Design tips for adaptive reuse hotel projects

WORLDWIDE The hotel industry today is facing an economic situation in which it does not make sense to construct new hotels in urban environments. Instead, existing hotels, office buildings and apartments are being reinvented and renovated into new boutique hotels. It can be difficult, however, to create a distinctive character in an existing building, as opposed to creating it from scratch. Eric Rahe, a principal at BLT Architects, Philadelphia, offers some suggestions for hotel developers considering adaptive reuse projects.

There needs to be some consideration of the building’s history, context and its community while still creating a modern, sophisticated guest experience. Creating character for a new hotel in an old building that sells room nights is possible if the designer takes into account five key components: authenticity, landscape, modernity, personalization and community.

Create an authentic experience

All buildings were designed to achieve something. In the case of adaptive reuse, that initial intention can be lost over years of renovations, new tenants and new owners. When a hotelier takes over one of these buildings, it can be rewarding to research and identify what the original owner and architect were trying to achieve. In some cases, the goals are still relevant and can be incorporated into the redesign and marketing efforts.

The most successful reuse efforts in the hospitality industry have put the tradition of the old building in the context of the modern guest experience. Inspiration comes from regional art, music, fashion, or natural or social resources. Spaces are created to guide the guests through the history of the building and its city without compromising their comfort. They become excited to have access to the building and to create a connection to the tradition of which they are now a part.

In practical application, hoteliers should invest in a signature space in the building where significant architectural detail remains, such as the lobby or a special large volume room like a former library or banking hall. Creating a gathering space, such as a lobby bar or cafe, that allows guests to experience the most significant architectural character of the building.

Connect to landscapes

Many times, the urban landscape around the building that is being renovated for a hotel has changed since it was originally constructed. The materials on the inside of an old bank building may not be at all reflective of the pulsing city streets outside its door. In creating character for a new hotel, it is important to harmonize materials to connect the indoor and outdoor spaces to each other.

If the street is interesting, it can be used as a design feature. Locate a restaurant or bar along the street and open these spaces to the sidewalk with terrace or rolling doors and, if allowed by zoning, allow seating to spill outside.

Creating a significant entry canopy that captures the architectural qualities of the building can also create a distinctive design character. It provides, through detail and lighting, a presence and energy on the street to welcome guests and signify they have arrived at a “destination.”

Focus on modern elegance

“Modern historical” is not a term often used, and with good reason. Too often, existing buildings repurposed for hotels are completely gutted and stripped, leaving only the external façade. Then all new materials, floor plans, and designs are forced into the space. This actually destroys character and can confuse and overwhelm the guest.


There are ways that modern elegance can be thoughtfully integrated into historical buildings without disrupting and disrespecting the existing character. Simplifying the design can create an easy, modern sophistication. Clean lines, open spaces and classic elements make room for both modern and historical features to coexist.


Historical artifacts and photos of the building or its urban landscape can be interesting, but are often overused. A strategically placed mural can have greater impact, especially when integrated with vertical circulation, allowing users to experience it from different perspectives.

Provide personal guest experiences

Providing guests with a unique hotel experience is always a challenge for any architect or designer. In adaptive reuse, it can be even more of a concern, as there must be balance between the building’s character and the personal experience. Smart designers may utilize art, video or music programmed for lobbies and guestrooms to achieve this goal. Dynamic features that can be changed without much time or expense can be integrated easily into spaces without sacrificing authenticity or sophistication.

In urban environments, hoteliers should also think about roofs as a public space. Guests like the opportunity for fresh air and sense of exclusivity. Bars, pools or fitness areas on roofs with adjacent outdoor terraces address this desire and often, thanks to the skyline of adjacent buildings or the city beyond, provide extra character at no charge.

Community relations important

Vibrant, urban hotel spaces require the involvement of guests, staff and local residents. Creating a hotel that welcomes the local community to rediscover a lost landmark anew can have a positive impact on the hotel’s overall character. People who know the building well re-embrace it as one of their favorite places to drink, dine and tell their out-of-town friends to stay.

New hotels in old buildings should be designed to actively engage the pedestrian. Street-level shopping, a sophisticated new restaurant, an open lobby with a lounge or a place for local events can bring energy and excitement to the hotel’s character.