Q&A with Studio Moren’s head of sustainability, Bryan Oknyansky 

by: Felicity Cousins | July 24, 2023

Studio Moren is an award-winning practice of 70 architecture and interior design specialists, working across the hospitality spectrum. Sustainable Hotel News asked Bryan Oknyansky, head of sustainability at Studio Moren, about building materials, how building technology can help with ESG, if all hotels should embrace passive house, and how the hotel sector can work with architects for a sustainable future.

Where do you get your inspiration when designing a sustainable building?

BO: To design a sustainable building, I usually start with user experience, because you can design the most technologically sustainable building in the world and it would be all for nought if the building occupants don’t like being in the building. Of course, I do this having knowledge through training, experience and research about passive and active architectural strategies for making sustainable buildings. My inspiration ultimately comes from a combination of the climatic and geographical conditions of a given site, and collaborative discussions with clients and design teams to see how we can create amazing spaces using fewer natural and synthetic resources.

Is the hotel sector behind when it comes to sustainable architecture and design?

BO: Generally speaking, I would venture a guess that most hotels operating today were built before the 1990s and I highlight this because improving these older buildings at scale to meet modern energy efficiency regulations is a frontier the built environment is still at the start of exploring. If we focus on new design and construction, though, I believe the hotel sector has been an early adopter of having discussions around sustainable architecture given their intense resource use and waste generation, even if ostensibly to save costs rather than actioning a sustainability agenda. Low-flow fixtures, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, carpets and worktops made of recycled plastic, converting biowaste into energy and on-site energy generation with PV panels are features that have been conventional for a while now. Ultimately, I think the hotel sector is currently well-placed to make meaningful strides toward a net zero carbon future.

A hotel can still be sustainable without being LEED or BREEAM certified – do you think there needs to be more alignment across the hotel sector to ensure 2030 and 2050 targets are achieved? How will that happen?

BO: That’s a good point – sustainable architecture and design, more simply put, are functions of best practice and joined-up thinking rather than technological bells and whistles or accreditations. The hotel sector is made up of small and large players, domestic and international, and there will naturally be differing orders of priorities and action plans across this spectrum. I believe there is an alignment across the hotel sector, though, that more can be done to ensure less can be used in creating successful guest experiences. Where there could be greater alignment, however, is in agreeing to pursue 2030 and 2050 targets independently from relying on local and national governments to offer clarity, certainty and leadership on the matter.

What are developers asking of you when it comes to sustainable hotel design?

BO: More and more developers are either demonstrating an awareness of emerging sustainable principles in hotel design, such as modelling a hotel’s carbon and water footprints up to construction and throughout its service life before breaking ground, or have working corporate strategies that manifest in development briefs. At least in the UK, BREEAM accreditation has become almost a de facto requirement. Sourcing locally and greater vetting of supply chains is showing up more in our briefs. The specification of heat pump systems for heating and cooling are more increasingly looked at during the concept stage. And beyond any specific measure or initiative, developers are looking to us to guide them through the evolving landscape of climate action and building regulation from stage 0.

How does technology like BIM help with ESG reporting?

BO: BIM means “Building Information Modelling”, so it’s all about the building. The “M” in BIM is also sometimes referred to as “Management” when it forms part of a building monitoring and maintenance strategy. So it can be very beneficial to the type of ESG reporting that relates to embodied and operational carbon, energy efficiency and whether any materials negatively impact indoor air quality, for example. Actually, come to think of it, with greater pressure on the social aspect of supply chains captured by the “S” in ESG, BIM could facilitate information, such as where a material was manufactured and whether there are any associated environmental and social declarations or certificates. So now we have to see if it can somehow help with the “G” in any way!

What’s the most iconic sustainable building you know, which the hotel sector could learn from?

BO: This is a difficult question to answer. I feel iconic buildings are usually considered iconic because of how they appear, whereas a sustainable building, on one level, can come down to construction details that are easier to build and require less materials, which the public will never have sight of. So, to not leave you hanging, I’ll say that the hotel sector can learn from buildings that champion the occupants’ experience and comfort through passive architectural solutions for reducing energy and resource use, allow views out while controlling solar gain, compels people to visit through an admiration of the design, isn’t considered sustainable just because they planted trees somewhere off-site and, finally, shares in-use data to prove the buildings perform as declared. Hopefully this points you to the right icons!

Should all new buildings focus on the passive house concept and is this difficult for the hotel sector to achieve?

BO: I’m glad you’re bringing up passive house as it’s something I champion and effectively what I just described in my last answer! I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes, and I’ll tell you why. The passive house approach asks what people need to be comfortable in a space throughout the year – whether it’s a home, office, hotel, leisure centre or hospital, for example – without relying on heating and cooling, and then says the building should be designed in a way where the building envelope ensures this. That’s it. That’s all it says. It is style-agnostic and generally solution-agnostic. What it does require is a more in-depth analysis of the design and construction of buildings to comply with the certification standards throughout the design and construction process. I find that this is currently the predominant hang-up over passive house as people perceive this to mean there is a cost premium to passive house. Make no mistake, if you decide to do go passive house at tender stage, you’re in for a shock. So best to begin the passive house journey at stage 0. Now, passive house can be difficult for hotels of a certain size because of how much heat the building services generate, which means a big part of the services design is about how you either get rid of the heat or re-use it elsewhere in the building to reduce the need for guests to want to turn the A/C on. And this highlights what I find in my experience, that a lot around passive house depends on a high standard of building services design in tandem with a high standard of build quality overall. So, in short, all building projects from now on should aspire to passive house standards, or their equivalent refurb standard, for reducing operational carbon emissions over a building’s lifetime.

There is a new building material “hempcrete” which uses hemp plant matter instead of concrete. Do you consider hemp to be a good option when it comes to sustainable building materials? 

BO: It’s said to be very sustainable. Simply put, if you can find a material that can do what concrete does, but with a lower embodied carbon, you should. Hempcrete looks amazing because it can perform like concrete, it’s a better insulator and it sequesters CO2 like wood does. When anything in construction is novel, though, we have to tread carefully so we ensure the material can meet building regulations, satisfy insurers, and that it wouldn’t have any unintended consequences in how it interacts with other building systems or components. Ultimately, there’s a learning curve for its application in large and complex buildings. I’ll certainly be looking into it for projects moving forward given the opportunity.

How can the hotel sector work with architects like Studio Moren to create a more sustainable future?

BO: The single most-impactful initiative the hotel sector can undertake with us to create a more sustainable future is moving from a “cost-basis” for sustainability to a “user experience-basis” for sustainability – for guests and staff. Invariably, the more sustainable a hotel is, the better its indoor air quality, acoustics, servicing and workmanship should be, which has the potential to drive increased bookings, lowering operating costs and aid in staff retention.

Studio Moren recently partnered with the Energy Efficiency Alliance to help steer the next BREEAM-in-Use. BREEAM version 7 is currently under development with a focus on how to help hotels reach net zero carbon. You can read more about Studio Moren here.

In another Q&A we spoke to Lee Pickersgill, energy manager, Valor Hospitality, about what’s going on across the sector and how it is to manage the first of Zeal Hotels’ net zero carbon properties.

You can check out our Glossary for information on common phrases and acronyms used when talking about sustainable hotels.