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Adaptive Re-Use Of Historic Buildings As Boutique Hotels

Employee Perspective, Design, Luxury

Written by: Neil Paterson, RIBA, Lead Design Associate

The adaptive re-use and preservation of historic buildings can be an incredibly attractive component of any hospitality project. In boutique hotel design, a distinctively constructed historic building can be extremely viable for any number of reasons.  Besides its potential relevance to cultural, social, political, economic, archaeological, or architectural histories, the location and regional economics can also be critically important.

Historic buildings typically feature amazing architectural details that the development team may choose to highlight and restore rather than demolish and replace.   Examples might include stunning carved millwork, intricate metalwork, distinctive tiled flooring, and ethereal stained-glass windows.

During the demolition phase, these ornate details may unwittingly reveal themselves as they previously lay concealed for perhaps centuries behind walls or buried deep within layers of old carpeting.   Therefore, the preservationist’s design approach must be cohesive yet malleable enough to possibly take advantage of these hidden treasures for the final restoration.


As with any field of expertise, there can be many different approaches to architectural design and restoration. However, the initial design approach usually guides the success of the entire project through its various phases of development.   Therefore, before the development of an initial design approach can even begin, a thorough Investigation of the older building's viability as an appropriate and cost-effective re-use project must take place.  While every architectural restoration project is different, the initial investigative strategy remains relatively consistent and involves several factors of consideration.

  • Guest Experience – The adaptive re-use of older or historic buildings can provide a unique aesthetic environment for optimized guest experience. Its incorporation into a modernized architectural design can grant new public access to a structure of historic significance that otherwise might not be possible.

  • Preserving the Past for Future Generations – The physical reminders of the past in the form of buildings, neighborhoods, and monuments provide a strong connection to historical figures and events. These connections can raise the profile and the profitability of a hotel’s desirability as a destination getaway.

  • Location – Appropriate and suitable historic structures located in desirable locations are a perfect opportunity for must-see hospitality destination. Restoration opportunities can exist within the vibrant communities of inner cities to the sprawling landscapes of country dwellings and everything in between.

  • Sustainable and Environmental – When developers preserve and restore existing structures, these re-use architectural projects can easily result in new pieces of real estate having less environmental and socioeconomic impacts on the surrounding areas.

  • Economics and Revenue – The restoration, preservation, and re-use of historic structures for the hospitality industry creates a one-of-a-kind experience that guests will remember and recite to family and friends for the rest of their lives. In return, the boutique hotel enjoys increased revenues, an impressive brand name reputation, improved repeat business, and a consistently growing customer base.  In many cases, re-use opportunities can even pay for themselves due to tax breaks and other financial incentives offered by the local, state, and federal governments.

  • Cost Benefits – In some cases, the cost of new construction can be significantly less expensive than the restoration and refurbishment of an existing structure.  However, the enhanced intrinsic value of a professionally restored, older building along with its possible historic significance, unique aesthetics, and architectural details should not be overlooked.

  • Quality – There is little debate.  The quality of construction of historic structures far surpasses that of any similarly designed new construction project built today.  In fact, the costs of new construction containing the exact artisanry of the older property would far exceed the new building’s viability and profitability as a hospitality property.  In many circumstances, the artisan skills and trades required to complete such a detailed and ornate project are simply no longer available.

  • Regeneration – Renovation projects of older buildings can often act as catalysts for new real estate development, employment, and economic prosperity opportunities within surrounding communities.

  • Custodian – Opportunities will appear for the hospitality management and staff to interact and become recognized within the community as a positive influence.  Marketing opportunities to elevate the hotel brand or the specific destination location will also arise.  Meanwhile, the re-use and ongoing maintenance of these historic structures can result in the revival and promotion of previously outmoded skills and trades.


There are varying approaches to architectural design. Choosing the most effective design strategy will have direct effects – both positive and negative – on the shaping of the entire project. Regarding historic renovation specifically, the design approach and thought strategy depend on a variety of factors.  From the surrounding external environment to the functionality of the interior spaces and the unique aspects of a client’s vision, the development of an initial design approach should take into consideration four key factors.

  • Background and history

  • Site and surroundings

  • Program and Story

  • Design and placemaking

To expand upon and illustrate these four factors, the below discusses a recent historic restoration project in the majestic city of Tangier. The 5-star Tazi Palace Hotel is an authentic celebration of Morocco’s rich history and culture, but the development of its initial design approach was burdened with many challenges.

Factor #1: Background & History

Before even contemplating the possible refurbishment details of an older building, the development team must first understand the deep history of the structure and its context to the region. Every historic building has a story to tell. The highlighting of specially selected milestones in the building’s lifecycle can help bind the re-use design approach to the newly renovated project’s long-term functionality and relationship to the neighboring community.

  • When was the building originally constructed?

  • Who built it and why?

  • What unique features and history does the building possess?

  • What impacts did the structure have on the city?

  • How do the locals view and interact with the structure?

In the Tazi Palace case study, the original structure was constructed in the 1940s for a representative of the King of Morocco.  Perched atop a lush and heavily vegetated hillside, construction was temporarily halted with the commencement of World War II.   With a rich and mysterious history of behind-the-scenes palace intrigue, the build’s captivating backstory was delicately woven into the final design of the boutique hotel.

Factor #2: Site & Surroundings

Before finalizing the initial design approach, consider visiting the site and its surrounding community.   Inspect any secondary structures while searching for more clues into the property’s heritage and history.  For added inspiration, perhaps consider some friendly interactions with some of the locals.

Regarding the site plan, understand the physical context of the buildings and their locations.  Document all access points, unique design opportunities, utility services connections, and relationships to the surrounding areas, neighborhoods, and regions.   Document and understand all opportunities, stress points, capacities of both the site and any secondary structures. Verify.  Reverify. And take pictures.

In the Tazi Palace case study, the historic property boasts a prominent location with spectacular views spanning the city of Tangiers to the Mediterranean Sea beyond.  The main palace structures are located atop steep terrain overlooking abandoned terraced gardens with mature and lush vegetation.

OBMI’s analysis of the existing site layout and buildings locations confirmed that new efficient structures could be designed and constructed around a boutique hotel program highlighted by the impressive garden and terraces. The most important determination for this phase of the initial design approach was that the existing palace should be at the public center of the completed hotel.

Factor #3: Program & Story

The third crucial factor for the development of an initial design approach is the incorporation of certain aspects of the property’s “good old days” without detracting from the modernization strategy for today’s discerning guest.  Analyze and better understand how the client’s amenities and design requirements can generate a program that accommodates a delicate balance of appropriate uses in both the old and new areas.  Develop a story from the building’s history and surroundings that brings the old and new together in an authentic way.

In the Tazi Palace case study, the government placed the property on the market specifically for the future development of a tourist hospitality destination.  A program was quickly developed from the early concepts that combined the amenities and extravagances of a luxury hotel with a strong desire to preserve the integrity of the historic palace.  The story of the design that ultimately emerged was clear: to create an incredible guest experience celebrating the exotic mystery and culture of Morocco with a contemporary, modern twist and sprinkled with a little of the intrigue of early 20th Century Tangier.

Factor #4: Design & Placemaking

Use the original strengths of the historic buildings and structures to develop a revised plan arrangement and sequence of spaces that feel logical and natural.  The proportions of the site, building plans, and facades will be a clue as to how best to form the new building massing and architecture.

  • Distribute the functionality of the plan program areas into the proper locations within the old and new structures.

  • Decide which features of the historic design must remain.  There may be several opinions as to which features are most worth saving.  So, the design team in coordination with the client should be open to compromise between functionality and preservation.

  • Consult and build a team of experts to achieve the best-balanced design solution.

  • Use a sensitive approach when resolving physical interventions between modernized hospitality features and old construction.

  • And finally, remember that the formulation of great solutions regarding the balancing of old and new architecture often requires genuine innovation.  Do not be afraid to think outside the box.

In the Tazi Palace case study, a primary emphasis for the artistic blending of the old with the new focused on the exterior spaces and common areas of the re-imagined property.  The steep terrain and its abandoned terraced gardens provided opportunities for the construction of a state-of-the-art restaurant complete with outdoor dining.  The addition of the Tazi Palace pool pavilion with mirrored and tiled mosaic walls provides a modern flair but with a respective nod to the ancient Moroccan culture.  And spacious sundecks stepping down the rural gardens of mature trees and nature trails amid breathtaking views of both city and sea also creates an allure of inspirational awe and opulence.

Developers and preservationists of historic architecture love the challenge of bringing beautiful, old relics back to life. The intricate detective work required on the front-end to learn about the property’s shadowy past combined with its unique architectural elements allows for a renovation that creates a new life story for the structure and the neighboring community. With the proper research and design approach, historic properties can easily be transformed into lovely getaway destinations that hotel guests from around the world can enjoy for generations to come.