More than a Room with a View: Biophilia and the Hospitality Experience

November 14, 2019

For over 35 years, American architect Patrick Burke, AIA has led Michael Graves Architecture & Design to create unique hospitality experiences for hotel operators and travelers around the globe, in Asia, Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East.  As the experience-based economy continues to drive hospitality business, there is a parallel and growing trend toward biophilia, people’s innate connection with nature. Citing expert knowledge in the field of biophilia, Burke discusses the many ways that hospitality design can respond to the natural world, incorporate natural features at every scale, and enhance the guest experience.

It’s all about the experience!

When traveling or just dining out, people seek satisfying or unique experiences to enjoy the moment and build memories. Todays’ travelers seek interesting experiences that resonate with local history and culture, focus on well-being or simply have a novel theme. The souvenirs of today are immediately shared through social media and not carted home in a suitcase.  When variety increases, there’s all the more to share and talk about.

Financial experts say that spending on travel and dining experiences is outpacing demand for goods and  personal consumption.  At nearly every annual industry conference, we’re told that the experience economy continues to drive hospitality growth worldwide. As a result, hotel developers and operators are seeking to distinguish themselves in the market. And designers like our firm and others are constantly re-imagining and customizing the guest environment, keeping foremost in our minds that we are designing for people. It’s no longer enough to craft a beautiful building or space that people will enjoy. We also have to create memorable experiences. And those experiences often involve shared social enjoyment and not just individual satisfaction.

“As part of life’s expectations, it should not just be sustainable but also regenerative. It should grow as a living idea.”

— Patrick Burke, Principal of Architecture, AIA, Michael Graves Architecture

The experience trend that has become such an important part of hospitality has recently been influencing other market sectors. It’s obvious how experiential design would enhance success for restaurants and retail. But hospitality design itself is having an effect on the workplace where social spaces foster collaboration, on higher education where learning takes place as much in the informal setting of a student center’s cafe as it does in the classroom, and even on healthcare where reception rooms welcome patients and their families more graciously.

This cross-pollination among building types has likewise had an effect on hospitality, as the wellness movement has spread to all sectors. In the places where we live, work, learn and heal, creating a healthy, green environment has become a touchstone for quality of life. As part of life’s expectations, it should not just be sustainable but also regenerative. It should grow as a living idea. At the center of this trend is the concept of biophilia and biophilic design.

Biophilia, well-being and multi-sensory experience

The word biophilia, with Greek origins, simply translates as an affinity for nature (bio- means “life” and -philia means “having a friendly feeling toward”). Originally popularized by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in the 1960s, the term was elaborated by the American biologist Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s to stand for “the rich, natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms.” Merriam Webster – Biophilia

In its several publications on biophilia, the environmental consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green defines biophilia as “humankind’s innate biological connection with nature.”  Terrapin Report – 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design  Since the concept is focused on people’s reaction to the natural surroundings, it follows easily that these principles can influence one’s experience in a hospitality (or other) environment.  Biophilic designs can range from a merging of buildings and landscape at the largest scale of a resort to the introduction of actual or representational vegetation in the interiors

1 Hotel Brooklyn Bidge NY, Interior Room

I was recently pleasantly surprised at the personal-size moss garden in the guestroom of 1 Brooklyn Bridge Hotel in New York designed by Inc Architecture & Design, Marvel Architects and the landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. It created a tactile as well as visual experience. A different approach was taken in the guestrooms of the soon-to-be-open St. Regis Cairo by Michael Graves Architecture & Design. There, custom-made wallpaper depicts the arcing reeds of papyrus that grow along the Nile River and were traditionally made into paper, a reference to the context and its natural and cultural history.

It’s well known in the healthcare community that patients heal best and have more positive feelings when they experience natural forms. In a long-stay rehabilitation hospital we designed with DLR Architects in Omaha, Nebraska, we oriented the plan so that the windows of the patient rooms face preserved wetlands.  The same is true when we design resorts, where guestroom clusters are planned to give every guest a view of the landscape, whether the sea, a tropical  forest,  or a golf course.

Biophilic design, however, is more than a room with a view. It covers all the senses. Scents introduced into spaces are known to create an emotional reaction, even subliminally, although smell is one of the most sensitive human reactions. The same is true of sound.

St Regis Nile Corniche Guest Room Interior Design

“Biophilic design, however, is more than a room with a view. It covers all the senses.”

— Patrick Burke, Principal of Architecture, AIA, Michael Graves Architecture

First impressions and evolution of the hotel lobby

Whether they were aware of it or not, luxury hotels have capitalized on biophilic principles for years.  The large or dramatic floral displays found in traditional hotel lobbies – because of their biophilic qualities – trigger an instinctual emotional response, one of pleasure and contentment, even delight. They create a reassuring first impression.  The fact that a display of vibrant cut flowers would thrive in such an environment, and be put together with such thoughtfulness, signals that the guest will be well cared for in that place.

This small burst of nature at the entry created only a transitory experience, however, since the traditional lobby was once a just transitory place. It’s where the guest checked in and perhaps enjoyed a short respite in the lobby lounge. The guestroom was the focus of a visitor’s stay.

With the rise of the boutique hotel, especially in urban settings where economics require driving foot traffic from more than a hotel’s guests, lobbies have become more like neighborhood living rooms. They are gathering places, places to socialize for longer periods of time. In an interesting study in Human Spaces 2.0: Biophilic Design in Hospitality, the authors from Terrapin Bright Green (with partners from Gensler and Interface) discovered a correlation between biophilic design and dwell time in hotel lobbies. Terrapin Report – Human Spaces 2.0 

Dwell time, or linger time as it’s often called, means the length of time that visitors interact with a venue, and is often used by retailers to analyze the sales performance of the environment as a function of human behavior. Through observation of hotel lobbies, the Terrapin Bright Green study quantified that dwell time was 36% higher in biophilic lobbies than in conventional ones and that people found the biophilic hotels most memorable and satisfying. Even if the guest response is subliminal, it reinforces the connection between nature and well-being.

For architects and designers, this is good news since it’s the design that is driving satisfaction and not just operations and maintenance, which are frequently the focus of guests’ comments about their stay. The obligatory large flower display is being augmented or even replaced by a more holistic approach to incorporating natural features within both the architecture and the décor. Green walls have become prevalent in hotel environments, making nature part of the building’s surfaces. One of the most dramatic examples is the entrance to the restaurant Catch Las Vegas designed by the Rockwell Group and located in the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas. Here, a long passage lined with colorful flowers gives the impression of passing through an immersive garden before entering the more secluded world of the restaurant.

Using natural features to create authentic local experiences

While the interior “secret garden” at Catch Las Vegas is largely an awe-inspiring artifice, the experience of immersion in a tropical landscape would have a similar effect. In general, we think that there is great value in creating authentic local experiences for visitors to hotels and resorts.  For years, we have designed or admired venues that are of their place, that are like nowhere else in the world, that combat the sameness that once characterized the hospitality industry. While forms, colors, details and construction techniques of the architecture can be locally defined (a resort in Egypt and one in south Florida should not be the same in our view), one of the most distinguishing features of any place is the landscape and its flora and fauna. When combined with the idea of biophilic design for hospitality, a designer’s palette is greatly increased and, if the empirical data from studies like Terrapin Bright Green’s are correct, so is the potential for guest satisfaction and a hotel’s commercial success.

Extending the analogy of the welcoming vase of flowers as a first impression, biophilic design for hospitality today needs to be more comprehensive – at all scales of a development – for it to have maximum impact and not be just a transitory gesture.

Biophilic design at every scale: bringing the outside in and the inside out

Compared to urban hotels, resorts have a unique opportunity to engage the landscape and integrate experience of the outdoors with the interiors. Visitors may be going to a resort to play golf, go snorkeling or fishing, hike the mountains or simply relax at a spa. The outdoors is thus naturally part of the experience. To maximize the biophilic value, designers should start with the largest scale of planning the site and continue the approach throughout public spaces and finally to the smallest details of guestrooms or, in the case of a spa, to the treatment rooms.

Espa Spa at Resorts World Sentosa, Singapore

Careful integration of landscape and buildings can create an immersive biophilic experience. At the ESPA spa at Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore, designed by Michael Graves Architecture & Design, the way that interior spaces meld seamlessly into the lush tropical landscape reinforces ESPA’s core belief in the healing effect of nature. Where else but a spa at a tropical resort can all principles of biophilic design define the guest experience? It’s where the world revolves around the guest and creates a haven of calm and re-balancing, a experience in harmony with nature that affects all the senses.

While ESPA’s dense site contains numerous small buildings, they are organized within private tropical gardens and oriented to control views, conveying the sense of privacy  and immersion in nature.  Manty of the gathering and treatment space open onto intimate gardens with reflecting or treatment pools.

Within the interiors, natural materials – stone, crystals and wood – with subtle patterns and textures complement the landscape setting.  Every detail contributes to a spa environment that is as healthy and refreshing as it is gentle and calming due to the way that people react positively to the natural world.


Patrick Burke, AIA
Principal of Architecture