What designers need to know about adaptive reuse hotels

Charlestowne Hotels will open The Bristol Hotel in spring 2018.
Charlestowne Hotels will open The Bristol Hotel in spring 2018, adapted from the Executive Plaza.

NEW YORK — Quality real estate in city centers is increasingly valuable—and hard to find. As hotel companies seek to bring more brands into more cities, building a new property may seem untenably difficult and expensive. As such, adaptive reuse of existing buildings is gaining ground, and presenting new opportunities for hoteliers and designers alike to show off their ingenuity. At this week’s BDNY conference at Manhattan’s Javits Center, moderated by Nancy Ruddy, co-founder of CetraRuddy, several designers and hoteliers shared insights on the benefits and challenges of turning buildings into hotels.

“When it comes to picking locations, we are never looking for best,” Michael Overington, vice chairman and president of the Ian Schrager Co. said. “We are looking for buildings with the best bones, maybe in not the best location.” Even as the company opened notable hotels in major cities, Overington said, they missed out on developing properties in New York City hotspots like SoHo, the Meatpacking District and Williamsburg. “We didn’t think they were right for us,” he said.

The company’s idea, which goes back to the days of Studio 54, he said, echoes the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.  “We find buildings that are cheap in offbeat neighborhoods that no one else would take a chance on, and then we renovate them,” he said. “It’s about building something magical, something that doesn’t already exist.”

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“When you look at adaptive reuse, look at the microclimate,” Lauren Rottet, founding principal and president of the Rottet Studio, said. “Dig and find out not what’s in the city or the region, but really micro.” This can only be accomplished with real footwork, she said, so visiting the site and walking around the block is imperative. “Get the smells and the sights—are there kids? Is it all foot traffic? Are there lots of cars?” Once the hotelier and designer have a sense of the space, they can make a story about the site, she said, marrying the unique qualities of the site to brand standards. “All bands are looking to be boutique. Brands understand that their standards can tip a bit for good location.”

Challenges and Solutions

Working within existing buildings has unique challenges that new-build properties don’t face. “You are stuck with existing risers, shafts and fire stairs,” Overington said. “It’s hard to slice and dice and create another room, another riser. You learn where you will get into trouble, where you will cost yourself thousands of dollars—and time.” Rather than knock down walls to adapt the space, he said, the Schrager Co. tries to change the space through interior design as much as possible. “When we did the Morgans Hotel, an oldtimer who knew construction really well told us that when you do a renovation, don’t knock on the walls.”

Being aware of the laws that were in place when a building first went up and what laws are in place now can be helpful as well—for example, what kind of fire protection was in place back then, what is available (and required) now, and how difficult will an upgrade be? “Laws have changed,” Frank Fortino, COO of Metropolis Group, said. “Sometimes there are differences, so that can open discussions on how you can transform a building.”

The best policy, Fortino said, is to look at a building as a whole when determining the branding, rather than trying to force brand standards where they don’t fit.

And since an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, hoteliers and designers should be sure to survey every inch of a hotel before developing the renovation plan. At one project, Overington said, the surveyors only examined one or two floors and assumed that the rest were the same. But the building’s original architects did not insist on consistency in the floor heights, leaving differences of six inches from one story to the next. “We didn’t realize it until we started working,” he said. “If you want to renovate, convince your clients to survey every inch. Don’t assume anything there on one floor is on another.”

Authentic Authenticity

Authenticity is increasingly important, Rottet said, especially for the lucrative millennial demographic. As younger generations turn their backs on over-the-top opulence, authenticity is becoming a synonym for luxury. “Luxury is finding an authentic experience that no one else can feel,” she said, noting that this mindset affected how she recreated the Surrey hotel in New York City, making sure that the new look was authentic to the location.

“Not only do you need to be authentic to the hotel’s location, but also to your demographic,” Mark Gordon, managing principal at Intrinsic Hotel Capital, said, acknowledging that this trend is largely new to the industry. “We’re catching up to Ian and Michael,” he quipped. Marriott’s Moxy brand is based around communal living, he said, with small guestrooms and large shared spaces where guests are encouraged to spend most of their time. “It’s not just about the location, it’s about marketing [and designing] to a targeted demographic.”  

Sometimes, that targeted demographic can simply be people who want to see something new. “We don’t design to a specific audience,” Overington said. “If we create something new and different, people will come. We can never repeat what we did in the past. People will say, ‘That looks like a Morgan or a Paramount.’ We have to do something new.” Schrager regularly tosses ideas if they look like previous projects, Overington said, and the team is always looking to create something unique. “Design is always changing and morphing. When we build it, sometimes it doesn’t work. We’ll remove something one week before opening. It’s like theater—what scenes work and what scenes don’t? You won’t know until the dress rehearsal.”