As design and wellness become more and more intertwined – wellness real estate is now worth US$134bn and poised to grow to US$180bn by 2022 – it’s no wonder that there are more wellness features creeping into hospitality design. But what happens when an architect and a spa consultant fall in love and get married? Scott Lee, president and principal at SB Architects, and Tracy Lee, founder and president of TLee Spas, have worked together on award-winning projects around the world that bring the healing power of nature and the outdoors to guests seeking authenticity and immersion in a place. But whether they work together or separately on a project, their influence on each other is paramount, with each learning from the other, elevating the experience into something more holistic, as architecture and design increasingly incorporate wellness features, and wellness moves further and further outside of the spa.
The couple met in 2002, while working on Auberge Resorts’ Calistoga Ranch property in Napa Valley, California. Tracy – whose 20-year career in spa includes a stint as director of the famous Golden Door Spas in California – was Auberge’s VP of Spa at the time, and Scott was brought on as the architect for the project, which was faced with seemingly unsolvable challenges in the early days – not the least of which was that the land was zoned as a recreational vehicle park.
“At the outset, we set up a tent on the property beneath the oak trees,” says Scott. “And we spent a couple of days in this tent, talking about the ethos of the project, and what was going to make it special.” As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and the original tent meeting soon led to inspiration to create a series of pavilions nestled beneath the trees, on the lakeshore and in the vineyards. “We created an indoor/outdoor experience, where the exterior was as much a part of the hospitality offering as the interior,” explains Scott. “And that was kind of mind-expanding for a lot of us.”
The spa faced a similar challenge, and in order to meet the zoning requirements, needed to be created out of four small trailers – not exactly what comes to mind when you think luxury spa. Together, Tracy and Scott made clever use of outdoor spaces, creating a spa experience that includes tubs, showers, waiting areas, fireplaces, plunge pools and watsu pools – all set in covered outdoor areas, bringing the inside out, making the spa feel larger than its square footage, and creating a unique experience that’s since won numerous awards. “We wound up with this very outdoor, experiential spa that was like no other,” says Scott. “Calistoga Ranch was a pivotal project – for me personally and for the firm – largely due to a visionary client and their desire to do something different that had never been done before.”
The Lees were married soon after they finished the Calistoga Ranch project, and set to work designing their own home in Mill Valley, California, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The resulting LEED-Platinum certified Hillside House used many of the lessons Scott and Tracy learned at Calistoga Ranch – such as blurring the line between inside and out, immersing guests in nature, and the importance of capturing the essence of the place.
Both Calistoga Ranch and the Hillside House also set the stage for SB Architects to manoeuvre into more wellness-focused hospitality projects, and helped Scott to shape an approach that combines luxury accommodations and sophisticated design with an authentic connection to natural surroundings. Many of the firm’s hospitality projects bring in a focus on both nature and wellness, including the upcoming Conrad Playa Mita in Mexico, the brand new Amara resort in Cyprus, and the Mission Hills Volcanic Mineral Springs Hotel & Spa in Hainan Island, China.
Aside from Calistoga Ranch and Hillside House, Scott and Tracy have worked together on a handful of projects, including the Ritz-Carlton Reserve Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico and the Auberge Malliouhana in Anguilla, both of which feature wellness prominently.
“We design resort hotels, and wellness is an ever-growing and ever-evolving part of our business, which makes having a direct line to a wellness expert extremely helpful,” says Scott. “It’s influenced all of my sustainable spa and wellness projects.”
The intersection and overlap of their professional lives make both Scott and Tracy appreciative of what the other does – but not so much that it becomes routine, says Tracy. “Being married to Scott has given me a unique vantage point by which to understand the role that the designer plays, and how spa and wellness need to fit into the overall context of a concept, a project, or a master plan,” she says. “It’s made me more effective in my role – I’m able to effectively deliver what a design team needs from a spa consultant to achieve the client’s goals. As experts in our respective areas, we value one another’s experience and knowledge. We know and work with many of the same clients and consultants, and we both know what it takes to develop, design and build a hospitality project, giving us an appreciation and understanding of our day-to-day.”
For Scott, that day-to-day experience means arriving at the design process without preconceptions, and immersing himself into the local fabric and contextual framework before beginning to craft a compelling story.
At the Mission Hills Volcanic Mineral Springs and Spa in Hainan Island, China, for instance, the main spa structure takes its inspiration from the traditional Hakka Earthen Fortresses of Southern China. At a vast 215,000sq ft (19,974sq m) with 90 treatment suites, the spa’s dramatic circular structure is comprised of a soaring, semi-circular bamboo structure rising out of a massive circular base of local lava stone. A dramatic 800m raised walkway of bamboo – a local resource that grounds the design in the topography of Hainan Island – links the five spa zones, snaking through the spa grounds and resembling a dragon’s spine when viewed from the air.
“We focus on creating for the human experience,” says Scott. “We design to connect the guest to the place, allowing hotels to adapt to continually changing consumer tastes. Today’s traveller wants to feel like they’re part of the destination, not just an outsider – they want to immerse themselves in the history, culture, traditions and people. We draw creative inspiration from the local building vernacular and unique history of a destination to deliver an authentic, hyper-localised hospitality experience.”
Equinox Hotel Hudson Yards
Meanwhile, the line between hotels and wellness is growing increasingly blurred, perhaps nowhere more so than at the new Equinox Hotel at New York’s Hudson Yards, which opened in July. Known for its 135 cutting-edge fitness clubs around the world, Equinox’s move into the hospitality business has been closely watched across the spa, fitness and hospitality industries. Tracy worked on the spa concept and menu for the flagship hotel’s 27,000sq ft spa, collaborating with the experts at Equinox to create an experience that strongly differentiated the Equinox Hotel Spas from the Equinox Club Spas.
“Equinox Hotels is committed to ensuring that their spas are on equal footing with their core competency of fitness and lifestyle, and that every aspect of the spa experience is as carefully considered as their gyms,” she explains. “This is not a pampering spa, but a results-oriented experience that is focused on the best in bodywork and skincare with recovery, regeneration and mental wellbeing embedded throughout. When I travel, I want to stay in places that rank health and wellbeing at the same level of importance as all other hospitality elements. Equinox is doing just that.”
Scott, too, sees the way that wellness is growing in hospitality beyond the walls of spa. “Wellness in hospitality has evolved to now include physical areas of spa, fitness and pool, along with food and newer areas of sleep, mindfulness and physical environment, which means as designers, wellness needs to be at the forefront of all we do,” he says.
Holistic wellness design
SB Architects is also increasingly working on projects that bring wellness into the larger spheres of living and retail spaces, such as Heartwood Preserve in Nebraska, US, a billion-dollar project from Noddle Development slated to be an interconnected urban hub that integrates residential living into a busy commercial and retail setting. Over the next 15 years, the site will include more than a million square feet of commercial office space, a 300-bedroom hotel, over 500,000sq ft of retail and restaurants, a senior living facility, and upwards of 2,000 homes, ranging from multi-family apartments to estate houses. SB Architects was brought in to work on the development’s layout, and in its update to the master plan, broke the site into different experiences. Walkability and recreation are key – 100 acres of the 500-acre site will be dedicated green community space, such as parks, trails and recreation areas.
And at Santana Row in San Jose, California, SB Architects worked to replace a 1950s-era shopping mall with a densely designed, multi-storey mixed-use community. The project – which has won multiple awards – includes a large area of outdoor public space, including a media park lined with retail, restaurants and gathering spaces, including a farmer’s market.
So while in the past, Scott and Tracy’s worlds have intersected most often in hospitality projects, that’s quickly changing. “Now our multi-family residential projects are wanting to become more like hospitality, and Tracy’s spa world and my architecture world are becoming more tied to each other,” says Scott.
“We’re constantly co-creating whether it is in business, on our own home, or with our two young daughters. Looking through the lens of wellbeing and bringing a holistic approach to all of our projects is an integral part of our work.”