Monday, May 31, 2010

Spa architecture

The best architects in the world have at one point in time been asked to design a Spa. Stark, Putman, Garcia and Rochon, just to name a few, all have one thing in common: they are great architects! But they also have another thing in common: they do not know how to design a Spa! They can make them look nice, interesting, even spectacular, but in most cases NOT functional. That is why most of the Spas they have designed are not doing great! It is not their fault, but since they have no clue as to how a Spa operates, they rely upon their clients to tell them. This is where the problem resides: the clients don't know either and most of the consultants that are brought on board know how ONE type of Spa operates. Usually, they started by winging it as a Spa director or manager but do not necessarily have the know-how nor do they know if this particular type of Spa is the one that will be best for this particular project.

Architects have been told in school to obtain from the client the parameters of what they want in terms of utilization of space. With this information, the architect puts together a layout. So essentially that layout will only be as good as the person who identified it and this where the first problem resides. There are no schools to teach specific Spa design so it ends up being an exercise of plagiarism or simply put, let’s copy something that seems to work!

All the main hotel chains have compiled lists of technical parameters for Spa design. Where does this information come from? Usually a massage therapist, an aesthetician or perhaps a former Spa director! If you have any doubt about the lack of competency of these people in designing, change industry and imagine asking a busboy, a waiter or maitre’d to design a restaurant. Certainly they can have an input in the design but surely they do not have the expertise to cover all aspects of designing something which ultimately will have to be efficient in its management. So let us look at the most ridiculous examples of incompetence:

1.) None of the specs available distinguish the vast differences that there are between Spas. They would like you to think that there is only one type of Spa that fits all. The result: I have seen designs of Thermal Spas where there are no mineral or other springs! I have seen Thalassotherapy designs in the mountains hundreds of miles from the sea! I have seen fitness Spas where the clients patronizing the hotel are totally uninterested in physical exercise. I have seen medical Spas designs in Spas managed by high school drop outs that would not be able to perform a medical procedure even if their life depended on it.

2.) Most of the time the program does not identify the types of treatments that will be featured on the menu, but will tell the architect that they want 10 treatment rooms! Yet in fact, the number of treatment rooms is not really that important whereas the number of work stations really is! The result: it is like designing a restaurant indicating the number of seats in the dinning room but not what type of food will be served! No hotelier would ever do that, right? In F&B they would not and yet when it comes to Spas, they do that all the time!

3.) When it comes to the technical aspect of design, clients assume that the architects know. Yes, architects know about plumbing, A/C, ventilation, electricity, acoustics, etc., as it is applied to hotels, houses, office spaces and the like; but here again have no clue about how this applies to Spas. I have not seen a grease trap in any of their designs and in most Spas they are necessary. I have not seen one of the top architects make sure that the acoustic in treatment rooms block any sound above 35 decibels! In fact ignorance at that level is pathetic! For example, in Stark's design of the Spa at the Delano Hotel in Miami, treatment areas are separated by white curtains hanging from the ceiling. Sure, it looks great, but when one sneezes in these rooms, the entire Spa will yell “Gesundheit”!

4.) Not understanding the trends of the Spa world and more importantly not understanding how a Spa operates as a business is one of the most dramatic result of all this lack of knowledge. Most Spa designs use 50% sometimes more of the available space for locker rooms, when outside of gym-fitness type of Spas, clients prefers to changer and shower in the same room and not with other people! They have been told to separate dry and wet, the vestiges of the Thermal Spas of the past! Doing this will cost 30 to 40% more in operational cost and inconvenience guests by having them trek down corridors to go from one place to the other! And yes separating the services will save a couple thousand dollars in pipes, but will cost twice that much the first week of operation in linen washing expense! And by the way, locker rooms do not bring any income. So by increasing the size of treatment rooms by a portion of what would otherwise be allocated to locker rooms, one would have increased the revenue per square foot of the space.

5.) Many architects that are called upon to design Spas are often interior designers. Most are really good at decoration; some have their own signature on style and colors. For example, Putman's signature design is minimalist with a predominance of black and white. This might be great for a trendy restaurant, hotel or luxury shop; but not so great in a Spa as people who go to Spas react to the vibration of colors, not to the fashion design trends. Black and white do not stimulate the serenity and feelings of well-being that Spas try to create. So it may appeal to the onlooker, but it will make the Spa goer feel uncomfortable! What is more important?

6.) Controls are most important in any business and this is why the manager's office should be located where the Spa director will be able to see what is happening at the reception desk, not buried somewhere in the back!

I could go on and on; but rather than do this, I would like to invite those concerned to attend my seminar designed for architects, decorators and engineers interested in designing Spas in a logical way, which will be featured at the European Spa Summit in Paris during the Beyond Beauty show September 12 to 16 this year.


  1. Mr. Andrews....I found this entry to be spot on! I work in a large hotel/casino spa and I'm hit every day with examples of how designers "got it wrong." So often, operational and daily functions are not thought of in the design...for example: proper ventilation and drainage in a Vichy room (and what room is next to it); tubs that take 20 minutes to fill and/or drain (not to to clean them in between customers); small glass or ceramic sinks that look beautiful...but no one ever figured someone would have to be washing sets of stones for hot stone massage. It never ends! Thanks for your observations!

  2. Tend to agree! After several openings I've come to realize this all to clearly! Thanks! Serena Rogers - Nika Consulting Inc