June 8, 2020

How Hospitality Design Might Change Post-Pandemic



Today’s global pandemic has created “permanxiety” for some would-be travelers experiencing stress due to long-term confinement, geopolitical issues, and the ongoing public health crisis. How might an industry built on the idea of escape create new, responsive environments that allow guests to live for today and leave their worries behind for a while? Defining what “getting away” looks like post-pandemic is a worthwhile challenge.

The typical design and construction timeline for a large scale hotel project is around 2-3 years, from conception to heads in beds. Making changes to anything in-progress would not only result in a substantial loss of time and money, but risks solving for a specific set of problems we may longer have by the time the project is finished.

We’ve learned that COVID-19 is spread through moisture particles in the air, and at least to some degree, on surfaces — but will future pandemics follow suit? Some of the quick actions we’re seeing taken by restaurants and offices hoping to re-open safely don’t necessarily translate when speaking more broadly about post-pandemic design thinking, because we can’t predict exactly what “next time” looks like, or how it will act.

We are likely to see project costs increase as we demand more from our buildings: state-of-the-art HVAC systems, contactless systems, operational windows, additional elevator bays, and more space. But is there such a thing as over-designing if a vaccine that will keep us safe for another 10 years is around the corner? One solution would be forgoing immediate pivots towards expensive, short-term solutions in order to champion greater long-term flexibility in design.

Rather than borrowing from high-tech healthcare design, hospitality brands might actually find greater benefit looking to retail environments as they assess next steps. In these settings, a “loose fit” approach to the building program has made a big impact on the guest experience during this public health crisis. Social distancing is facilitated by wider aisles now marked with wayfinding floor stickers. Multiple points of entry help ease circulation, and high ceilings help with ventilation, reducing the amount of shared air among occupants.

A pandemic-resilient hotel might include wide corridors with dedicated outdoor air supply where climate permits, or exterior corridors like those seen in motels. Restaurants would have ample outdoor seating with plenty of room for guests to spread out. It would include decentralized amenities, such as a lobby with multiple, intimate gathering spaces where you could socially distance with your travel companions, instead of one large bar. Pinch points will have been eliminated thanks to multiple entrances and exits, several elevator bays, and publicly accessible, well-ventilated stairways. There might be a resurgence of grand central staircases, or expansive check-in desks, if those aren’t eliminated altogether.

For a 1:1 comparison, consider checking-in at a hotel versus checking-out at the grocery store. Instead of one central destination, the end user has several options to choose from, and can make real-time decisions to limit their wait time based on comfort. Then consider the parallel between a self-checkout, and a model where guests can bypass human contact at check-in altogether, either through a kiosk, or using a mobile app. With the check-in desk now eliminated, there is suddenly a greater footprint to use the lobby in other ways.

Architects have always played a key role in the response to public health challenges like COVID-19, but functional changes are only a piece of the larger puzzle. Operations, driven by a greater collective focus on safety and sanitation, must also change. Temporary measures like incorporating fever scanning technology, or misting sanitation stations South Korean theatergoers now pass-through can help not just in function, but in boosting a guest’s level of comfort. But what can the past tell us about the future? Before building codes are revised, and Architect’s rulebooks are rewritten, we’ll have to look at the design industry’s response to past pandemics to try and infer what the new “normal” looks like several months, or even years down the road.


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Following the 1918 influenza pandemic, and in the wake of cholera and tuberculosis outbreaks, early 20th century design sought to pull more light and air into spaces — not just because of changing aesthetic trends, but in support of public health. Heavy ornamentation, and use of other dust-harboring surfaces like carpets and drapes were proven to be unhygienic. Architects like Le Corbusier, Loos and Aalto responded with a wave of decluttered designs. What might have been described as “stark” or “cold” just a few years earlier was being called “clean” and “safe.” Might we borrow some of these principles in response to our own contemporary challenges?

Good examples of utilizing outdoor space and fresh air can be seen in the designs of two of Lowney Architecture’s in-progress hospitality projects. The Hyatt Place in Santa Rosa will include an expansive rooftop bar and open air dining patio and a lobby designed with cross-ventilation in mind. In downtown Oakland, the Moxy by Marriott features a spacious lobby bar that doubles as the check-in counter, with garage door-style openings to the neighboring sidewalk.

One colleague recently mentioned his prior work renovating San Francisco’s 50 UN Plaza. The building was designed by Arthur Brown, Jr. in 1936, and went nearly 75 years without undergoing any major renovations, in spite of surviving a major earthquake in 1989. When the time came to upgrade the building in 2010, pre-demolition inspections showed the building’s office spaces had sinks located every thirty feet along the back wall for easy handwashing. To promote more frequent handwashing post-pandemic, we could see a reintroduction of sink stations in common areas, separate from restroom facilities. At the very least, we can expect to see more wall-mounted automatic hand sanitizer dispensers?

Due to a surge in popularity of home share and short-term rental sites like AirBnB, we’ve seen greater segmentation in hotel options. To help answer the question “Why does anyone still choose to stay in a hotel?” full service hotels have become more experience-focused, offering guests luxury amenities in a high-design environment. At the same time, select service hotels hoping to attract the value traveler have become more frugal. Not only are these models relying on smaller teams to tackle all facets of hotel operations, but they have eliminated most of their amenities (think grab-and-go markets instead of restaurants) and have launched leaner, more affordably-designed prototypes.

Achieving flexibility in hospitality design will be especially challenging for these select service brands. Ground floor programs have become tailored to support greater density on guest room floors. Hallways have become narrower, and self-serve buffet breakfasts are the norm. Outdoor spaces, including parking in some cases, have shrunk if not disappeared altogether.

So how to tackle a pandemic when there is no room to grow or to change your program? Can you afford to operate at a lower capacity? Can you increase operational costs to hire more staff to keep up with new and changing cleaning regimens? While we haven’t heard these questions asked in direct correlation to our in-progress hospitality projects, we can speculate that these things are top of mind for our client’s future plans. As we consider how hotels might explore short term solutions to meet the needs of the pandemic, we expect there to be a direct correlation between the look and feel of the existing brand and how they choose to respond.

For example, a select-service brand might add temporary plexiglass to their check-in counter, and social distance floor markers. They might add personal protective equipment offerings like face masks and hand sanitizer to grab-and-go markets. They might even reverse earlier eco-friendly choices by reintroducing one-time-use toiletries and requiring linens and towels to be changed daily.

On the other end of the spectrum, full-service hotels might search for ways to tackle these problems with a higher level of refinement. Guests may check-in at an expansive glass counter, or from their phone (which doubles as their room key) in advance. They’ll receive branded face masks with local flair on arrival. They might be introduced to their floors’ dedicated concierge, eliminating the need to interact with other guests or ground floor staff for assistance throughout their stay. They’ll see additional staff who’s sole responsibility is sanitizing each piece of equipment in the fitness center after it’s used, and they’ll find a less-crowded pool deck with half as many chairs as were present during their last stay. Room service trays will arrive with a safety seal.

Then there are additional considerations for extended stay models, which in this case would be treated more like multi-family housing.

Since the California Building Standards Code was newly published in January, and isn’t due for another update until 2023, architects can’t fully predict the long term effects of this pandemic on building codes or safety regulations. As much as we’d like our aesthetic motivations or opinions on the best use for a space to outrank the rulebook, our primary task from a design perspective is working within the confines of the laws protecting the health, safety, and welfare of occupants in built environments

How this manifests throughout the hospitality industry largely depends on how each brand chooses to incorporate new safety and sanitation practices into their guest experience. With a focus on managing guest perception in the coming months, brands must decide not only which practices or trends to implement, but how to communicate and market this to their guests. Some things will be successful, and others will not — but ultimately, it’s these short term experiments that will influence long term decisions, and that is what will eventually make its way into hotel design.


Eric Price is the Commercial Studio Director for Lowney Architecture, and has over 20 years of experience working on a wide variety of hospitality and retail projects throughout the Bay Area. He believes improving our cities’ density and livability is critical to creating sustainable land use patterns.

He has served as project architect and project manager for global hospitality brands such as Marriott and Hyatt, as well as boutique brands, and understands that user experience is paramount to exceptional hotel design.

Eric honed his expertise in all facets and phases of hospitality design and construction. His projects have required extensive EIR evaluation and certification, rezoning, mapping, and new utility and easement planning. Vertical projects have required coordination of ground improvements, complex loading and vehicular access requirements and complex building construction methods.


To evaluate solutions for an existing property, or to discuss plans for your next project, please contact Eric at moc.h1695302473craye1695302473nwol@1695302473cire1695302473, or reach another member of the Lowney Architecture team at 510-836-5400.




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