Changing rooms

Clare Dowdy questions how hotels can become design labs for the future, while Sara Manuelli visits the Italian capital Rome’s most modernist hotel offering

The hotel industry is a susceptible entity. Demographics, economics, world events and environmental issues all have the power to impact on the way we travel. With holiday bookings down, things are bad for the industry at the moment, but this is no reason to ignore the future and the potential for hotels to innovate. Indeed these issues are themselves drivers for change, and many argue that a downturn is the right time to invest in future products.

At Hotels Of The Future, the workshop run by Arup and Ideo last month, three drivers for change were identified: sustainability, personalisation and ubiquitous computing.

Sustainability was defined as the social, economic and environmental impact that a hotel makes on its surroundings. This would have to go a lot further than the clean towel policies some hotels operate. But would it really feature in a consumer’s decision-making? Paul Hinkin, who is designing the environmentally friendly London hotel Zeta’s believes so. The operator of Zeta’s sees its environmental qualities as a benefit for the brand, Hinkins says.

However, Colin Burns, head of office at Ideo, is sceptical: ‘Clients say people are not that bothered about sustainability as a brand differentiator.’ And hence are less convinced that it’s worth investing in.

Sustainability also takes into consideration that much neglected element, the staff. ‘Very few hotels are designed with the staff in mind,’ says Chris Luebkeman, director for global foresight and innovation at Arup. ‘Yet if you talk to people about what they remember about a hotel, it’s usually a helpful and friendly person.’ So designers must be able to advise clients on improving the lot of the staff, he believes.

But one vision of the hotel of the future does away with staff-guest interaction. There are already hotels with automated check-in systems and little or no human interaction. This puts extra pressure on the service or the design itself to become the memorable differentiator.

While guests may favour this lack of human contact, they will nevertheless crave some form of personalisation of their hotel experience. And this will have to go much further than the hotel records identifying what newspaper they have in the morning. Family photos projected on to the bedroom wall was one idea suggested at the Hotels of the Future workshop.

This ties in with the concept of ubiquitous computing, something that designer Karim Rashid seems favour. ‘I’m a great believer in technology,’ he says. ‘Why do we still have door knobs and light switches?’ His work for the My Hotel Brighton, opening in early 2004, may throw up an alternative solution.

Already ambient devices are being adopted by some hotels to make the interaction with technology more pleasing and less obtrusive. The US company Ambient Devices has created high-tech homeware, which flashes or changes colour to signify the arrival of an e-mail or text message. But Luebkeman points out that ubiquitous computing has huge infrastructure implications, meaning designers will have to work closely with technology. Burns backs this up: ‘Architects need to do prototypes of technology processes, as there are a lot of failed technology systems out there.’

And it is in hotels where consumers are likely to encounter these innovations for the first time. Over the past century or so, hotels have been seen as innovators. Early guests at the Savoy on the Strand in London, for example, got their first experience of bathrooms with hot running water. So hotels act as a laboratory for ideas, some of which find their way into the home. The jacuzzi is another example. As says James Soane of Project Orange, which designed My Hotel Chelsea, says, ‘Hotel rooms are a chance to aspire, and act as a technology test bed.’

ES Hotel, Rome, Italy

Design and architecture: King & Roselli (Jeremy King, Riccardo Roselli. Team: Andrea Ricci, Claudia Dattilo, Marina Kavalirek, Riccardo Crespi, Annalisa Bellettati)

Innovation has come to Rome in the shape of the five-star ES Hotel, a seven-floor newly built imposing structure that wouldn’t look out of place in either London or New York. Located in the fashionable Piazza Vittorio area, the stark, contemporary designed hotel is the brainchild of King & Roselli, an Anglo-Italian architectural practice that is also behind the Boutique Hotel Ripa in Rome’s Trastevere quarter, opened a few years ago. Both hotels are owned by the Roscioli family.

Unlike many of the hotels and, indeed, architecture in Rome, this is a ‘modern’ offering in terms of conception and design, unashamedly aiming at the same customer that would check into an Ian Schrager hotel elsewhere. ‘Most contemporary hotels in Rome still feature drapes and statues,’ says King & Roselli partner Jeremy King. ‘They might be more or less luxurious, but that’s the background against which we are working.’ The client left King & Roselli a relatively free hand, and it soon became clear that the ES wasn’t going to be another baroque-style Palazzo.

Enter the lobby area and a luminous reception desk, Cappellini benches by Jean-Marie Massaud and a daunting amount of empty space greet you. In the conference hall, technology such as acoustic baffles, sound systems, projection systems and air conditioning are all hidden in a futuristic ‘cloud’ structure.

All 235 rooms feature fluid divisions between the bathroom and bedroom areas, but it’s the suites in particular that are geared towards the cosmopolitan traveller, offering the now ubiquitous technological gizmos controlled from command totems, but also ingenious solutions such as a bed that folds up to make space for a meeting table. The furniture on display is either bespoke by the architect, or sourced from Cappellini, Sawaya and Moroni, and Vitra.

On the seventh floor, the restaurant Sette features an open kitchen and a big polished wood counter, while through the glass doors, customers have views on to the decked roof terrace and swimming pool. The Zest caf̩ also has views of the nearby Termini station Рa delight for potential trainspotters. During construction, an area of ancient Roman remains was uncovered. As a result, the entrance to the hotel is now shared with the excavation area, which is due to become a pedestrianised archeological site.

ZETA’S, Clerkenwell, London

Architecture: Chetwood Associates

Interiors: Precious McBane

Lighting design: DPA Lighting Consultants

Urban Hotel Group’s first foray into hotels is in London’s Clerkenwell. Architect Chetwood Associates is busy converting an old warehouse where Zeta’s football pools headquarters was based. The hotel is due to open towards the end of this year or the beginning of next.

Called Zeta’s, the hotel will comprise a 90-seater restaurant on the ground floor, and 59 bedrooms (concept pictured), seven of them on the new fifth floor, with views over London and patios. The interiors were styled by Precious McBane.

Michael Benyan of Urban Hotel Group describes it as a hotel with substance and wit, rather than design for the sake of design.

Chetwood Associates has expertise in bioclimatic architectural design. The practice was responsible for the new Holiday Inn in Woking town centre, which derives power from the district heating and power system. So heat and energy is harnessed from local plants.

Zeta’s will have a strong sustainable element. Chetwood have drilled a 130m-deep hole to tap into water in the aquifer, the band of chalk rocks. A pump at the bottom of the hole, extracts water at a constant cool temperature of 12C. This will be used as a source for cooling in the air conditioning. There are a number of environmental and economic advantages to this. In the past, factories in London abstracted ground water. But with the decline in industry in the capital, the water level is rising and low-lining basements and some tube lines could be at risk of flooding.

This lower energy solution also means there’s no need for large noisy air conditioning units on the roof of the hotel. So noise pollution ceases to be an issue, and 25 per cent more inhabitable space is freed up on the roof. This has been converted into two additional penthouse suites, bringing in increased revenue for Zeta’s.

This is the first hotel in London to get its own borehole, says Chetwood director Paul Hinkin. Sadler’s Wells uses one, as does Sainsbury’s in Greenwich and the Westminster’s Portcullis House.

Lighting is also an issue at Zeta’s. ‘One of the key organising principles of the building is that the bedrooms are designed around the perimeter,’ says Hinkin, ‘We cut a hole through the building as an atrium to naturally light all the public areas.’ m

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