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Better than Sustainable

Forever championing human creativity

Science meets storytelling when it comes to the hotel interiors of the future, says Juliet Kinsman. We want hotels that don't just surprise and delight through their appearance, but also through their backstories — from biophilia to brocantes and Brutalism to botany. As consumers, we should assess their environmental impact and question whether responsible design choices are being implemented.

Roughly-hewn timber tables. Reclaimed, upcycled retro tiling. Fraying hessian-toned curtains. Hand-pressed bricks glued to conceal concrete foundations. All noble, but they can be tokenistic if the context doesn’t consider the bigger picture. There was a time where real estate could get away with virtue signalling through greener details despite a small carbon footprint, by ticking enough ‘performative sustainability’ boxes.

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Intercontinental Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Now, as architects, designers, and consumers evolve their vision and embrace climate solutions, we not only calculate reduced impact but also demand genuine, regenerative interior approaches.

Sustainability has become a catch-all term — and sustaining the status quo isn't enough. With the built environment contributing 38% of global-warming emissions, we must actively reduce, not just slow down. Rising climate awareness, propelled by extreme weather, has led to scrutiny of supply chains and a quest for shorter, eco-friendly, artisan-led chains with a focus on nature.

Playa Viva Hotel, Mexico: The eco resort referencing biophilic design

Biophilia, inspired by EO Wilson's theory on our innate connection to nature, influences Louis Thompson, Nomadic Resorts Designer. His hand-built hospitality structures include the treetop dining pods at Soneva Kiri, inspired by the natural growth of saprophytic fungi, while magnificent marine creatures and mobula rays, influenced the design of the bamboo treehouses at Playa Viva. Thompson stresses that early consideration of passive design, insulation, material choice, and eco-conscious factors is crucial for achieving an integrated, holistic environment.

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Playa Viva hotel, Mexico.

Timber creations, neuroscientists might say, are better for our mental health, since wood speaks to the vagus nerve which soothes our parasympathetic system and snaps us out of fight or flight mode. The Black & White building in London, as the city's first all-timber space, sets a new standard. Daytrip Studio also sourced 80% of the furniture and lighting from London and UK suppliers — no easy feat, as most suppliers import from Europe or Asia.

Fogo Island Inn, Central Newfoundland: The first human-first hospitality business in Canada

Fogo Island Inn, a Canadian hospitality business, showcases the importance of ethically-minded economics and aesthetics. Founded by Zita Cobb in 2013 on a remote Newfoundland island, the business revitalised what was once a fishing-dependent community. Former boat builders became award-winning furniture makers, and net-makers learned new craft techniques. Nothing was imported for the project, apart from a few nails, leaving as much money in local pockets as possible. Their Economic Nutrition Certification Mark provides transparency about money distribution from each purchase, emphasising their investment in community and labour - in other words, its people.

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Fogo Island Inn, Canada

Hotel Marcel, Connecticut: Future-proofing an architectural gem

Adaptive design is another regenerator. In New Haven, Connecticut, Hotel Marcel breathes new life into the Marcel Breuer Building. This 1970 Brutalist icon, designed by the Bauhaus legend, is now a 165-room Passive House-certified hotel. It sets a new standard for energy efficiency and insulation, mitigating carbon emissions. Repurposing existing structures helps reduce the environmental impact of concrete which is responsible for 8% of global CO2 emissions. Hotel Marcel features mid-century-inspired furnishings by Dutch East Design and artworks by female Brooklyn artists, honouring the Bauhaus spirit of reinvention.

1 Hotel, Mayfair: Living green wall boosts biodiversity

1 Hotel Mayfair is a BREEAM-certified 181-room hotel that has reinvented a Portland-stone-clad building using photovoltaic panels and blue roof water-capturing processes. Its living green walls and over 200 plant species render this property one of the greenest reuse developments in W1. From the air-plant chandelier in the lobby to in-room planting beds and a public side-garden, the hotel enhances biodiversity and provides habitats for small nesting birds - there are climate-control benefits, too. The foliage has sun-absorbing properties which helps to cool the building, resulting in an average temperature reduction of 3°C. Meanwhile, 1 Hotel Brooklyn in New York creatively utilises organic materials like mushroom mycelium and hemp to enhance urban design.

Hôtel Juana, Côte d’Azur: Upcycling the interiors of hotel restaurant, PASEO

In a world increasingly focused on environmental issues, it's essential to consider the broader picture, including how interior design can adapt to a more fragile planet. Reducing resource extraction is essential, including reducing fossil fuel usage and avoiding the purchase of new materials.

Hôtel Juana, a sibling to the renowned Belles Rives, exemplifies creative upcycling in its charming PASEO restaurant on the Côte d’Azur. The hotel, now independently owned by a French family, enlisted a Belgium-based interior design duo to reimagine the space. They incorporated vintage finds, handcrafted Barbotine ceramics, and reupholstered furnishings, emphasising the principles of reduction and reuse. ‘The furniture had all been professionally commissioned before, so it made no sense to order new from the other side of the world, and we aimed to reuse what’s been here for 20 years, built to last,’ says Samantha Messens. ‘Recycled plastic tables were bold and brave for a five-star hotel on the French Riviera.'

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Hôtel Juana, Côte d’Azur: PASEO Restaurant

Inhabit Hotel, Queen’s Gardens: Repurposing materials

Editor of Hotel Designs, Hamish Kilburn, asks how can an industry, driven by profit, continue to grow aggressively and claim to be sustainable? ‘It can’t.’ He advocates a shift to design value, and conscious, hyperlocal procurement. Richard Holland of Holland Harvey Architects earns Kilburn's admiration for an innovative transformation of a curved terraced building in Bayswater, into Inhabit, Queen's Gardens. The architects collaborated with Liverpool's Granby Workshop to repurpose materials from 19th-century Victorian townhouses, resulting in a 159-key boutique hotel with a strong focus on well-being. By opening the door to genuine collaboration between artisans, creatives and industry experts, hotels are adding texture, locality and multiple layers of narrative to the hospitality experience, which will stand the test of time, as well as shifting trends. It is now resonating with decision-makers at the top level, fostering a more environmentally and socially conscious industry.

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Inhabit hotel exterior

Humankind has a chance to problem-solve through every step of the design journey, and all the better when those who encounter these environments end up expressing themselves more imaginatively while also demonstrating impact. When Bill Bensley published his Sensible Sustainable Solutions white paper in 2020, the Bangkok-based designer raised the bar. Known for his flea-market treasures and commissioning hand-made fittings, such as for Capella Ubud in Bali, or Shinta Mani Wild in the Cambodian rainforest, which might take craftspeople months to create, Bill shows us how a little imagination can be the best climate activism. Bringing his high-camp style to life most recently in the Republic of Congo, his latest project, Kamba African Rainforest Experiences reminds us why discerning travellers favour this approach to arts and curios over could-be-anywhere-amenities. The sustainability significance of these high-design immersive wilderness gorilla-viewing escapes is significant too — they will lure luxury travellers to a barely-visited region in a way that benefits local communities, and funds conservation, without scrimping on theatre.

One Hundred Shoreditch: Upcycling and repurposing materials

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One Hundred Shoreditch

‘Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating,’ said Donald A Norman in The Design of Everyday Things. Jacu Strauss, creative director of hospitality company Lore Group, highlights that sustainability has become a bigger requirement from a guest perspective, ‘Greenwashing, as a term, reflects a short-term vision and box-ticking approach which is not doing enough to make a significant shift.’ Strauss and his team create bespoke furniture and fixtures, and equipment for each property. When re-imagining the Pulitzer Amsterdam and Riggs Washington DC, Strauss based himself in these destinations to really get under their skin. ‘True sustainability is about the longevity of design, materials, and reuse. It is important to use sustainable products, but they are not always necessarily ‘green’ or made from natural resources, instead they are often materials that last longer and may even be a by-product. Having a long-term vision fuels a creative mind because less focus is placed on fast-fashion trends, instead it makes for future-friendly design that is right for that particular context.’ Jan Hendzel's examples include the use of naturally felled London trees for sculptures and benches at One Hundred Shoreditch Hotel and repurposing old bicycles for decoration at the Pulitzer.

Khao Yai National Park Hotel, Thailand: Luxury suites crafted from abandoned train carriages.

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Intercontinental Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Nothing generates excitement quite like the ingenious repurposing of items at the end of their life cycle. Bill Bensley transformed discarded train carriages into opulent suites at Thailand's InterContinental Khao Yai National Park, while OMA, led by Rem Koolhaas, crafted ceilings from 1.7 tonnes of recycled plastic waste at Potato Head Studios in Bali.

The most impactful contribution we can make is to ask more questions about the creative process behind these unique interiors and share these insights for better design, construction, and creation. To identify worthy projects, consider how an interior design benefits nature or people, raises awareness about zero waste, or supports fading artisanal skills. Seek out the positives and celebrate them loudly. Hotels filled with mass-produced, shipping container-style furnishings no longer cut it. Stay curious.

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