Hotels: Taking an app

Whitbread’s new high-tech and eco-friendly hotel in London’s Covent Garden, makes economic use of space. JSJ Designs found smart ways to ensure the experience is an inviting one.


Words by Francis Pearce

Hub by Premier Inn at 110 St Martin's Lane, London is the first of Whitbread's new brand of city-centre budget hotels intended to pack 'everything you need and nothing that you don't' into a tight space. Although the rooms are only 11.4 sq m in area they include an en-suite bathroom with power-shower; Wi-Fi; a 40in smart-screen television; a desk that folds into the bed; and luggage space beneath the bed, plus an app that enables customers to book, check-in and preset or control their heating, lighting and TV. Whitbread reckons that a stay in one of its hubs will be 30 per cent cheaper than in typical Premier Inn rooms, and yet the rooms are stylish and far from pokey.

'We were given the brief to create an iconic room to house double occupancy in the "hotel of the future", knowing that space in London and other cities is at a premium,' says JSJ Design partner Simeon Thompson. Although the rooms have a template design created to get the maximum from the smallest space, they are neither capsules nor cabins. 'As a designer JSJ is obviously aware of other brands and their execution, but that helped the client understand what was possible and what could be done with perhaps a bit more comfort,' says Thompson.

The room concept was 'prototyped five or six times over the space of two to three years,' Thompson adds. 'Whitbread quantitatively and qualitatively researched and evaluated it throughout, so it wasn't a case of "here's an idea. Now let's run with it". The only thing that remained the same was the room size. It was all about what was doable. We tried to keep things as open as possible, utilising every space, but bringing in hard surfaces such as acrylic to create a sculpted space,' he explains.

'We chose glass bathroom walls, for example, and that came through the design process. Whitbread is one of the leading hotel providers so the cleaning regime is timed and costed, and we had to think about how long the room takes to clean and multiply that across the estate. So, there are special antibacterial chemicals on the sliding doors, which also allow water to slide down without smearing, the same with the bathroom walls too.'

Materials and other aspects of the design, such as the colour temperature of the all-LED lighting -- a warm 2700K -- carry through the whole building, including its corridors and F&B area. The high-tech nature of the experience is reinforced at the reception, which has a digital, interactive screen wall and check-in terminals that read QR codes. Any starkness is tempered with an eclectic mix of bespoke furniture and artwork in the deli and bar.

'As soon as you step out of your taxi or the Tube there are signifiers that you are reaching a Hub. The grey backcoated glass, the flashes of lime, the reclaimed nature of the furniture and the architectural detailing in the F&B space -- they are all signifiers,' says Thompson.

The £30m office conversion, by Axiom Architects and principal contractor McAleer & Rushe, has resulted in the first hotel in the UK to achieve a BREAMM outstanding environmental construction rating. The conversion involved using a high level of recycled materials and building in features such as a 'brown roof' where wild flowers grow.

More than a dozen Hubs are in the pipeline, including four more in London. 'Office conversions have inherent conditions and problems, which makes it interesting and keeps us on our toes,' says Thompson. 'There are always irregular spaces; you never get a smooth, clean rectangle.'

Close encounters

James Dilley of Jestico + Whiles argues for the human touch in hotel design.

'In retail and hospitality we are familiar with a requirement for authenticity, be it real or perceived. Food should be real, prepared freshly by humans in sight of the customer, from locally sourced products, ideally with the name of the farmer attached. Fitness areas have become honest gyms. These spaces are no longer full of beeping, chrome machines, but worn leather medicine balls, wall bars and hairy climbing ropes. Exercise has become moving a pile of sand from one side of the room to the other or three rounds in the boxing ring,' says James Dilley, pictured right.

'Inherent in all of this is a sense of place, reference to and respect for context. There is a pivot away from universal design and experience towards specific experience responding directly to place and time. So, how does this need for authenticity of experience thread through hotels?

'Hotel operators are striving to project an efficiency called 'select service', whereby unnecessary and frivolous elements are eliminated, leaving a core of essential services that must be delivered immaculately. This has resulted in greater reliance on technology and is particularly evident in the will to eliminate human contact from the arrival/check-in process. This is all very exciting in design terms as creativity and innovation is required to accommodate this.

'But the corollary is the increasing cachet and perceived value of good-quality human contact (exactly as we see in telephone services) and there are operators who now emphasise this as the ultimate gesture to service and care, if not luxury. A brigade of highly knowledgeable specialists have become essential to good hotels at all levels, beyond the definition of concierge and receptionist.

'This reinvention of the human-based first contact is the challenge in design, to enhance this experience beyond the perfunctory.'

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