A new hotel doesn't have to mean a new build. Catherine Quinn talks to the hoteliers who use brownfield office blocks to make green hotel rooms
For many tourists, the start of a new hotel build in a little-known destination is a depressing sight. And for many urbanites, disused office blocks crumbling away in brownfield areas is equally disheartening. Luckily for both, then, some hoteliers have found an intelligent way to reduce both of these eyesores by utilising disused buildings to make attractive new residences.
"A number of our hotels have been refurbishments of existing buildings and it works very well for us" says Linda Golt, marketing manager of Apex Hotels. The chain has an extensive portfolio of hotels throughout the UK, and has adopted a policy of using brownfield sites where possible. The move is part of a wider commitment to environmental developments which won the company an award for responsible tourism last year. "We look for beautiful sites and are due for three more brownfield completions by 2009," says Golt. "A lot of our sites are former office blocks, and we also have a hotel which is on the site of a student halls of residence in Scotland."
So how difficult is it to convert an office block into an attractive hotel? To some extent it depends on how well you pick your original building. While the idea of a sixties- or seventies-style office block might conjure up images of dilapidated concrete exteriors and chipped Formica, a carefully chosen old office block can offer not only a high quality structural base, but even an inspiration for a retro-style interior.
"We were very lucky with the outside because it looked quite good already," says Robert Russell, head of sales at the Chiswick Moran hotel in west London, who converted a disused 1970s Chiswick office block into one of the Moran Hotels group's latest hotels. "We really didn't have to do much to it, apart from a clean and polish, and the look of it is very much in keeping with the retro theme we wanted to create. We wanted a West Coast-meets-west London look, which I think the building captures very well."
Generous with room sizes
And while most customers don't realise their smart hotel room once housed office workers, the building has attracted interest from those in the local area. "We get a lot of people coming by who were employed here as office staff," says Russell. "They want to see where they used to work, and how it's changed, or they'll come along and point out where the canteen used to be, or where their desk was."
Russell says that almost every aspect of the original building worked well with the group's ideas for the hotel. "We've been able to be very generous with the room sizes just because of how the original building was," he says. "A lot of London hotels have tiny bathrooms because they're restricted by space, but we've been able to put in good sizes here. We've also had more freedom because we weren't working with the restrictions of a listed building. And even the design of the windows not opening fitted with our environmental policy because it helps us regulate the temperatures."
The older office block provided no major logistical headaches for the company. "Everything went very smoothly and we opened in June, six weeks after our planned opening in May - but when you take into consideration how many hotels run up to years over schedule it was really good going," says Russell.
The conversion is also part of a comprehensive move by the hotel group to maintain an environmental policy. "It's a nice thing to work with an older building and revamp it rather than tearing a building down, or going for a complete new build," explains Russell. "For us it's part of a wider environmental drive which I think every hotel will have to consider at some point. We do all the other environmental things like energy-saving lights and air con, so using existing resources to build hotels is the logical next step."
Not all refurbishments are as straightforward as the Chiswick Moran, but they can still form interesting and rewarding projects for the architects and hoteliers involved. Some even claim they prefer the complicated restrictions of a refurb for creating challenges and getting the creative juices flowing.
"It's more difficult than a clean site because you're working within the limitations of the original building," says architect Ian Springford, whose firm regularly converts disused brownfield site buildings into smart new hotels. "But this can be easier in some ways too. With a new site you've got so many options it's sometimes difficult to know where to start. But if you're converting old buildings you've got something to begin with. It's another set of challenges, but it's also very rewarding."
Conversion projects can vary from minimal redesign to full-scale stripping back to the original frame. "The most difficult thing is the floor-to-ceiling height," says Springford. "Often office blocks have become disused because these heights are no longer viable with all the new equipment which goes in nowadays. So it's the most challenging thing for us - getting in the drainage, air conditioning, electrics and co-ordinating all that. The exterior also makes a difference. You can be lucky. But we're working on a building at the moment where we've literally had to strip it back to its steel frame, and entirely rework the envelope."
Hoteliers are finding brownfield sites attractive for a number of reasons. Often the buildings involved are well located and representative of the character of a certain area. The Zetter hotel in London, for example, was inspired by the warehouse-style hotels of Seattle and New York, and as the owners wanted to locate their boutique residence in the fashionable district of Clerkenwell, a refurbished warehouse building suited them perfectly. It also provided a valuable space in the heart of a city where empty spaces are hard to come by.
"There's not a lot of space for new-builds in Clerkenwell," says director Michael Benyan. "But it's full of old warehouses, which was exactly the look we wanted. We were inspired by a hotel called the Ace in Seattle, which was a beautiful old warehouse where they'd let the natural character of the building come through. So where you had brick walls it had been left open, or painted, and the style of the building had been kept."
For the boutique market, Benyan believes reworking brownfield properties is ideal for creating hotels with style and character, which is exactly what they found in the former warehouse which was to become the Zetter. "When you're creating your own identity it gives you a head start," he says. "A sixties or seventies building will take you in a direction in which you wouldn't have gone with a new-build and you'll probably get something more interesting out of it. That's not to say it's easy or cheap. Working with architects to remodel an old building is probably about the same price as starting from scratch, because you have to work around existing characteristics. We had some real problems with the room heights, for example, where we had floors which cut halfway across long windows. But the result is a hotel with character - a hotel with a soul."
The discovery of a natural borehole was a big bonus. "We knew Clerkenwell historically was an area famous for water since Roman times," says Benyan, "and that if we dug deep enough we'd probably get water. And there were other warehouses and old breweries that had boreholes, so we half hoped there might be one, but we didn't expect it."
Water from the borehole can be used in the hotel's heating system and also for its bottled supply. In addition, the natural cool temerature of the borehole helps the hotel to be as sustainable as possible. "It means we don't need those ugly air-con units that are stuck on the roofs of a lot of hotels, because it naturally sucks the heat out," says Benyan.
The Zetter is also a good example of how brownfield sites don't necessarily mean disused office developments on the outskirts of cities. Much of the time they're central locations with good infrastructure already in place for road and rail links. But brownfield developments are not just coming into their own in the development of single hotels. Larger projects which take on entire inner city areas are also offering real potential for hotels.
In particular, this type of large-scale project is being seen in England's industrial cities, many of which are revamping dockside or other industrial enclaves as part of wider urban regeneration projects. And perhaps the best news for hoteliers is that these projects can attract grants from the Government and the EU. "There are some very attractive grants available for certain sites, although it depends where you want to build," says Jon Reed, editor of trade magazine Brownfield Briefing. "In many cases the land has to be decontaminated because of years of industrial usage, and this will drive up costs and timescales as they can take a long time to clear. But decontamination has become a lot more sophisticated over the past decade or so - particularly as it's not so easy to take contaminated soil and throw it in landfill sites now. So this means projects are becoming more workable."
One such larger project was the Kings Dock development in Liverpool, which saw the creation of a large conference arena alongside shopping, leisure and hotel facilities, and drew extensive funding from the EU. "Kings Dock really represents the last piece in the jigsaw for the redevelopment of the south side of the city," says Pam Wilshire, spokeswoman for the Liverpool Tourist Board. "There was always some kind of prestige project in mind for the area, but a few different ideas came and went, and it sat disused as a car park for 20 years."
Eventually the plan for the Arena Convention Centre came to fruition along with development of the surrounding area. For hoteliers it was the ideal opportunity to capitalise on the prestige development, benefit from the EU finding, and add value to a city whose hotel trade still had some significant gaps.
"The arena was the key aspect of the development," says Wilshire. "But it allowed other hotels to come in which has helped expand Liverpool's hotel offering. We have a good range of three- and four-stars, and some amazing boutiques, but we don't yet have a five-star. But I think our first five-star will be on one of these waterside developments."
While these large projects offer a more diverse way for hoteliers to take advantage of brownfield sites, for environmental purposes the best benefits are gained from refurbishing old buildings, as a significant amount of energy is saved from taking advantage of the existing infrastructures.
For hoteliers torn between the ease of a new-build and the environmental benefits of reworking an old property, the advantages of making use of the solid, old-style builds may be a final trump card. "Buildings in the sixties and seventies were usually built to stay up a long time, and are sturdy constructions," Russell says. "When you look at new-builds they go up so fast you sometimes wonder how long they're going to last."