In a cream and brown 1960s building, among council flats and offices near London's Barbican, Mount Charlotte Hotels is creating a new, disability-friendly identity. Key to the transformation of this chocolate cheesecake-style building is the installation of Design MD's award-winning hotel bedroom, which aims to be as appealing to non-disabled as to disabled guests.
It's the only way forward, says Mount Charlotte and Thistle Hotels' chairman Robert Peel, who realised three years ago that the disabled and elderly leisure market was huge and growing, and currently barely catered for by UK hotels. "You are not going to get anyone in this industry investing in disabled facilities unless you get a design that's equally good for both the disabled and the able-bodied," he says.
Although facilities do exist, they are mostly furnished with institutional fixtures and finishes - especially in bathrooms, which normally feature huge white baths or wheel-in showers with fixed seats, and a surfeit of obvious grab rails. Able-bodied guests frequently complain if they are put in rooms like these.
So Caterer & Hotelkeeper, in conjunction with the disability awareness organisation Holiday Care, launched a competition last year aimed at finding the best dual-purpose bedroom solution for a three-star standard hotel.
David Walker and Mary Boyle, winners of the competition through their Evesham-based design consultancy Design MD, pondered the problem over two solid weeks last summer.
They decided that the most important area to tackle was the bathroom. At the New Barbican hotel, the most glaring features have been disguised or minimised. Grab rails for the vanity unit double up as towel rails. The detachable shower seat is hung on a hook by the shower, which is located inside the bath, leaving the bath environment clear of unnecessary fixtures. A small grab rail fits in beside the toilet, and a "drop arm" for the other side is hidden away behind a panel.
"The hotel manager will know when the room has been let for a disabled person, and will pull the drop arm down beforehand," says Walker.
Taps in the shower and bath are large and lever-action - fiddly knobs are no help to someone with arthritis. Access and positioning is also important. Walker points out: "The bath taps have to be easy to reach from a wheelchair. It's no good if the person in a wheelchair has to lean across the bath to turn them on."
Mary Boyle points to a diagram of the sink fixtures: "It's just one mixer tap, with a detachable shower head on a pipe, so you can wash your hair easily at the sink." It's a useful feature even if you're not disabled, she adds.
The toilet flush is vertical. "It has to be a substantial handle and easy to operate," says Walker. The same applies to door and cupboard handles.
Equally important is the positioning of the vanity unit and sink. They must be at the right height for a guest to pull up to in a wheelchair. Walker describes the unit as "banjo shaped", in that it has a neat, shallow sink with a shelf on either side.
"Usually these bathrooms have huge, institutional-looking basins, big enough to do your washing up in," says Boyle. This one also has a lever-action tap below and to one side of the sink, again so that people in wheelchairs don't have to stretch across the sink.
Finishes are attractive, but designed to be easy to maintain. The bathroom is tiled throughout, with a granite-look vanity unit and plastic laminates for casings and an attractive textured finish.
Out of the bathroom, another innovation has been to make desks and bedside tables cantilevered from the walls, so that there are no legs to be knocked by wheelchairs. Carpeting has been specified without underlay, so that no obvious tracks are left by wheelchairs, while to those on foot, it feels like an ordinary carpet. An occasional table, good for eating or working at, has an adjustable pedestal base so that there are no awkward legs to be manoeuvred around.
So far so good. But there are areas where Design MD's plans have not been followed. A seat space planned in next to the bath has been omitted "because of ducts", according to operations director for building services David Senior.
Walker and Boyle are upset. "That's a very important part of the plan," says Walker. "It's where the wheelchair slots in so that the guest can slip into the bath more easily." It turns out that it is against new building regulations to omit this space. But, as regulations would only be strictly imposed on a newly built hotel and as the New Barbican Hotel is a refurbishment, it is not obliged to follow them to the letter.
Other small details that Boyle and Walker have stipulated have not been followed. Says Walker: "Light switches should have lights on them, so people can make them out in the dark, and telephones should also have lights on them, so guests know where they are in an emergency."
On the other hand, Senior's building team has installed doors that interconnect to adjacent rooms where helpers can sleep. Says Senior: "We found from feedback we have had that not every disabled person wants the helpers in the same room." Other important features include the remote-controlled electronic doors that open at the touch of a button.
Walker concurs: "You need to find a middle ground that deals with most disabilities, without going as far as braille on the door."
Several delays and false starts have somewhat diminished the pleasurable impact of seeing their plans take form. But overall, it has been a useful exercise for Design MD to have taken an in-depth look at disability requirements. The company's continuing design work for Holiday Inn, Scotts Hotels and Village Leisure Hotels will benefit from the experience, says Walker. "It's a major issue. Hotels cannot afford to provide special rooms which are otherwise hard to let."
For Mount Charlotte and Thistle hotels, it has shown them how disabled-friendly design elements can be incorporated in a cheaper hotel room. Although the group has long had a commitment to disabled-friendly hotel rooms, those in the recently refurbished Mount Royal Hotel, near Marble Arch, are more luxurious, featuring real wood floors (much easier for wheelchairs than carpet) and drive-in marble-tiled showers.
These rooms were arrived at not through architectural planning but by tweaking and testing. The hotel group is hot on feedback.
Chairman Robert Peel is fond of reading through the many guest questionnaires that are filled in. To his obvious delight, a one-man campaigner for disabled guests, ex-Vietnam veteran Dr Michael Quigley, editor of the US's Handicapped Travel News, stayed in the Mount Royal and declared the hotel's roll-in, multi-headed showers "the best shower I've ever seen".
It's something of a crusade for Peel, who once spent half a day in a wheelchair trying to get around London just to see how difficult it was. (His verdict: very).
"It is very important to listen to what these guests want - not just the disabled, but the elderly. They won't go to certain places for all sorts of reasons - for example if the loos are in the basement, or if the restaurant is too noisy."
Having won over the US disability rights lobby with his Mount Royal facilities, he is now planning a £120,000 entrance lobby with elevators that will be a tad more accessible than the current entrance where escalators take you up to the reception. And he is committed to ensuring that, eventually, one room in 50 of each of his 100 hotels will be disabled-friendly.
David Senior admits that these new rooms, designed by Walker and Boyle, are more "dual purpose". According to the rooms manager at the Mount Royal, some able-bodied guests do take exception to the "drive-in" showers.
The proof of Design MD's success will come through in feedback from both types of guest. The signs are good. Although only just finished, the room has already been let to an able-bodied guest who, according to Heiko Figge, the New Barbican's general manager, "said it was a very pleasant room". n