Hotel spas use biophilic design to improve guest wellness, satisfaction

If any space in a hotel is meant to encourage health and well-being, it’s the spa. And with the growth of biophilic design in hospitality, designers and hoteliers alike are including lots of natural elements in their spas to boost both wellness and the guest experience.

One example is the recently opened Chuan spa at Langham Place, New York. The urban spa has a small footprint, but even with limited space, it includes natural elements that Amy Chan, group therapy spa manager for Chuan Spas, said provide an environment of physical well-being and connect the guest to nature—“even if it is a subliminal connection.” The spa’s lobby has a waterfall (the word “chuan” means “flowing water”), so that guests sitting in the waiting room can listen to real sounds of nature.

The saunas in both the men’s and women’s sections of the spa, meanwhile, include natural cedar seating and portions of the walls are made of pink Himalayan salt bricks. The wall, Chan said, incorporates the “incredibly healing powers” of salt into the sauna experience.  

“The sourcing of these elements was a collaborative effort with the hotel based on what was locally available in the New York market and what made the most sense for that location,” Chan said. “We did want to integrate as much wood as possible into the overall design to integrate a more natural atmosphere, even though this is a city-centric spa. The overall goal was not to overpower the guest with too many design elements but rather to integrate thoughtful design touches throughout the space to ensure that every single item functionally served the overall experience.”

“Organic elements bring a lot of texture and warmth and juxtapose against modern surfaces,” designer Michelle Meredith—who has incorporated biophilic design into properties like  the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Dallas – Love Field—said of creating spas. “You want to incorporate some natural, organic elements because they warm up a space. It also brings the outdoors in and helps you feel like you are connecting to nature. Your soul relates to nature, as well. Natural elements are very healing, as are minerals.”  

Meredith is currently designing the spa at the Hotel Crescent Court in Dallas and is making sure moving water is audible in the public spaces. “The sound is very relaxing,” Meredith said. “The owner didn’t want to deal with a really large fountain because of all the maintenance, so we designed a stainless trough that simulates a pool, and we added a bubbler within it.” Two of these troughs are in the spa lobby so that guests can hear the sound of moving water without requiring the hotel team to maintain a full fountain.

Meredith also is incorporating spiral roots made of natural vine wood in the spa, suspending the structure with metal cables. “We’re uplighting and downlighting those so you get textural sense of wood in the space,” she said. “It’s very, very organic.”  

For some greenery, Meredith is including arrangements of succulent plants that can last for months before they require replacing. “They can last for four months, six months, even,” she said. “We install those at the end of a project.”    

The Value of Biophilic Design

In August, flooring design company Interface released a new research report with Terrapin Bright Green on biophilic design strategies within hotels. “Designers are trying to create spaces with a positive impact on the guest experience,” said Charley Knight, VP of Interface Hospitality. “Lots of design professionals incorporate elements of nature for a visual connection. And when the designers are able to be more subtle, they create an idea of refuge. Creating those kinds of elements in the space seems to be very effective.”

“When people have access to natural design within their spaces, their heart rates come down and their cortisol levels come down,” said David Gerson, Interface’s VP of marketing. “When we experience biophilic design elements that connect us back to places where we felt good and secure, it connects us at a deep level. It’s a key to unlock a door.”

Many of the tips for biophilic design that apply to guestrooms and lobbies apply to spas, as well. For example, Gerson said, avoid abstract art and choose furniture that does not have 90-degree angles. “Make sure it’s incorporated,” he emphasized. “One potted plant isn’t enough. There has to be a holistic approach to designing a space with elements that we have evolved to feel most comfortable with—like real wood and real stone, or synthetic materials that evoke the real materials.”

Materials that are natural provide a sense of authenticity, which suits a basic human need, Gerson said. “In a world of veneers, there’s something about real stone and real wood that feels fantastic. It doesn’t have to be green walls and big water features. There are so many different ways—it could be the shape of materials with an organic flow. It could be in the sounds they use or the smell of the place. Spas have been doing biophilic design forever. We just didn’t have a word for it.”

Lighting and acoustics are also important for a restful spa experience. “Make sure you have a space that is quiet, but not too quiet,” Gerson said. “No species evolved with earlids, so if you are in a space where you will hear random sounds, you will have a hard time resting. There are all sorts of things you can look at to create the right environment beyond a green wall.”