How the Environment is Shaping Hotel Design

Prospective hotel; Richard Portfolio Architecture & Design

Imagine a hotel that breathes, that generates power and cools itself using the wind, that absorbs the sunlight for energy like a plant, that collects and recycles rainwater from underground pools, and is covered with a landscaped roof sloping out from the hillside.

Welcome to the new world of eco hotel design, where sustainability and green innovation are the current buzzwords. As architects experiment with new technologies and materials that will provide for a greener future, so, too, is a renewed eco-consciousness spurring enterprising hoteliers to build lodgings that are not only energy-efficient and environmentally friendly, but inspired by and adaptable to their natural habitats.

"The growing trend is sustainable architecture, trying to get it off the grid," says John Naranjo, Creative Director of MRA Design in Miami.

Kepos Hotel;

A veteran architect of 25 years, one of Naranjo's recent proposals is the Kepos Eco Hotel for which MRA Design was a finalist in a radical innovation in hotel design competition last year. MRA's massive cutting-edge complex resembles an urban forest complete with underground root structure.

Renderings show an open skin of high-tech "leaves" that envelop the buildings in a canopy-like veil. These cells -- known as Voxels -- are a combination of technologies that both absorb sunrays and generate power by rustling in the wind. In keeping with tree anatomy, each building is rooted to a sprawling platform base, landscaped on top with open ponds and trees. Inside are elevators that deliver guests underground to where the lobby and internal power structure are located. The Kepos Eco Hotel is a proposal that takes the idea of architectural "biomimicry" -- where modern materials copy nature -- to a whole new level.

"This is all based on copying nature," Naranjo says. "The idea is that if we're displacing nature to build these buildings, then we should bring nature back into the buildings."

Although Voxel leaf technology is still in its development phase, the ambitious proposal was created to inspire anyone building new hotels to think about eco architecture in inventive ways, Naranjo says.

Songjiang Hotel;

"I know that a lot of hotels can't afford such ambitious designs now. But eventually guests will want to stay in an eco hotel that is part of the [environmental] process, especially if they can see the process, appreciate it, and participate in that process."

In addition to biomimicry, another popular trend in eco hotel design is the total adaption to the surrounding environment, such as the soon-to-be revamped Bella Vista in Trafoi, Italy. Designed by architect Matteo Thun, the hotel will comprise 11 lodgings built entirely into the hillside with green grass roofs that look a bit like Hobbit dwellings. When completed in 2011, it will be the first hotel to receive Italy's KlimaHotel certification, a new standard for ecological sustainability.

Another hotel that will fit right into its surroundings is the proposed Songjiang Hotel designed by the British firm Atkins, which will be built into a 300-foot-deep quarry outside Shanghai and will incorporate geothermal energy for its electrical grid and heating system, along with waterfalls and an underwater aquarium.

Underground Hotel;

In the London suburbs, Reardon Smith Architects has designed a five-star underground hotel that will be dug into the greens of the Hersham Golf Club in Surrey. A living green roof that mimics the golf course will cover the subterranean hotel at ground level and guests will enter their rooms via openings between landscaped trees.

On the other end of the eco-design spectrum is the Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina, which opened back in 2007. One of the most environmentally sustainable hotels in the States, it was the brainchild of Dennis Quaintance who became a pioneer in the eco field by trying to do one thing, build a hotel as energy-efficient and eco-savvy as possible.

"The idea was to build a really nice hotel that future generations wouldn't hate our guts for," Quaintance says, adding that our grandchildren will find it absurd that we weren't more forward-thinking in our approach to harnessing power from our environment.

Proximity Hotel;

Looking at every decision through an environmental lens, Quaintance and his team of local designers and builders created a state-of-the-art eco property, the first hotel ever to be awarded the US LEED Platinum certification, with an eye for the practical yet sustainable. The hotel's industrial chic, which harkens back to the historic cotton mill for which it is named, topped with 100 solar panels that generate heat for its water system, may not have the futuristic appeal of the more extravagant eco designs, but in this case it's what's inside that counts, such as an elevator that feeds electricity back into the internal grid by its motion and a geothermal cooling system for refrigeration. Unlike today's eco designs, a lot of the technologies used in the hotel are nothing revolutionary, Quaintance says.

"For instance, every hotel in the country should have solar panels on their roofs. I feel embarrassed bragging about that. Every hotel and hospital in country should harvest the sun for heat."

While the design of his own hotel is tame in comparison, Quaintance applauds the more avant-garde eco hotel proposals under development, since any advancement in green technology such as the Kepos Eco Hotel's veil of high-tech "leaves", pushes the ball forward and makes eco-hotel design more affordable.

The hotelier is clearly no idealist – he lives by the motto that "it ain't sustainable if you go broke." But while architects like John Naranjo aim to inspire a shift in attitude with stunning cutting-edge architectural designs that verge on science fiction, both men agree that real change won't come until guests demand sustainable eco practices in their hotels before they're prepared to check in.

Is staying at an eco-hotel important to you? Let us know why (or why not) in the comments below.

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