With an emphasis on experiential design in commercial establishments, especially in the hospitality sector, designers and business owners are maximising the spatial utilisation of the available real estate. “Merging indoor and outdoor is particularly important for hospitality projects where the integration of interior and exterior spaces is important to maintain the flow of the guest experience, such as hotel lobbies, restaurant terraces and cafes, where steps can hinder movement and limit the functionality,” says Rob Shakespeare, group design director, Cracknell. “In many cases, this interface involves coordination between the interior designers, architects and landscape teams to provide effective solutions.”
With new developments, which focus strongly on enhancing outdoor areas to complement the interiors, the scope for exterior design has seen an upward growth, underscored by a strong sense of project identity and a distinctive destination. “Clients recognise the added value of integrating their projects with public realm and accessible semi-private spaces,” says Shakespeare, citing examples from Dubai, such as Al Seef, The Beach at JBR, La Mer and City Walk, the landscapes of which have been designed by Cracknell. “We are observing a trend towards externalising leisure experiences, and setting the retail units within landscaped public plazas.”
Jonathan Ashmore, founder and director of Anarchitect agrees that the outdoor areas of leisure or hospitality venues are becoming increasingly important for guest experience. He attributes this phenomenon to a shift in the developers’ mindset, as a result of which there has been an explosion in outdoor destinations. “It proves that life in the UAE, [and the region], does not always have to be contained within air-conditioned spaces, if designed well,” he says. “Commercial rents are at a premium for tenants and operators, so the additional floor area gained from a successful outdoor space is becoming an important aspect of their business.”
While landscaping and outdoor amenities can increase the value of a development, sustainability and maintenance are important considerations. Shakespeare reckons that in the past, the trend leaned towards water features, via lakes and water edge treatments, but developers and facilities management companies have realised that these water features offer very little value in terms of amenities. “We recently completed a project in Jumeirah Lake Towers to convert an existing lake into a park with multiple facilities, play areas and entertainment hubs, providing residents with access to amenities and creating a destination for the public for markets and outdoor cinemas,” says Shakespeare. “As a result, the property prices for apartments rose by up to 30% according to real estate agents, purely because of the additional usable amenities.”
Lee Nellis, head of XBD Architecture, echoes the sentiments. “Outdoor areas are essentially the face of a property and offer the first impression,” he says. “Designing the exterior is equally important as designing the interior. It is not just for aesthetics, but also the linking of spaces.”
Ashmore suggests that commercial property owners should respond to this social and cultural shift by treating their own outdoor spaces not only as an extension of their interior space, but as an extension of the public realm, which benefit the community at large.
It has been established by designers and architects that keeping everything indoors due to the harsh weather is not the solution. “When designing outdoor spaces, we need to be realistic about the harsh climate,” says Ashmore, whose El Chiringuito Ibiza.Dubai project was the winner in the best outdoor design category. “As Architects, our skill is to understand and work with the climate conditions and not against them.” He explains that the experience at his award-winning project is neither that of a building, nor a landscape. Rather, the spaces feel naturally connected with the outdoors while still protecting the guests from the intense climate. “Our focus was to create a space that reflected the Mediterranean summers in Ibiza, not just through aesthetics, but by truly integrating both the semi-indoor and outdoor spaces so that migration between them feels effortless and natural,” he says.
With uncomfortably high temperatures for a large part of the year, what are some of the counteractive measure that designers can put in place? Shakespeare says that for any outdoor public space, one of Cracknell’s primary strategies is providing shade and managing pedestrian comfort. “This can be extremely challenging in the UAE where the issue is not just the direct heat of the sun, but also high humidity levels,” he says. “Providing passive cooling systems such as shade elements or simply planting tress certainly helps to bring down the temperature by reducing direct sunlight and limiting the effect of heat radiating from the ground.”
Integration with MEP and HVAC systems plays a big role in exterior design. Shakespeare shares that while the most sustainable and effective way of cooling is by planting trees, his team has also used active cooling systems which focus on moving and cooling the air. “Achieving this in an environmentally sustainable and cost effective way is a big challenge, and as a general rule, it is prohibitive for large landscape areas,” he says. “However, in ‘contained’ urban spaces such as the outdoor retail spaces at the Avenues Mall, Silicon Oasis, we have used systems where discharged excess chilled air from a building can be directed into the public realm and collected in pooled areas for cooling.”
Nellis of XBD Architecture observes that the selection of materials is very important and must be suitable for use. “The use of natural timber may look great but it does require regular maintenance, so it is good to offer clients alternatives that may have the same look and effect but are also sustainable,” he says. “Low maintenance is often what we are asked for, as well as blending colours and texture. Shading devices that add to the external architectural look not only help with aesthetics, but also have an important function.”
ESTABLISHING A SPATIAL LINK
As simple as it may sound, connecting outdoor and indoor spaces involves a lot of thoughtful application. Creating well-defined outdoor spaces which make the seamless transition from interiors requires layers that fit effortlessly. “Wherever possible, we try to set the exterior levels flush with the interior finishes and then to try to match the materials or colours to create a link,” says Shakespeare. “The scope and breadth of exterior design is endless depending on the type of project, and as designers, we need to respond to their function, using walls, trees, sculpture, paving transitions, steps and structures as the elements to define the spaces.”
Currently working on a tropical resort project in Asia, Ashmore says that in addition to alignment levels, furniture plays a key role as manufacturers are beginning to consider the quality of design and customisation of outdoor pieces which are on par with the interior furniture. “Therefore, the outdoor can become a seamless extension of the adjacent interior space and should be just as comfortable and stylish,” he says.
A sense of spatial flow also takes into account the ease of navigation. According to Nellis, level surfaces that do not have trip hazards make the user move through the space more comfortably. “Soft planting and uplights also help to soften the hard finishes and blend the spaces, however they must be placed in such a way that does not obstruct the view from inside and out,” he says, whereas Ashmore prefers gradual changes in level so that the surfaces and spaces are usable in flexible ways rather than used just for circulation purpose.
While alignment and movement may play a big role in extending the interiors into the exterior space, Ashmore suggests that light and shadow also play a key role in the connection. “A successfully shaded outdoor space can reduce the contrast level of light between the outdoor to indoor space during the day, whereas at night, subtle low-level lighting from the outdoor space can draw the eye from the interiors to the outdoors, enhancing the visual depth of field and maintaining the visible connection to the exteriors,” he explains.
MATERIALS AND DESIGN COMPONENTS
“Outdoor furniture has also advanced in recent years, resulting in furniture that doesn’t deteriorate within hot climates,” says Nellis.
As seen in many of the new projects in the UAE, which is spearheading the outdoor living environment in the region, landscaping has many creative possibilities. Shakespeare says that landscape projects can either be incredibly simple featuring only one or two elements, or have several layers such as walls, pergolas, pools, a range of materials and transitions. “Higher quality materials are being used, and thematic lighting is becoming more common, and the use of public art, water features and bespoke furniture is starting to be the order of the day,” he says. “Although this raises costs, it is also clear that end users are drawn to these high quality spaces.”
The importance of shading structures in this part of the world can’t be stressed enough. “Clients spend the majority of their budget on landscape design and build, together with outdoor furniture, while very little thought goes into the design of the shading,” says Broadway Interiors’ founder Chris Barnes, whose projects include such popular venues as Black Tap eateries and Pier Chic, among others. “A well designed shading solution should not only provide protection from the sun’s glare but embellish a space adding to its benefit. Equally it should be unobtrusive and blend within the general landscape and architectural aesthetic.”
Barnes has recently introduced a shading product in the UAE, SunSquare, which he discovered during Orgatec. “I had never heard of SunSquare, despite them being the inventor and market leader in retractable shading solutions,” he says. “I was impressed by its aesthetic quality and contemporary design and being fully automated, retracting at wind speeds over 40 kph, with high quality fabrics and components, it was different to anything else in the market. These systems are ideal for corporate and hospitality spaces as the need for cumbersome counterweights, small-sized umbrellas and oversized static columns with rugged garish fabrics are all removed.”
Ashmore, too, opines that in this part of the world, shading structures are an important component of outdoor design as they can provide protection and also, as they are often permanent fixtures, they become an extension of the architectural language. He further adds that the material selection should be hardwearing, natural where possible and properly installed with robust detailing to avoid unnecessary waste from underperforming materials that need to be regularly replaced. “Too much hard surface adds to the overall heat build-up of an outdoor space, so we look to achieve a balance with the natural softscape,” he says. “We also strive to select long lasting cool stone surfaces, like regionally sourced silver and beige travertine, that look beautiful and do not heat up excessively under the intense sunlight.”
Sustainability is being a deciding factor in materials selection, too. “Clients are becoming more educated when it comes to design and green living, so reclaimed materials no longer have a reputation of being old and unusable,” says Nellis.
A version of this article first appeared in the May issue of Commercial Interior Design under the headline, The View Outside.