Hospitality Case Study: Ah, Wilderness!

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By Heidi Schwartzhospitality facility management construction
Published in the November 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

With longer work days, wireless intrusions, and daily challenges,many people wonder if it’s really possible to escape from the stresses of the modern age. But with nearly every job comes the promise of vacation—an institution that, in the minds of some, is worth elevating to mythic proportions.

Today, vacationers expect nothing less than an ideal retreat, which is one of the reasons why buildings in the hospitality sector are scrutinized with an intense degree of criticism. On call 24/7/365, successful facility professionals in this industry must be borderline perfectionists in order to satisfy their guests’ needs.

But in the small Vancouver Island town of Tofino, BC, the new Wickaninnish Inn on the Beach serves as reassurance. Ranked as one of the top hotels in the world, the Wick is an idyllic resort that delivers everything possible to the weary guest in search of relaxation.

Into The Woods

In 1955, the young Dr. Howard McDiarmid discovered Tofino and fell in love with it. Recognizing the potential appeal of the area, he moved his family there and later purchased property on what he deemed the most beautiful beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Despite the fact there was no connecting road until 1959, Dr. McDiarmid felt the unspoiled place would one day be extremely desirable. “His idea was that he’d build a motel here one day,” recalls Charles McDiarmid,current managing director of the inn and son of its founder.

For decades, the elder McDiarmid talked about the motel but struggled to achieve the support he desired. “People responded by asking, ‘Why would anybody want to go to Tofino?’ Getting people interested in the area was a challenge,” the younger McDiarmid admits.

After several years in the upscale resort and hotel industry, he convinced his father and family to consider grander terms for the Tofino property. “I wasn’t really interested in leaving the Four Seasons if we were just going to build a motel, but if we could create a Relais & Chateaux property, that would be an interesting commitment. So we made the decision to build a high end restaurant anda full service facility rather than a motel,” he says.

In the early 1990s, the groundwork for Wickaninnish on the Pointe was in place. In 1995, McDiarmid permanently moved to Tofino at the start ofthe site preparation phase. “We spent many years looking at this site,which was totally rugged. We checked where we thought rough building heights should be, and that meant climbing up trees to get a truersense. We scoped out the winter storm season to see how far the waves came up, to determine how close we could build to the water’s edge,” he recalls.

Construction began on September 26, 1995, and the Pointe opened onAugust 9, 1996. McDiarmid notes, “Having lived in Tofino for many years, our family was committed to ensuring our guests would feel, from the moment they arrived, that the Wickaninnish Inn was a destination with its own lexicon of design values. The predominant themes came straight from our immediate natural environment. The site, located at the edge of a rock promontory, overlooks the open ocean with a stunning backdrop of an old growth temperate rainforest. Hence, the overarching design theme of ‘Rustic Elegance on Nature’s Edge’ was born,” he says with pride.

Although there was very little in the area, McDiarmid’s efforts essentially put Tofino on the map, particularly in international terms.His vision and perseverance opened the area to a new form of unspoiled, yet sophisticated tourism.

“We went through many years of solid business and growth,” he explains. “We ran for many years at very high occupancy levels, which allowed us to buy out our partners, with the help of the Royal Bank.”

The Last Resort

In 2002, the McDiarmid family began development immediately adjacent to the original building right on nearby Chesterman Beach, christened Wickaninnish on the Beach. McDiarmid notes that this second phase was “anticipated as part of our planning process, even back when the Pointe building was still being developed on paper.”

He continues, “When we started moving forward with the second phase, it was very important for us that it not just be slapped together. We didn’t want it to capitalize on the success of the original building without equaling or surpassing the quality of it in some way. After all, the beach building had always been part of our long-term plan, so we had this corner of the beach in mind from day one.”

According to Architect Robert King of Toronto, ON-based Young +Wright Architects, “The site for the beach property was selected based on its views from the building. Richard Young (director in charge at Young + Wright) had access to tidal maps to help us select the ideal location on the site. In addition to traditional architectural services, our firm specializes in site evaluation and analysis of site topography. You may wonder how many people recognize the importance of this trait, but we often hear comments suggesting that we couldn’t have located this building better.”

One essential part of the location was the emphasis on site preservation. “We wanted to create the least amount of impact on the existing natural surroundings. The crews only excavated four feet beyond the foundation all the way around. It was a very tight excavation. Most of the large trees were left undisturbed when they actually excavated the site for this building. We had to cut down two old growth trees when we cleared the site, but they were incorporated into the construction of the building. It was pretty incredible,” King says. The two Sitka spruce trees felled to make way for the building were sawn into 12′x12′ timbers and dried on site until they could be used as part of the interior public space finishes.

Construction Setbacks

Planning and excavation for Phase Two initially moved at a rapid pace. But the remote location of the property made it surprisingly difficult to bring certain materials to the site. At times, it was even a challenge to acquire some items at all.

King explains, “Our structural engineer specified fly ash in the concrete, and we found out later that it was next to impossible to get it on the island. Fly ash is something you want in a structure if it’s close to salt water. We found out it would have to be imported from Vancouver, which could potentially create all kinds of delays.” Eventually the issue was resolved, but others cropped up to challenge the team.

“Early on, we checked into the water requirements for the site, so we’d know what we were obligated to do,” recalls McDiarmid. “Initially, I was told everything was fine. But later, representatives from the district of Tofino’s municipal offices decided that changes had to be made. So instead of calling, they waited until we went in for the development permit. Then they said, ‘Now you’ve got to build a 10″ water line all the way out from the main highway, a distance of roughly 750 meters.’This was much longer and more expensive than the original requirements suggested. It was a big shock.”

Weather also created numerous obstacles for the project. In the summer, when the weather was agreeable, construction on the beach site would disturb guests at the Pointe building during its busiest season.So work began in the fall, the region’s rainiest time of year. Kingsays, “When it pours rain there, it doesn’t stop. That introduced a degree of hazard to the project. The biggest challenge was getting the roof on to keep the water out. At that stage, we had to struggle to get the building to dry out enough to start getting finishes on. It was so very unpredictable.”

The Ultimate Team

Despite the numerous challenges, work on the beach property moved along at an impressive pace. The new facility opened roughly 10 1⁄2 months after construction began. Driven by McDiarmid’s decisive direction, each element of the project was carefully scrutinized until the results met with his satisfaction.

Called “the ultimate facility manager” by King, McDiarmid was “hands on with everything and knows his building inside and out. I’ve never worked with such an involved client before.”

With each strategic equipment decision, McDiarmid would ask, what’s the reason? Where’s the name? How does it get fixed? Who should I call to fix it? King says, “He wanted to know every piece of the puzzle. For instance, they have power outages on a regular basis, which means his diesel generator has to kick in so he can continue service to his guests. He is very in tune with the operation of his building. He even cares what the linens on the beds are.”

As a graduate of the Cornell hotel school, McDiarmid was required to take design and construction courses along with his more traditional hospitality classes.

“I always enjoyed the drafting and construction component,” he explains, “so I took a special interest in it. Even though I’m not professionally trained in that area, I would take my knowledge, approach it from a customer’s perspective, and share my opinions. I’ve worked in many hotels, so I’ve seen a lot of things that are successful and others that don’t work from a practical perspective. In working with the professionals on the beach building (and I had the best), I challenged them. If I thought something wasn’t right, I’d ask for an explanation or rationale. If they could give me a good reason, then I was fine with it. If they couldn’t, then I’d say, ‘Let’s find a better solution.’”

King feels the team effort was really unusual. “The client’s interest was a huge surprise, but it was a great pleasure to have someone so involved. The interior designers [BBA Design Consultants, Inc. led by Sharon Bortolotto] should also be given credit. They brought some incredible ideas to the interiors. I especially enjoyed being closely involved with them, and they commented, ‘We don’t usually work as closely with the architects.’ We all had a common interest, though. We all wanted to make it a big success, so we put the extra time into it.”

While there were a few heated discussions, McDiarmid willingly acknowledges the need for expertise provided by the professional designers and architects. “If I were the one who made the ultimate decision on everything in terms of design, it wouldn’t be what it is,” he humbly admits. “It was the great communication between all parties that made the project so successful. We often found ourselves embracing an even better solution than either party initially thought of in instances like this. That’s what allowed us to achieve the best solution possible from a building perspective—and from a guest and staff perspective too. A skilled team can look through obvious mistakes and explain things in a way that makes sense. The professionals add tremendous value and make sure you don’t make dumb mistakes, because they’ve been through this kind of thing many times. That’s the sign of a good team. When everyone works together, you get the best results.”

He describes the collaborative effort as one where everyone sat down to review the details rather than rush the process. “We wanted to test everything rather than just accept it without question. It’s not that you want to be gratuitously critical of everything, but you only get one chance to build something, and it’s very expensive to tear it all down and start over.”

Fantastic Finishes

Another one of McDiarmid’s favorite topics was product selection. From the previously mentioned old growth spruce to the cotton swab dispensers, many elements were selected for their respect of nature and the preservation of materials.

Cornices, baseboards, and mouldings throughout were made of reclaimed, remilled timber from old area buildings; small black marks remain where nails were removed. In the lobby, a massive stone fireplace was made from rock saved from the site excavation. Gigantic pieces of driftwood were converted into countertops and mantles. Stair spindles were made from alder branches.

King explains, “We designed five loft suites that are two stories,and for the staircases in these, the actual balustrade is a branch from a tree. It’s unusual, because it still has the bark on it. If you look at the tread and riser design, it has a triangle cut out on the stringer. The way the stairs fasten into that is a local artisan’s design inspired from a first nation’s stairway he had seen. There are many pieces made by somewhat reclusive artisans.”

In fact, most of the people who worked on the project were local. “Some were imported for installing drywall and laying carpet, but when it came to the finish work, it’s quite spectacular. We have to give the owner kudos for that, because he has lived in the area for many years, and he knows the locals. We wouldn’t have found those people otherwise, and he’s the one who wants to keep the community vibrant,” King notes.“The new building is essentially a showcase for local artisans,” he adds.

“We tried to make everything indigenous to the local area, using many different artists. We wanted to find something interesting for them to do. This gets into not just the architectural finishes, but also the things used every day. Think about those acrylic containers typically used for puffs and swabs. We went out on the island and found a potter who’d throw porcelain, custom made containers just for us. We tried to find a distinct solution in terms of the type of product that was used. Some people would think, ‘No one will notice that level of detail,’ but I follow the philosophy, both from a service and product perspective, that somebody’s stay at the inn is only a 60% to 70% conscious experience; the rest is subconscious. So even though you might not initially notice some of the fine details, you do notice it subconsciously. And in those instances when a guest is a master woodworker, he’d look at the cabinets and say, ‘The wood and the woodwork are fantastic!’ He would notice that level of detail. There is something for everyone. We did this because it creates the opportunity for small moments of magic for those who recognize the level of detail.”

The exterior architecture is somewhat toned down to focus attention on the surroundings rather than the building itself. The subdued facade was made entirely from cedar facing, so it would eventually blend back into the forest when the color of the wood mellowed.

The Sustainable Message

Becauseof its respect for the environment, the beach building was a natural candidate for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. “The most important element was the use of natural materials,” says King. “Wool carpet, wood throughout (much of it recycled)—even the generator is a recycled one. We have acoustic flooring that’s recycled rubber. At every step, we did our best to recycle whatever we could and use natural materials. That was one of McDiarmid’s requirements from day one. He said, ‘I want to incorporate as many LEED standards as possible,’ although time constraints didn’t allow us to go for official certification. You really have to do your homework prior to construction and apply ahead of time. By the time he secured his financing, it wouldn’t work for us. On top of that, the paperwork is overbearing. It’s difficult for some facility managers to get beyond that. Some never do.”

Still, the beach building optimizes resources whenever and wherever possible. In the guest rooms, southerly windows take maximum advantage of the winter sun. Deep overhangs attenuate summer heat and glare. Windows on the north side are smaller to reduce heat loss in winter. Abundant operable windows encourage natural ventilation, reducing the need for air conditioning.

Still, McDiarmid regrets his decision to go the traditional HVAC route instead of using a hydrothermal heating system. He says, “There just wasn’t that much knowledge at the time with our mechanical contractor, but given the high price of energy these days, it would probably have been something that I would prefer to do. It’s also ecologically preferred, but there are very high up front costs.”

Beauty And The Beach

Completedin July 2003, some aspects of the beach building are still being refined. McDiarmid plans to install fire rated glass to replace the industrial looking windows currently in his fire doors. There are also exit sign upgrades underway, but these are minor adjustments that will be easy enough to undertake.

Built on details like this, the new hotel has enjoyed smashing success. In honor of the views from the windows of the Wick’s guestsuites, Manager McDiarmid even created a new spectator sport for the off season—storm watching!

Instead of flocking to the warmth of an exotic beach in the dead of winter, guests now converge on the Wick to experience the drama of bad weather. And thanks to McDiarmid’s Herculean efforts, the Wick lives up to their grandest expectations.

This article was based on interviews with King ([email protected]) and McDiarmid ([email protected]). For more information on the architects, visit www.ywarch.ca; for more on the inn, visit www.wickinn.com.

 

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