Neighborhood feel inspires exterior design
Neighborhood feel inspires exterior design
07 JANUARY 2016 8:27 AM
Designing a hotel to fit into a surrounding community can win over the locals and attract new guests.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Leveraging local continues to be a popular trend in the hotel industry, from hiring celebrity chefs to hanging art and photography by community artists on the walls, but some developers and architects are finding success through another angle: fitting in the neighborhood via hotel design.
There’s a continued desire for the customized hotel experience, said Eric Rahe, principal at BLT Architects, and that parallels everything else in society. People want a different, unique experience, he said, and the hotel industry is picking up on that. That includes designing the exterior of a hotel to fit in with its surrounding neighborhood.
“I think hotel guests are looking for a sense of unique hospitality in the hotel they stay in,” he said. “That puts continued pressure on hotel designers and operators to continue to deliver a unique experience and environment. It’s a challenge for us. It’s a good challenge, but still a challenge.”
Getting to know the neighborhood
As a general rule, Michael Suomi, principal and VP of design at Stonehill & Taylor, said he and his team begin every project researching the site, whether it’s an existing building, a new build or an adaptive reuse.
“We need to see what makes the place unique so what we’re designing feels like it belongs there rather than somewhere else,” he said.
Suomi’s personal way of designing revolves around creating a strong central narrative for the building, and he draws from the context of the location as a starting point. That contains the concepts to differentiate his project from all the other hotels it might compete against so it’s unique and not a repetition of what others have already done, he said.
When Mitch Patel, president and CEO of Vision Hospitality Group, came up with a plan for boutique hotel The Edwin, he and his team wanted to do something a little different in their hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. According to Patel, neighbors called it a “fantastic location” and were adamant about putting in an independent boutique property. They even helped the company get the land rezoned. 
The neighborhood has the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge, Patel said, which used to be a railway bridge before the community rallied to save it in the 1970s. Along with being a pedestrian bridge, the community uses it for wine, beer and art festivals. Patel said the bridge connects the eclectic area on the north shore of the river to the art district on the southern shore.
“We felt like this was a great location to really put this high-end independent boutique hotel and really tell the Chattanooga story,” he said.
While walking on the site of his future property, Patel was inspired by what stood in front of him: the bridge.
“The foundation of our story must come from the bridge,” he said. “Our story is using the bridge as a metaphor and what the bridge is supposed to be doing: It connects.” (For example, the hotel’s name, The Edwin, comes from the designer of the bridge, Edwin Thacher, a prominent bridge engineer from the 1800s who built bridges across the country.) 
In designing the hotel, Patel said his company took a number of elements from the bridge and the surrounding area, such as its wood, brick and metal. The idea is to extend the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge, which has some of the highest foot traffic in the community, to the plaza that goes by the hotel, he said.
“We didn’t want a bold, pink building,” Patel said. “We wanted, in terms of scale, height, materials, for it to fit into the community, the immediate neighborhood.”
When designing the exterior of a hotel to fit in with its neighborhood, Rahe said to look at the scale and materials in adjacent buildings. 
“There are a variety of cues to tell you what would make a good neighbor,” he said. “It’s how it steps down or steps up to the adjacent building. There is a whole number of factors. You’re relying on talents and experiences first and listening to clients to find out what’s important to them and how local it should be.”
This applies to branded hotels as well, Rahe said, but so long as the project also fits into the national standards set by the brands. It’s possible to massage some of those ideas, but Rahe doesn’t radically deviate from what the brands feel is important.
Connecting with the community and guests
Because they worked with the neighbors, Patel said the community fell in love with the artistic rendering of the hotel and applauded his company’s efforts to meet their desires. It’s important to the success of the hotel to engage with the local residents first before engaging with the visitors, he said.
“The neighbors are who you want visiting the hotel,” he said, citing the planned restaurant and Prohibition-era whiskey lounge on the roof. “Visitors will come from far away to see the hotel. These people don’t want to just hang out at a place amongst themselves. They want to be among the locals as well.”
Social sustainability, similar to environmental sustainability, means to improve, even in a small way, the social environment of the location a building is in through enhancing and enriching the existing community, Suomi said.
At the properties he’s designed, allowing the community to take part in the hotel helps local residents to see the hotels as being integral to the neighborhood, he said. 
“Social sustainability connects with the community and gives back,” Suomi said. “Through hiring, sourcing of food and beverage or other products for the hotel for sale in the gift shop or minibar, in many ways, it’s designed to open its doors and be something the community takes part in.”
For guests, having a hotel that matches its neighborhood is just another piece that authenticates a local experience, Suomi said.
“We feel that for guests, the travelers, whether for business or pleasure or both, an experience that makes things unique and exposes them, even in a little way, to the places they’re visiting is always a benefit,” Suomi said. “It’s preferred over a chain hotel where they all look the same.”
For the owners and operators, he said, this translates into a strong story that is distinctive and sets the hotel apart from the competition while reflecting the community and attracting more guests.

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