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How Architects Create Emotional Connections: Experiential Designs by three Raise the Bar

How Architects Create Emotional Connections: Experiential Designs by three Raise the Bar

DALLAS – “Architecture evokes emotion,” is the message and basis for the streak of successful architectural works created by the acclaimed firm three. By translating desirable feelings into architectural concepts, three has conceived and executed successful hotels, mixed-use buildings, and senior residences around the world, from Hotel Emma in San Antonio to an upcoming urban resort hotel at 8950 Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles to a luxury residential tower for active aging, Harbor’s Edge, which recently broke ground in Norfolk, Virginia.

“Feelings are real, and they are extremely relevant today for creating transformational architecture,” says Gary Koerner, AIA, founder and president of the Dallas-based firm and principal designer behind memorable, popular hotels and residences. “The designer’s job is to understand how environments make individuals feel, and to use those findings to engage the user in creating a relationship with the property.” As the award-winning architect has told clients and audiences, emotions provide the most important connections to whatever kind of property is under design.

Today, adds Koerner, feelings are much more important to offline, in-person experiences, in part due to the impacts of social media, user review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and other ways that building users can immediately post their emotional reactions to architecture and places. “For these reasons, authenticity and consistency of experience and aesthetics all matter more than ever,” says Koerner. Seminal examples include the Peninsula Beverly Hills, completed 28 years ago, which still evokes a timeless luxury experience – and offers a home away from home for so many guests because of its residential-scaled interior and exterior spaces.

To help client developers of hospitality, residential, and senior-care facilities develop strong architectural statements that elicit the right emotions, Koerner and three have devised a process that begins with design research, end-user profiling, and an in-depth client group engagement. Among the key features of the approach:

Start with words, not images. The firm three is known for its unique methodology that engages clients by helping them create a vocabulary reflecting their intended destination experience, which determines the desired feelings that the architectural expression and environment should promote. The deliverables go beyond mere mission statements and image clippings to define a set of words and descriptors of how their property and environments should feel. For example, stakeholders for a beachside resort development help list words which eventually inspire the arrival sequence, sensory attributes of the spaces, and how the indoor and outdoor experiences connect.

Employ a rigorous, research-based process. The client engagement model used by three has been tested and proven on scores of successful building projects. For a large spa designed for the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Hotel, for example, the client group described their vision for a “spa that would capture the guest’s interest and make them stay for an entire day,” rather than the few hours that is typical of a spa visit. With the clients, the architects at three helped craft a language and vocabulary for this enticing and comfortably alluring place, and built its floor plan, programming, and visual identity around the emotional language. With its indoor-outdoor connections, relationships of interior spaces and easy-to-access amenities like its rooftop pool, the project stakeholders created the strongest emotional ties with architecture.

As if to demonstrate its success, a USA Today reporter later wrote when profiling several spas in Scottsdale, “It was the only property I went to where I stayed there all day.” And at a recent Urban Land Institute (ULI) conference, the Scottsdale Princess project was offered by a ULI attendee as a case study of a spa “that is still relevant today.”

Set aside time and resources. According to Koerner, the design process is customized to the client, but a typical three project begins with a two-day design workshop and an extensive site analysis to fully assess the context and uniqueness of the location. “These two steps are essential for avoiding formulaic responses or falling back on dated hotel products, which we intentionally stay away from,” he says. “And it’s a successful discipline that has driven us to where we have none of the same products or projects out there. All of them are special, because they originate from the emotional underpinnings from the workshop overlaid on an understanding of its unique site, with the goal of allowing transformation for the guest or resident.”

Walkthrough and ask probing questions. Each project also undergoes a walk-and-talk survey, which brings together the transformational and visual requirements of the architecture. For example, at a recent walkthrough on Nevis in the Caribbean, three uncovered visual elements related to the island’s volcanic lava flows, and captured the emotional dimensions of how the hotel guests would relate to these natural organic forms, both indoors and outdoors.

Wash, rinse and repeat. The next step is critical: three’s ability to organize and prioritize the verbal feedback, refine the findings to its essence, and reflect the essential words and phrases back to the stakeholders. A simple word like “intimate,” for example, conjures different ideas depending on the beholder. Is it actually a sense of the romantic, or the homey, or the small scale of a place? In another instance, an operator of senior communities described its desired experience as “a cruise ship on land” – an idea that led to specific emotional concepts such as one’s sense of enjoyment, the notion of leaving the rest of the world behind, and of being in a special destination.

Synthesize the finding for concept design. “All this work helps us define a set of words that ultimately guide us as architects, along with the interior designers and landscape architect,” says Koerner. “Done well, the work shapes all the forms and materials and spaces that go into it.” In this phase, three encourages the development team to feel the experience in two and three dimensions, to walk through the experience using visualizations and sketches, and to put the stakeholders in the role of the guest or resident. “In essence we allow the client’s words to narrate, and we illustrate,” says Koerner.

By this phase, says Koerner, the project team is 98% of the way to a fully fleshed out design concept — with a real consensus on what was achieved. “The reason for this is that people really connect with the words that they’ve previously assigned to an idea, and while the words might evolve with the project, the connection remains,” he explains. “The frame of reference for our schematic design, and later design development, is what we defined in the emotional experience that residents and guests will have. We measure our design continually by always referring back to the words which ultimately drive the architecture.”

The firm three is also known for studying the results of its work. Using client research and post-occupancy surveys of residents, guests, and loyal visitors can help determine if the process fully captured the essential emotional connection.