All’s well that starts well: architecture's role in hospitality

29 October 2018



Wellness architecture is the process of designing buildings that make their inhabitants healthier and happier. Elly Earls meets architects Veronica Schreibeis Smith and Julia Monk to find out what this means in a hospitality context, and why wellness needs to be a part of design discussions from day one.


In 2000, the United States Green Building Council introduced the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard for energy and environmental design. By mid-2016, there were nearly 80,000 projects in 162 countries recognised as environmentally sound – based on a combination of their energy and water efficiency, sustainable use of resources and low waste generation – and the numbers continue to grow.

More recently, human wellness has become a greater priority during the design stage of buildings in various sectors, whether that is through ensuring enough natural light can enter offices, or softening the stark, clinical aesthetics traditionally associated with hospitals and health centres.

It is no different in hospitality. With wellness vacationing growing twice as fast as global tourism and guests increasingly seeking transformational experiences, hotel operators are quickly realising that squeezing a gym into the basement or throwing a yoga mat into the room will not cut the mustard for today’s guests.

Westin has responded with a promise that all guests will sleep well, eat well, move well, feel well, work well and play well at each of its hotels, while brands like Wyndham and Hilton have introduced specific fitness rooms with exercise equipment, guided fitness and wellness routines.

Operators are also integrating greenery into the hotel experience, adding walking and running routes, improving air quality, and changing the narrative around fitness and wellness by recognising that it extends far beyond the four walls of the gym.

Good intentions

According to architect Veronica Schreibeis Smith, the CEO and founding principal of Vera Iconica Architecture and chair of the Global Wellness Institute’s Wellness Architecture Initiative, the next step is to focus on wellness much earlier in the design process and move beyond creating buildings that ‘do less harm’ to the environment to building hotels that ‘do good’ – not just for the planet but also for their human inhabitants.

As Schreibeis Smith explains, “Wellness architecture is the art and science of including life-enhancing design strategies in the built environment so as to really empower well-being. While health architecture is focused on physical health, which might include things like clean air and pure water, it leaves out some aspects of being human, such as joy, happiness and comfort.”

In a hotel context, wellness architecture covers everything from the inclusion of biophilia to lighting, air quality, and electricity and sound pollution, right through to the proportions of the hallways and rooms, the balance of materials used and even cultural factors.

“When a guest arrives in the room, it should be uplifting and give them a sense of privacy, security, cleanliness and comfort,” says Shreibeis Smith. “This can be achieved through balancing the materials, textures and colours used in a space and by paying attention to not only biophilic design but also things like feng shui, which might be based on ancient wisdom or sacred geometry.

“Culture influences wellness architecture too,” she adds. “For example, including colourful tiles and beautiful bricks that were made a mile away is really important when it comes to wellness architecture and cannot be overlooked. It gives that human connection to the local community and culture, and landscape.”

Back to the well

Although many of the elements surrounding emotional and spiritual happiness are difficult to define or prove scientifically – “Some of it may seem religious or frou-frou and this whole idea of wellness architecture is only just starting to be tested,” Shreibeis Smith admits – the architecture industry is putting its best foot forward.

In 2014, after six years of research and development, the WELL Building Standard was launched, which shifts the focus from environmental to human sustainability, taking into account air, water, nourishment, fitness, comfort, light, the mind and innovation. The goal is to harness the built environment as a vehicle for supporting human health and well-being.

In the past four years, the standard has been embraced in 35 countries and a variety of building types, and some architecture studios are starting to incorporate it into their usual design practices.

HOK, for example, which was the first large architecture and design firm to form a global strategic partnership with Delos, the founder of the standard, is undertaking a significant initiative to educate and professionally accredit its design teams so they can incorporate principles of health and wellness into all of their projects, whether or not their clients are pursuing WELL certification.

And while no hotels have yet done so, a handful of big hospitality players, including Marriott and Wyndham, have signed up to Delos’s Stay Well programme, through which they can have their existing hotel rooms upgraded over the course of three days with state-of-the-art wellness technologies designed to mitigate the countless variables travelling introduces into a hotel guest’s routine. By doing so positively impacts their health, vitality, relaxation and well-being.

“Stay Well is the evolution of sustainability,” says Julia Monk, director of HOK’s hospitality practice based in Hong Kong. “From advanced air purification to dawn simulation, circadian rhythm lighting and a healthy mattress, the wellness features of Stay Well rooms are specifically designed to allow rejuvenating sleep, deliver purified air, provide specially filtered water, and protect guests against allergens and germs.

“They are the first of their kind to offer evidence-based health and wellness features in hotels to help travellers maintain their health and well-being while on the road.”

Energising the people

While Schreibeis Smith has been encouraged by initiatives like Stay Well and believes the hospitality industry is on the right track, she still thinks there is a long way to go.

“You can look at it as an X-Y grid,” she says. “The lower down you get, the more energy you’re consuming and the more energy it takes a human to recuperate from being in the environment because it might be toxic or unhealthy or circadian rhythms might be off. But when you get higher up, the building is creating energy in the people and in the environment; it’s regenerative, it’s symbiotic with nature.

“Right now, we live in the lower-lefthand corner of that grid, and we’re too often creating unhealthy buildings that are depleting our natural resources and taking energy. And while sustainability should be a target, what’s even better and what people should be reaching for is to be able to use the physical architecture to enhance the local ecology of a place and enhance wellness.”

The first step for a hotel owner, Schreibeis Smith advises, must be a clear commitment to a wellness architecture approach.

She continues, “It needs to be incorporated into the business plan and the ethics, just like a green project. With green projects, what people find is that when they go above and beyond what codes require, their buildings are healthier, which people prefer, and there is a payback in occupancy and rental rates that they can charge.

“The business model for wellness architecture needs to be similar but also expand on this and incorporate how they’re going to get their ROI out of it. It’s possible but it takes a commitment because there is always going to be an easier, cheaper, more harmful way to do things.”

The Stay Well initiative is a small-scale case in point. “We’ve seen considerable room rate premiums on Stay Well rooms; about 20–25% after a three-day installation process,” says Delos CEO and founder Paul Scialla. “The qualitative and quantitative feedback has been phenomenal, and the programme is growing by the day.”

Schreibeis Smith also suggests that, at initial design discussions, a wellness architecture consultant should have a place at the table. “It’s not just about checking boxes,” she stresses. “To have a really successful project, you need passion and drive.”

Finally – and most crucially for Monk – it’s essential that, as with all hotel design, the process starts and ends with the guest. “Through time, as our awareness as guests, hotel operators, hotel owners, architects and designers becomes more sophisticated, the environments that we design also become more sophisticated,” she says.

“Today, wellness is a priority in hospitality design. Guests are demanding it and willing to pay more for it. Hotel operators, in turn, will demand that their properties are built or adapted to meet the guest’s needs or run the risk of lower occupancy or lower room rate, neither of which will be satisfactory to the hotel owners.

Just as accessibility, ergonomics and sustainability have become a human right rather than just a movement, wellness is next.”

The Stay Well King room at the Charlotte Marriott is designed with well-being in mind.
Functional elements such as air filtration systems can improve a guest's experience, as they have been doing at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis.
The living wall at the Long Island Marriott is an example of modern wellness-inspired design.
A Circadian Remote at the Mirage Stay Well rooms allow occupants to control their experience.


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