow to embrace sustainability.”
While the return on biophilic or sustainable investment may not be immediate, the costs of not investing could be much greater. “If we don’t start behaving in a more sustainable, biophilic way, what’s the cost of not doing it?” Vickery asked the gathered designers and industry suppliers. “What’s the cost for our planet? What’s the cost for the well-being of the people?”
As an insider who understands the value of biophilic design, Peter O’Kennedy, artistic director at Clodagh Design, said that designers should work with likeminded people with the same goals, and educate those who don’t yet see the importance of creating biophilic, sustainable spaces.
Vickery, as a representative of a powerful brand, noted that hotel owners look to brand representatives as experts, and that this can help make the process easier. “They see us as the gurus of everything, even things we have no control over,” he said. “They see that as the value we bring to the table.” When owners respect the opinions of a brand’s design team, he said, the designers also have to respect the owner’s finances and recommend best practices that will get them the best value.
While specifying certain materials is just one responsibility of designers, O’Kennedy added, the bigger responsibility is redressing the imbalance of people spending only 10 percent of their time outdoors by encouraging them to appreciate—and want to be in—nature. “There are gigantic structural issues,” he said. “We can only chip away at them—but we have to chip away at them. We’re trying to be awake to the bigger picture. It’s the most important thing we can do.”
“The nice thing is there’s a movement toward what people want,” Vickery added. “As a brand, the expectations of guests are leaning toward health and wellness.” That means creating biophilic, sustainable and wellness-focused spaces isn’t just a sound investment. “It’s doing the right thing,” he said.