What are some of the most challenging aspects of integrating sustainability into architectural designs?
Usually it is the mindset of owners or operators rather than the actual design, as sustainable construction or interiors is not all that complicated. Often when people hear the word sustainable used in hotel design, they think $$$ rather than considering the many advantages of such a hotel. The designs we present are sustainable by design, as it is the way we work - and we don’t slap the word sustainable or green onto it at that point. Clients accept our proposal and budgets, and we gradually explain all the hidden sustainable aspects to the project, where beautiful design and green building work hand in hand - and they are just thrilled. In terms of the broader ideas such as hotels with a purpose, perhaps at first they are resistant but we chip away until they understand the importance of what we are doing. For example with my WorldWild project in China, we started off with a brief for a “zoo” which has now turned into a 700 hectare wildlife refuge north of Guangzhou to educate millions of Chinese on the value of Mother Nature. 85% of the land will be dedicated to naturalized wildlife environments and rescued animals, and just 15% to the 7 hotels and 2500 rooms. Journalists have called it a human zoo, which I find quite funny!
You have brought to life over 200 resorts, hotels, and palaces, how do you continue to have inspiration for new ideas and designs?
I find inspiration absolutely anywhere but most of all from where one would most least expect it. I am constantly reading, watching, listening, falling down unusual Wikipedia rabbit holes as I research people or places I come across. Often odd discoveries end up becoming the heart of a project - I just absolutely love stories, being a natural storyteller since I was young. In non-COVID times I try to travel three months a year for pleasure and inspiration - and I always go someplace new every year. That is still true this year, though not quite as long, as I have been discovering corners of Thailand unknown to me - up next is the far reaches of the Isaan province!
Having moved from the US to Bangkok when you first started your business, what’s one piece of advice you would give to young entrepreneurs who want to settle in a different country?
I am so glad I made that big leap across the Pacific to Asia in the early 1980s when hospitality development was in its infancy. I started my studios here in Bangkok and Bali young, and from the get go learnt to speak both languages – that helped a great deal to get ideas across and connect with people. Make the effort. Doors were opened easily and the opportunities to build were many, still are. My designer friends operating today in the USA tell me horror story of insane building codes, insurances, rules and regulations, and everybody suing everybody else to such a degree that it is hard to build anything nice. I have found that Asia, especially Thailand and Indonesia has given and given and given. To this day we maintain design ateliers in Bangkok and Bali. This is home!
Please share your final words for YHS. What was your key takeaway from the summit?
I was very impressed by how the students today are really caught up and so sophisticated when it comes to the nuances of how environmentalism overlaps with hospitality. It is wonderful to see and I look forward to working with them.