BOSTON—For Elizabeth Lowrey, principal and director of interior architecture at Elkus Manfredi Architects, you could say design is part of her DNA. Her parents are both artists and designers and, as a result, she grew up surrounded by various forms of design. An interest in how people interact with the world led her to study interior architecture at Auburn University.
Fast forward to today, Lowrey’s career is focused on “helping people make connections, be healthy, feel good, dream big, be proud and feel special.” She sees each new environment as a new opportunity. “It’s about the emotions that come from the users, whether they are guests in a hotel or the people who go to work there every day. It’s not about a trend or a style,” she said.
For hospitality clients, Lowrey has conjured up a distinctive approach to design—“co-creation”—a process adapted from the firm’s work designing workplaces. Essentially, co-creation enlists the users of the space from the beginning of the design process as creative partners.
“We’ve had great success using our co-creation approach because it engages the end users as partners throughout the design process,” said Lowrey. “We create a deep and ongoing dialogue with all the users—employees, business partners, executives, developers and, in the case of hotels, potential guests—to find out how they use a space, what technology they want and how they want to feel. The payoff is a design that really works for everyone who enters that hotel or retail store or restaurant or workplace.”
Employees offer valuable insight as they’re the “experts” in the real-world experience of a venue, explained Lowrey.
“Whenever a guest is delighted or unhappy with their experience, frontline staff hear about it in detail,” she said. “They observe behaviors like where guests linger or how easy it is to cross a lobby with rollaway luggage. Employee insight is just as important as creative genius to successful hospitality design, and maybe more so. If you ask employees the right questions, in the right way, they will tell you lots of stories. And, great design is all about the narrative of a place.”
As a result of this collaborative effort, Lowrey has found that the process has furthered relationships among hotel owners, employees and their guests. “It results in great design and great loyalty, because everyone feels they have been heard, that their voices matter. Co-creation makes design relevant to everyone who has contributed,” she said.
The act of co-creation is also aligned with Lowrey’s own design philosophy where she sees a space as a backdrop for an experience. “Design begins and ends with the experience of the guests, the users, the employees,” she said. “It’s not about one style of architecture but about the quality of the environment, the daylight, the air, the materials you see and touch, the acoustics. It’s also a narrative, that is, the storytelling of the space that creates memories. Those might be memories of having a successful business meeting within the conference center or having proposed to your significant other in a beautiful venue or taken a joyful vacation with your children. They feel positive in the moment and later, the memory feels positive, too. By making those memories, delighting customers and creating wonderful experiences, a hotel distinguishes itself in ways much more powerful than it could by spending just marketing dollars.”
Among the firm’s recent projects are The Verb in Boston; Linq in Las Vegas; and Aloft and Element in the Boston Seaport. “Here’s a specific example of the new approach: At Linq, we spoke to desk staff about the problem of crowded check-in spaces and long lines that felt more like a TSA checkpoint than a fun destination,” she said. “The design solution evolved to blend and blur the lines between activities. Responding to their input, we designed the lobby to be an elegant, hip ‘living room,’ with curved stadium seating and recessed banquettes at a bar.”
Every hotel brand appears to be looking ahead to the “guestroom of the future” and emphasizing guest experiences. Elkus Manfredi Architects is helping to create hotel projects that are useful now and beyond.
“Make it intuitive and easy for the guest to settle in. That includes thinking how to integrate user-friendly technologies like thermostats or security. We think about what carpet will feel great when you take off your shoes, and what stone and lighting combination in the bathroom will make you look beautiful. Those experiences drive our decisions more than choosing this year’s trendy color or lighting style,” she said. “On a very practical level, we’ve learned not to embed technology, but design in a way that allows for inexpensive updating. You design for evolution, not for a moment in time, because technology and the way we use it changes so quickly. You also have to be proactive on environmental considerations and understand that the building codes are only going to become more stringent. We also have exhaustive upfront conversations with clients about how they want to invest for the future… We strive to understand the business model and the guest aspirations.”