What’s Driving the Demand for “Light-on-Land” Approach to Hotel Design?

November 23, 2022

A “light-on-land” approach to hotel design relates to two global trends:

First, sustainability has gone mainstream, and the need to address climate change is becoming more of a priority for developers and for travelers who want to minimize the impact on the environment. Whereas before, architects and designers may have been pushing for “light-on-land” design approaches, now there is greater and more widespread demand from developers amidst increased guest expectations for destinations with a harmonious relationship between building and site.

Second, hotel developers and brands are aiming to satiate travelers’ thirst for the outdoors and nature experiences. Travelers are increasingly seeking the comforts of home and amenities of a luxury hotel amidst nature, and the alternative vacation – via treehouse stays, yurts, and glamping – is becoming more and more ingrained into hospitality.

These two drivers – the demand for sustainable travel-driven destinations and alternative stays immersed in nature – are not necessarily new, but they are accelerating as influences in the design and development world.

According to Luxury Frontiers, the movement of crafting engaging experiences and dissolving barriers between people and their environments formed in Africa, and in recent years has taken hold in the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, with the urge to unplug and reconnect with nature driving demand. Many of the projects that Luxury Frontiers undertakes are in national parks, reserves, and areas that have stringent regulations associated with them. The exotic sanctuaries and protected areas where travelers want to have immersive, meaningful escapes often demand “light-on-land” approaches. In approaching these locales, designers must create a holistic sustainability framework before approaching any design.

“Before we go into conceptual design, we always consider context, and that context anchors the design. Within the context, you have historical influences, social and cultural influences, and the physical context, which are the climatic conditions, including the type of environment you are in – whether forest, desert, etc. – in addition to the topography of the landscape at hand.”

Graeme Labe, Principal and Managing Director, Luxury Frontiers

At Nekajui, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, a forthcoming immersive resort and rare collection of residences in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Region, our team collaborated with EDSA on the planning, siting, and detailed design and Luxury Frontiers on the experiential lodging types, to create immersive experiences for guests in one of the rarest corners of the world. The exotic sanctuary is in Costa Rica’s Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Honoring Costa Rica’s position as a prime ecotourism destination and one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, the site-sensitive design weaves tree-house type structures and tents alongside villas, with a light-on-land approach that allows the design to be guided by the natural, steep contours of the land.

The planning began with an in-depth survey of every tree on the property and a development constraints map detailing nature’s preservation, which informs the basis of the design. Heritage trees were protected and dictated where structures would be placed. Tagging significant trees can help ensure they are maintained or re-used and replanted when the remaining units have been built. One of the most significant challenges in preserving existing nature was working with a tremendously steep lot of land within Costa Rica. EDSA took painstaking care to locate the units alongside the hillside and create circulation amidst the pathways, carving out spaces as minimally as possible to prevent scarring the beauty of the hillside.

At Nekajui, designing with a “light-on-land” approach resulted in a project that winds organically from coastal bluffs down to the sandy beach, with a series of surprises for guests as they travel to and from destinations within the larger resort. A 150-foot-long pedestrian hanging rope bridge suspended over a 150-foot-deep tropical ravine teeming with wildlife offers incredible views of the ocean, and winding forest trails lead to tide pools, caves, and other points of interest to create memorable experiences for guests.

According to EDSA, being physically immersive with a hotel site and understanding the topography of a place is key to being stewards of the land.

“By carefully considering movement and circulation, designers can curate the guest experience in a natural, not overly orchestrated way. Understanding the slopes, contours, and naturally occurring patterns of the land helps designers imagine ways that people might move from one space to another while experiencing all the sensual aspects of a place.”

Ryan Clifton, Principal, EDSA


Fairmont Mayakoba

At another legacy project for EDSA, Fairmont Mayakoba, located on the Yucatan Peninsula on Riviera Maya, the landscape architecture and land planning firm began master planning at a time when mega resort-oriented developments reigned in Riviera Maya. While most resorts had been stacked on top of each other, EDSA took a different approach in creating an authentic experience that celebrates the cultural, historical, and environmental richness of the region. The master plan for phase one created five ultra-luxurious hotel sites, a championship golf course, residential neighborhoods, and a system of freshwater lagoons and canals, with deliberatively placed architecture set amidst a mangrove jungle.

The site at Mayakoba was nontraditional in not delivering a typical beach resort; rather than getting as much of the hotel and guest experience right up to the beach environment, the development was situated a few hundred meters off the beach, with a mangrove preserve prefacing the beach experience. The environmental plan centered on expanding a natural pattern of cenotes – caves and tunnels formed by the erosion of limestone rocks – to create a connected system of canals and lagoons that would both improve the structure and quality of the mangrove forest and create an environment of discovery and authentic immersion for guests. EDSA worked with local experts to map the existing, subterranean pools of water and to connect them to the surface in the most sensitive way. Native flora was carefully transplanted and grafted in special beds while a network of wooden walkways, narrow trails, and a series of lagoons accessible via water taxis, enable guests to explore the hotel while minimizing the human impact on the delicate ecology of the resort area.

Luxury Frontiers | Puku Ridge in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Luxury Frontiers | Puka Ridge 

Key to a “light-on-land” design approach is selecting durable products and locally sourced materials that have minimal carbon impact. Using what is tried and true in the region has positive implications for the environment and for the guest experience.  According to Ryan Clifton, Principal at the landscape architecture and land planning firm, EDSA, using a locally sourced material in different patterns and iterations can provide a rich, authentic experience that guests appreciate, leaving them with the impression that the hotel “was meant to be here.”

However, it is important to ensure that what is around you is a renewable resource.

“Most vernacular structures are fairly sustainable; you just have to be careful that you are not cutting down forests and destroying the environment to build a resort,” stated Labe.

As part of its mission to implement sustainable business practices, Luxury Frontiers is exploring the fastest growing plant on earth, bamboo, in its raw form, and natural bamboo architecture.

Luxury Frontiers has also been working to mitigate the use of concrete by tapping into the benefits of fabrics made with recycled plastics and treated with cementitious applications.

In revitalizing Puku Ridge in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, which was comprised of a lodge and eight suites, Luxury Frontiers removed 2,420 tons of old cement slabs and repurposed materials to achieve a lighter footprint. In addition to incorporating bamboo – a conscious alternative to timber – in the floors and decking at Puku Ridge, Luxury Frontiers leveraged MatCrete – an enhanced fiber-cement blend that when used with FlexBond (a non-hazardous latex based liquid admixture for cement plasters), CemForce (woven polypropylene fiber) and CemLam (woven polypropylene fiber extrusion laminate) can form a reinforced, vapor-proof product. Locally sourced within South Africa, these materials are durable, recyclable, non-hazardous, low-maintenance, and better for the environment.

Adding two-story observation towers at Puku Ridge, one for each of the eight guest suites on site, Luxury Frontiers topped a mosquito-net enclosed bed atop each tower which sits under a shaded canopy and can slide out into the open air for an optimal star-gazing experience. The towers – built of lightweight timber on Zambian timber columns with carbon-neutral composite bamboo flooring indoors and out – were wrapped in waterproof woven fiber canvas, creating an almost mud-like look to mimic the appearance of a clay grain store found throughout the African bush.

Authored by Matt Page, Vice President, and Associate Principal, SB Architects.

Originally created for and published on Hotel Executive as ‘Light-on-Land Approaches to Hotel Design.’

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