Regional hotels embrace biophilia and experience-driven design

Regional hotels embrace biophilia and experience-driven design

Biophilia, Dubai, Hospitality design, Hotel design, Interface, OFIS, Round Table, United Arab Emirates

Commercial Interior Design hosts a round table in partnership with OFIS and Interface to discuss the environment-friendly design developments in the hospitality sector

The hospitality sector in the region is increasingly turning to sustainable practices as a reflection of the current global zeitgeist. With over 2,000 existing properties housing more than 346,000 rooms, and more than 600 projects in the pipeline, Middle East’s hotel industry is growing exponentially. The growth, however, isn’t just limited to numbers; existing properties are exhibiting growth in terms of a greater understanding of their impact on the environment, and how to adopt practices that forge a closer connection with nature while minimising consumption. Design plays an integral role in the bigger picture and industry experts agree that the shift in approach is beginning to have a real impact for everyone involved — designers, operators, stakeholders and the hotel guests.


Speaking on biophilia as an important consideration in hotel design, Diane Thorsen, principal, design director at Perkins+Will, says:  “We’ve actually moved from luxury to designing with a view to nature and taking location into account. It’s a fabulous opportunity as designers to embrace that because we’ve the power to combine systems thinking with nature and influence the future. We consider the entire package — not just a lobby and a hotel — to design human experiences.”

Maliha Nishat, director interior design, global, Marriott International.

Adding to the conversation, Hilda Impey, associate design director, FF&E at Wilson Associates, says that human-centric design is contributing to a more dynamic approach. Citing statistical evidence, Impey is of the opinion that hotels are increasingly turning into work and play spaces. “Now, linking it with biophilic design adds another dimension to the bigger picture for a more holistic experience,” she says. “There’s a third space required — kind of like a sanctuary to alleviate stress. In the US, for instance, you can rent the rooms for a few hours to destress or rest. It’s also linked to the fact that when you travel, you need quality space, for a good night’s sleep to help you relax.”

While the adoption of biophilic design is in synergy with the lifestyle requirements of the times, with evident positive results, Christian Merieau, managing director and partner at MMAC Design Associates, cautions against making the course too gimmicky. “I think there is a great opportunity for us to design more meaningful spaces with better awareness,” he says, adding that biophilia also means staying true to the location and the context.

Bringing nature inside is perhaps more challenging in the region due to the constraints posed by the topography and the climate. Merieau cites an example of his firm’s project in Saudi Arabia to illustrate that biophilic design in the region isn’t impossible, provided the interior designers work in tandem with architects and landscape designers from the very beginning. “We’ve a hotel project in Saudi Arabia with low ceiling heights and a garden in the lobby, but features such as these have to be incorporated from the very beginning,” he says.

Diane Thorsen, principal, design director, Perkins+Will.

Whether it’s gimmicky or not is subjective, but the real question here is whether the market is ready to do that. With Saudi in an expansion mode in the Middle East, and offering premium resort experience for the first travellers from the UK to experience the mystical culture, biophilic design is becoming part of the culture.

In addition to the fact that hotels are big businesses that need to be financially profitable, stakeholders and operators are all too aware of the importance of delivering for the demographics. As the world’s largest hotel group, Marriott International Inc owns and operates a number of properties throughout the region, under different brands, and each with a distinct DNA of its own. Westin brand of hotels, for instance, have nature inspired lobbies, which isn’t just a feature, but a requirement. Maliha Nishat, the global hotel giant’s director of interior design for Middle East and Africa regions, emphasises that biophilia isn’t exactly a new trend, and one that’s been around for ages. “Humans and nature have a symbiotic relationship. As designers, we’re constantly looking to nature for inspiration, and the variety in nature isn’t just limited to green plants and trees; we have the stunning sand dunes, for example” she says.

“At Marriott, we have a strong biophilic direction, but there is indeed a fine line between being meaningful and gimmicky, which relates to how much we can do within our region, and introduce natural elements that are more locally-suited.” Concurring with Merieau, Nishat adds that freeze-dried trees and artificial plants do great disservice to biophilic design, which comes with its own challenges in terms of maintenance cost.

Hilda Impey, associate design director, FF&E, Wilson Associates.

Representing IHG Hotels, which owns brands, such as Intercontinental, Hotel Indigo, Kimpton, Crown Plaza and Holiday Inn, among others, Cameron McPherson, design director of the new hotels portfolio in the MEA region, says that biophilia was first actively discussed 15 years ago, and it’s taken this long to bring it into effect. However, he remains sceptical about the complete effectiveness of the movement in its present form. “Often these are just gimmicky words to make press, as opposed to common sense,” he says. “We have to ask ourselves: ‘Is it practical, is it sustainable and is it what the guest wants’?” There are brands where guests look for these attributes, and a lot of these brands are outside of the corporate hotel companies. There is a bunch of little companies that specialise in biophilic design and excel at it.”

McPherson shares that the green wall in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza hotel in Muscat was a mandatory requirement to obtain a LEED gold. The wall is remotely monitored by flora experts in the US, who adjust the water flow and plant chemicals as part of its daily maintenance. He adds that a herb garden was added to the bottom of this wall, which is regularly used by the chef of the hotel’s Thai restaurant. “It’s a talking point, and creates a great environment in a corporate hotel, but it comes at a huge expense, having added half a million dollars to the budget,” says McPherson, who finds that the real integration of these elements provides a living area experience.

Matt Hall, regional director, Interface Middle East, shared information with the panellists about the global company’s sustainability-driven design and installation process. “Interface has a long history with biomimicry, biophilic design and sustainability, which started in 1994. Most of our products are inspired by nature, providing a calming sense of well-being for hotel guests. Our modular flooring solutions also reduce costs significantly when compared to broadloom carpets.”

Christian Merieau, managing director, partner at MMAC Design Associates.

He explained the company’s sustainable efforts further: “We’ve just completed and launched our first in-depth biophilic report, focused on the hospitality sector.” According to the report written in collaboration with Gensler and Terrapin, 36% higher occupancy rates are reported in properties with biophilic design, making it a strong deciding factor in travellers’ choice. Interface worked with online booking company,, to determine that hotel rooms with a view to a water body provide 11% to 18% higher return, while this number stands at 12% for rooms with view towards city landmarks.”


Biophilia is part of the larger conversation on sustainability efforts in hotels, especially the luxury properties, which are among the highest consumers of energy. Independent design and brand consultant for hospitality and lifestyle sectors, Anne de Chaumont says that sustainability can’t be demonstrated through one action. “It has to be a full spectrum of behaviour and care for the environment,” she stresses. “It’s not a trend, but a requirement, so it can’t be stopped at being green or using recycled materials. It’s about studying and knowing the impact on the cost and the long term vision, so it becomes a system that will last.”

Anne de Chaumont, design and brand consultant for hospitality and lifestyle.

Using durable materials in the refurbishment process is just one of the ways which can minimise refurbishment needs in the future, according to de Chaumont, who was formerly the director of design for Rove Hotels. “It’s more of a state of mind, and little actions complete the bigger sustainability vision,” she says.

All the panellists are unanimous in their agreement that not only the designers, but the suppliers, fit-out contractors and hotel operators need to be educated about the benefits of following an honest sustainable approach. “At the end of the day, we don’t buy the materials. From the very start, if we can get the clients on board, it’ll definitely help push the case,” says Shawna McFee, associate, Allen Architecture Interiors Design. “The Dubai Green Building Code, for example, is getting everyone interested. People are beginning to listen and understand that we have a responsibility.”

Thorsen reckons that it will take a lot of education to integrate an environmentally-conscious outlook into the design. At the same time, she also argues that LEED standards can’t be the exclusive checklist for this region, and that designers need to consider energy consumption, waste reduction, as well as create local stories. “We have to figure out how to give hotel owners the return on investment, while adhering to the sustainability principles,” she says. “The challenge is focusing on systematic design that’s in harmony with the environment. With an abundance of sand, we should look at how can we use it and innovate.”

Cameron Mcpherson, director of design, new hotels, IHG.

Contextual design has many inherent characteristics of sustainability and localising it further makes the approach more genuine. Merieau suggests that sustainability can be made more desirable by making it a part of the story. “We have to focus not only on the technical aspects, but also incorporate into the theme and storytelling, since we’re designing for human experience,” he says.


With lobbies taking centre stage, there’s a new spin on this formerly subdued area in hotels. More than just waiting lounges, hotel lobbies are being transformed into versatile spaces which cater to a number of diverse functions. Impey says that as people want to work, play and engage in multiple activities in the same space, we’re discovering more facets of this area.

Having helmed the design direction of Rove Hotels, a brand which is becoming a popular choice among the discerning travellers, de Chaumont says that it involves a reverse design thinking process. “You start with the experience and pull the strings to make the design happen. People should be able to work, relax or have meetings. This is when you start thinking of ritual designing,” she says.

Shawna McFee, associate, Allen Architecture Interiors Design.

Merieau observes that increasingly guests prefer a customised experience; they want to decide whether they want to have lunch in the lobby, or have business meetings. “We as designers have to change the thinking process, to provide the experience to the guests, but also make it feasible for the operators.” He also points out that it goes against business and operational sense that the lobby areas are buzzing and the surrounding halls and dining areas lying empty. “These spaces are shrinking and they need to be interconnected, offering different moods. Although we are seeing more alternative design, we need better understanding of the local market to offer options,” he says.

From an operator’s perspective, Nishat says: “We are looking for a living room environment which is versatile in terms of functionality. There are business centres, communal tables in the lobby, making them truly multi-faceted. In contemporary lobbies, big reception desks are nowhere to be seen, and plug-in points are extremely important.”

Matt Hall, regional director, Interface Middle East.

McFee agrees that such interchangeable spaces are not about altering the identity of the operator, but offering a new experience. McPherson cites the example of Double Tree by Hilton in Business Bay. “That’s what the future of the hotel lobby looks like,” he says about the project designed by Design World Partnership firm. “The hotel provides a sense of place, and touches on all the important points for an experience-driven design,” concurs McFee.

Thorsen adds that with blurring boundaries between work and personal life, lobbies are becoming a destination rather than serving specific functions. “They mimic corporate interiors since there is so much cross pollination,” she says. “We have to design for the community, because once you place a hotel in a city, you’re impacting their environment.”


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