Video: David Lessard notes that the current wave of hotel refurbishments in Dubai follows a natural cycle

Video: David Lessard notes that the current wave of hotel refurbishments in Dubai follows a natural cycle

The architect and co-founder of H+A, who has previously worked on the Yas Hotel Abu Dhabi project among others, discusses the natural renovation cycle of hotels in the emirate, and why new build remains a preferred option over adaptive reuse among property owners

David Lessard; photo: Rajesh Raghav
ITP Images
David Lessard; photo: Rajesh Raghav

Q:Are hotels being refurbished far too often now?

A: In short, no. Rules of thumb are not actually rules: There is no shelf life on a particular design – neither conceptually nor technically. Refurbishments are instigated for various reasons, ranging from a refresh on the aesthetic, accommodation of a new technology or for integration of more up-to-date sustainable design elements. But the ‘requirement’ to refurbish is not mandatory every five to seven years as most will suggest. There has certainly been a wave of refurbishments in the region over the past five years but that is a function of the wave of new hotels constructed eight to 12 years ago. It’s a natural part of the cycle and not a psychological trend among owners. 

However, with that being said if your hotel is being refurbished in three years, you likely got something wrong.
Some of the most iconic hotels in the world have a décor that is over 40-years-old. This would be outdated by industry standards, but once an interior design resonates with your emotions, it becomes ‘timeless’. As a hospitality designer, I can only dream that one of my designs lives untouched for 20 years. A part of me thinks of this while designing. Although none of us can predict the future of design in such a fast-paced world, we make a conscious effort to avoid trends; always seeking the essence of design that can stand the test of time through generations.

Q: Is there any scope for adaptive reuse of existing structures in the UAE or is the emphasis still on new build?

A: There is scope for adaptive reuse of existing structures and this is something we always encourage our clients to consider, both from a conceptual, technical and environmental point of view.

Existing buildings contain visual stories about their history and carry the legacy of a specific time, place and most importantly the people once occupying the site. You cannot fake the visual quality of aging materials and the natural patina of concrete can be even more beautiful than a new sheet of marble. Storytelling is so important in hospitality design and we talk a lot about place-making in our work, which can be enhanced through the contrast between old and new; seeking to extract as much cultural value out of a site as possible. Even though there are many advantages to adaptive reuse, the emphasis is still very much on new build.

The emphasis on new build is driven by a multitude of factors such as the availability of vacant land, the distributed nature of the Emirates cities and evolving legislation around building codes. Paradoxically, Dubai is a victim of its own success. The short travel distances across the city put a ceiling on the demand for a specific location. Until such time when we start to think about places like Dubai in terms of neighbourhoods, we suspect that new build will reign supreme.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for designers in the region and more specifically, the UAE?

A: Among the challenges, many of my colleagues and peers share a common concern about design fees and fee collections. These have been discussed widely and instead of dwelling on the symptom, I am more interested in the cause of this problem.

In the past 11 years that I have been working in this region, I have had the privilege to be part of some brilliant teams in large international firms and now as a partner in my own small practice. Another common challenge I see is how to transcend the thinking that design is a commodity. Most designers are seen as providing a service to a client and their value is measured on the usual benchmarks such as hours, rates, and experience. But what about the premium for exceptional ideas? Designers spend a lot of time developing themselves, their education, and libraries.

The notion that creativity is something in-built and comes ‘easy’ to creative people is false. It is highly probable that if you think someone is creative, you can also deduce that they are hardworking, passionate and dedicate a lot of their free time thinking about their craft. Good work comes from obsessing over a particular problem and working on it until it is perfectly solved. That’s how good design is created and this process should have more value than it currently does.

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