Purcell Associate, Raymond Higgins, discusses how to increase accessibility in hotels and the measures that our team implemented to ensure our design of the Presidential Suites in Mandarin Oriental Hotel, in Hyde Park, London, are fully accessible without compromising on luxury and quality.

Accessibility can be viewed as the ability to access. The concept focuses on enabling access for people with disabilities or special needs or enabling access through the use of technology. Ultimately, I believe that it provides benefits to everyone.

People use hotels for many reasons, short breaks away, conferences, meetings and also for longer periods. These buildings must be fully accessible — not just through the main entrance — but throughout the various parts of the hotel (including guest rooms). When designing hotels, we need to ask ourselves: does it allow access for everyone?

As an architect delivering hospitality projects for international luxury hotels, accessibility is something I’m passionate about. In 2018, I, along with three members of my team at Purcell, was honoured to be presented with a RIBA ‘Bespoke Access Award’ at the Houses of Parliament in London.

Our design focused on crafting more accessible experiences in hotel design; from entering the building, throughout all public spaces and until you reach your room. This was a particularly important award for me as I have been a volunteer for the annual Irish Franciscan pilgrimage to Lourdes for the past 25 years, where we provide respite care for around 100 sick, disabled and elderly guests.

Many of the projects we work on at Purcell are located within a historic setting and occupy buildings that are listed. These buildings are physical survivors of our past and are protected not for their own sake but for our benefit and that of the generations who will succeed us. Understanding the significance of a building is a vital first step in thinking about how much it can be changed. In most cases, access can be improved without compromising the special interest of historic buildings.

The hierarchy of spaces is important. Direct connections between the reception, entrance, toilets and vertical distribution are key and need to be easy for individuals to orientate themselves. Often, we have the opportunity to relocate toilets which are positioned on inaccessible levels or to add a new lift, which provides that missing link. If we can make the ‘triangle’ of connections more direct, that’s a huge improvement in spatial planning and how people experience a hotel. Hoteliers should regard these improvements as an advantage that might open its doors to a whole new range of guests.

Often, in guestroom design within historic contexts, the spatial arrangement might not allow for wheelchair access or be equipped with user-friendly furniture. When hotels start to think about renovating, as architects we can consider how to alter the historic fabric sensitively, allowing for a wider group of users to be able to experience the same offer by providing different variations of fully accessible rooms, catering to specific needs, while balancing the need to minimise harm to the fabric.

Hotels are also workplaces and many times there is an opportunity to improve the condition so that employees’ needs are catered, creating a more inclusive environment. It is important to have an understanding of the people working within the hotel and how they feel about their working environment. We must cater to their abilities and acknowledge how they work. Special planning of Back of House spaces is as critical as Front of House.

When choosing a hotel, guests will use the internet, reviews or Google Maps to assist in understanding the environment before they decide to stay. People with a disability don’t want to feel like they’re being treated differently, and they should get the same experience as everyone else. Many historic assets have stepped access to the main entrance and changing or altering the building isn’t necessarily acceptable from a conservation perspective. Instead, we have to be innovative in the way we allow access, and there needs to be a plan of action for when a person arrives. This includes when they arrive by different modes of transport, how they approach the hotel, how they get inside the building, and how they move throughout the space internally.

When it comes to existing historic buildings, we sometimes have limited options in introducing new finishes, but there are simple and affordable solutions that can make a positive impact; placing a new soft floor cover over an existing stone floor so it is easier for people to walk can make a great improvement. Introducing seating, so people can sit down if they’re finding a corridor too long; Upgrading the lighting to improve brightness or adding extra signage so it's easier for people to navigate through the building and easily decipher where key facilities are located, are additional solutions that are easy to deliver.

As Project Architect (2014 – 2018) for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Hyde Park, London refurbishment project. I appreciate any intervention on a century old building brings with it challenges. As part of the project, the public areas and welfare facilities went through massive alterations, affecting structure and services. The outcome is a significant increase in fully accessible guest areas, carefully designed to maximise the user experience and transform these spaces into contemporary and luxurious environments. Purcell also created two new Presidential Suites directly overlooking Hyde Park that were created by extending the 9th floor supplementing the existing luxury suites favoured by European Royalty and Heads of State. The Mandarin Penthouse and the Oriental Penthouse can be interconnected to create one of London’s largest fully accessible suites with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a private dining room, two kitchens, and expansive views of Hyde Park and the London skyline.

Within the hospitality sector, we must go above and beyond current regulations when it comes to improving accessibility within hotel environments. Yes, we can respect the building, but we can also upgrade to cater for the wide range of guest needs without significantly damaging the historic structure. As an architect, I will continue to push boundaries and make sure that I can make a difference in every way I can.

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