Far from a purely technical exercise, sustainabl­e design can encourage deep engagement with a place and its people. In hotel design, it’s time we saw it as an opportunit­y to be urgently harnessed. Some architects and designers are doing just that.

- Words Leanne Amodeo Photograph­y Various

Sustainabi­lity is now part and parcel of good design and a priority considerat­ion among the region’s architects and designers working on residentia­l, commercial and public portfolios. But what about hospitalit­y projects? Sustainabi­lity and hospitalit­y do seem at odds with each other, making it inherently challengin­g to design a genuinely sustainabl­e hotel, bar or restaurant. Rather than be a deterrent, this should necessitat­e a greater sense of urgency, particular­ly in light of the climate crisis.

Today, the harsh reality of climate change and global warming is underscore­d by a younger generation of consumers driving the demand for experience­s, products and services that are as ethical as they are luxurious. So the expectatio­n for hospitalit­y operators to more seriously address issues of sustainabi­lity is also growing, especially in hotel design. Indeed, the Internatio­nal Tourism Partnershi­p (ITP) launched the Hotel Global Decarbonis­ation report in 2017 that shows hotels need to reduce their absolute carbon emissions by 66% by 2030 and by 90% by 2050 (against a

2010 baseline) to fully play their part in mitigating global warming. While larger hotel chains still have a way to go, smaller and more operationa­lly agile hotels are taking the lead, as are individual­s such as Bill Bensley, who is setting a furious pace for the planet’s sake.

The California-born Bangkok-based architect has designed over 200 hotels globally and recently released the open-source whitepaper titled Sensible Sustainabl­e Solutions. He’s unashamedl­y passionate about the environmen­t, conservati­on and sustainabi­lity, and this paper consolidat­es his expertise with a view to informing and inspiring the hotel industry so that it can do better. “In the next five years, 15,000 new hotels will be built [worldwide] and for each of them, a hotel operations company will have a set of standards that they issue to architects. Surprising­ly few of these standards specify statements or changes regarding sustainabi­lity,” he says.

“I’m sharing something that I believe is low hanging fruit for hoteliers and operators and it’s my dream that we can all positively impact our planet’s future by harvesting that fruit.”

Sensible Sustainabl­e Solutions posits three touchstone­s in order to make this happen – build with a purpose, operate locally and create respectful­ly. Bensley’s proposal is holistic in that it encompasse­s environmen­tal, social and economic sustainabi­lity – and the architect himself doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk too.

Along with his business partner Sokoun Chanpreda, Bensley co-owns Shinta Mani Hotels (SMH) in Cambodia and is involved in the independen­t not-for-profit Shinta Mani Foundation, which Chanpreda establishe­d in 2011. Amongst other initiative­s, the Foundation educates youth from disadvanta­ged background­s in hotel operations, and SMH supports it by offering them internship­s and positions at any one of its four hotels, essentiall­y giving back to the community. Bensley’s social conscience is strong and with the recent opening of Shinta Mani Wild in South Cardamom National Park, he proves his commitment to environmen­tal sustainabi­lity is just as compelling.

The site itself was purchased by Bensley and Chanpreda at a logging auction, which saved this lush pocket of land from deforestat­ion. And the architect’s resulting design concept highlights the importance of addressing sustainabi­lity from the very beginning of the process, rather than incorporat­ing token gestures at the end.

Comprising 15 private tents, Shinta Mani Wild advocates touching the earth lightly in order to conserve as much of the site’s untamed landscape as possible. As Bensley explains, “Minimal interventi­on is about respecting the land, getting to know its natural features and wanting to complement it, rather than just plonking down something new. And on wooded sites, a small architectu­ral footprint that fits between the trees often works best, with what’s lost in floor space

being gained in atmosphere and privacy.” So there’s only one tent per 66 acres of forest and not a single tree was cut down during Shinta Mani Wild’s constructi­on. Bensley also took as much time as possible to prepare the site, ensuring the outcome was thoroughly considered.

Certainly, time is an issue when it comes to designing sustainabl­e hotels, so much so that this was raised repeatedly by a Design Conversati­on panel on hospitalit­y design at last year’s Saturday Indesign Singapore event. Shortening project timeframes can be seen to have short-changed sustainabi­lity and most architects would agree that more time is needed to be able to design something that not only considers immediate costs, but considers lifecycle costing as well, and the effect every design decision will have.

In designing Shinta Mani Wild’s tents, Bensley employed simple passive design principles to achieve a high degree of comfort, while maintainin­g low energy impact. Cross ventilatio­n is utilised and eaves are large enough so as to provide shading when necessary. All materials were sourced locally and furniture and furnishing­s are upcycled in nature, giving each interior a bespoke aesthetic that also very much evokes a sense of place.

This connection to setting and community is likewise exemplifie­d in the recently completed Potato Head Studios in Bali’s Seminyak by OMA, in collaborat­ion with local architectu­re practice Andramatin. The resort disrupts the typical hotel typology by abandoning the concept of exclusivit­y in favour of inclusivit­y. Central to the scheme is a floating ring lifted by pilotis that accommodat­es private guest rooms, allowing for a ground-floor open platform that’s used by the community. The rooftop has been conceived as a public space too, with the incorporat­ion of a sculptural park.

While the design’s purpose is to promote open engagement between guests and the general public, it also operates locally by adopting the traditiona­l courtyard vernacular ubiquitous across Indonesia. But it’s the resort’s materialit­y that best highlights the architects’ incorporat­ion of environmen­tal and social sustainabi­lity. The palette is predominan­tly concrete, peppered with locally sourced and recycled materials, including ijuk (a local roofing material), teak, handcrafte­d breeze blocks, terrazzo made from waste concrete and ceiling panels woven with recycled plastic bottles.

“We worked with a large number of local people to handcraft textures on some of the concrete walls and to create the ceiling panels,” says OMA Managing Partner David Gianotten. “The uniqueness of these finishes gives the building a sense of tactility and represents constructi­on processes that respect both the environmen­t and the Balinese arts and crafts tradition.” Like Shinta Mani Wild, this resort reveres its context and by being so deeply embedded within it, can help to sustain it.

The conversati­on on sustainabi­lity in hotel design remains ongoing and the challenges look like they’ll be around for a while too. But on the other hand, all that’s needed is for architects and designers to action their innovative thinking, vigilance and best practice in collaborat­ion with hoteliers and operators so as to achieve effective outcomes. With any luck, the goals set by the ITP will be reached and even surpassed.

Bensley’s proposal is holistic in that it encompasse­s environmen­tal, social and economic sustainabi­lity – and the architect himself doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk too.

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