Interview by Elena Sbokou
With 35 years of experience and expertise in hospitality architecture, Scott Sickeler, founding principal of BLUR Workshop, values the force of teamwork and loves the challenges and complexity of large-scale projects.
Along with his life partner, Liz Neiswande, they have formed a team of talented architects and designers who believe in the continuity of design and the integration of nature within architecture.
Global Design News: Can you introduce us to your work from the beginning of your career, as a young professional until today?
Scott Sickeler: Prior to starting BLUR Workshop in 2014, with my wife and partner Liz Neiswander, I worked at Atlanta-based TVS for 27 years. Early in my career, I was given opportunities to have a meaningful role on very large projects – Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center South Grand Concourse, followed by the Convention Centers of Washington DC, Savannah, Georgia and Raleigh, North Carolina. I found I loved the challenge and complexity of these large projects. The initial success of these projects led to opportunities in China, Dubai, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The exposure and influence of these experiences working in other cultures broadened my understanding of design.
My career, when observed in hindsight, has had a reverse scale trajectory, where opportunities for smaller, unique projects were afforded us based on our expertise of large projects. My initial large convention centers led to large convention hotels, such as Washington Marriott Marquis, and large hotels led to a breadth of luxury and upscale hospitality projects of all sizes, both urban and resort, such as the Virgin Hotel and Residence mixed-use tower in Miami. One specialization I developed was working with Owners of very large hotels, helping them to transform them from both an aesthetic and a business perspective, such as the Hyatt O’Hare Chicago and the Marriott Marquis Atlanta. These major renovation projects led to more extensive master planning and expansion projects, such as we are doing at all five of the Gaylord Hotels.
Our clients’ desire for a hospitality approach led us to move laterally into other building types, such as Soundwaves in Nashville, a unique water experience.
With BLUR’s founding, we embraced smaller projects such as a glass ballroom on the Potomac near Washington DC and our recently completed timber Gathering House set among a field of large boulders in Georgia. We have found that small projects are a great training ground for our talented young staff, as the development cycle is faster, and the size allows them to fully get their thoughts around the project.
We believe exposure to the breadth of the practice can form a more insightful designer. I have valued and enjoyed the opportunity to see my projects all the way through from design through construction administration, and it’s a tenet we have carried through to BLUR. All teammates at BLUR are encouraged to become registered, and core teammates seeing the entirety of the project is key to the growth of each of our emerging professionals.
What links my entire career is a research-driven process, genuine curiosity, a passion for seeking unique solutions, and a deep interest in being better than the last time. My research aims to be comprehensive. I often read multiple books about the site and region and travel to see every site – usually with our team. For new clients, we travel to see their other properties – as far afield as Singapore or Saudi Arabia – as well as the works of their competitors.
We use the research to continually refresh and renew the proposed building type, even ones we know well. We dig into the characteristics of the competitive set, as the client and operator see them, and gather information on the specific facilities’ operations and how they generate revenue. A good design evolves from an informed starting point that is as custom and thoughtful as the resulting design solution.
GDN: Looking at your website one can see BLUR’s motto “Design Without Boundaries..” What is the mission statement of BLUR Workshop and how it has been transformed throughout the years?
S.S.: My partner, Liz Neiswander, and I worked to create a team of Interior Designers and Architects that respected the unique skills and contributions of the other disciplines.
We also pushed to bring in creative consultants who embraced the low ego collaborative approach to designing that we embraced. As we started BLUR, we kept returning to the belief that our best work resulted from this integrated and committed team approach. That belief became a foundation for our process, and it led to our name, BLUR, referring to blurring the boundaries of the disciplines.
Having pushed the observation that collaboration is elemental to our culture, it is also imperative to note that for good work there must be a visionary. We define a visionary as a leader who is the design catalyst and ultimately determines which ideas enhance the planning, image or spatial quality of a project.
In our team, the principals do this, working closely with the next generation of leadership, in order to share our values and processes. We believe that the shared experience and values among our teams lead to excellence.
Our mission statement is made up of seven guiding principles, but at the core it is,
- Understand the problem you are trying to solve – research thoroughly.
- Look for compelling solutions that enhance what is anticipated well beyond the client’s vision.
- Create thoughtful designs that positively connect and are sensitive to the surrounding environment.
- Take time to teach and learn with and from your teammates.
- Seek to provide excellent clear design and documentation.
- Empathize with all project teammates including contractors and trade contractors knowing that what they are doing is challenging and valued.
- Provide good service and understand that a lot of people are counting on us.
BLUR, its business and its culture, is structured to evolve. We want the whole team thinking about how we can improve the quality of our work and the experience of doing it together. We want them thinking like future owners.
Create thoughtful designs that positively connect and are sensitive to the surrounding environment.
GDN: You work mostly in the field of Hospitality Architecture. What are the challenges you are facing in every new project and how do you see the future of Hospitality Architecture in terms of sustainability, luxury, and development goals?
S.S.: For ground-up projects our challenges relate to construction costs and project financing. Aligning the client’s aspirations and the current construction market is part of the project process of producing a compelling design. Recently project costs are much more unpredictable. Financing a hospitality project is challenging. The period from the beginning of design until a hotel stabilizes can be seven years. It is a unique investor with the patience often required to wait that long for a return.
In our projects we are seeing hospitality trends that reflect larger trends in society. Designs are more casual than ever. Our projects tend to be focused on comfort over formality.
Lifestyle hotels seek to be neighborhood hubs. Properties hope to attract neighbors to the hotel, creating lobbies and coffee shops that welcome guests and local visitors alike to come hang out. Virgin Hotel Nashville, designed in partnership with Hastings Architecture Associates, sought to do this through a porous design with elements opening in numerous ways along the entire length of it’s interfacing streets and surrounding city.
As with building systems or codes, sustainability is being seamlessly integrated into the design process and ultimate into projects. With our clients, there is a strong focus on energy efficiency and water conservation.
Hotels continue to being integrated into other building types in complex mixed-use developments as a financing strategy and for operational synergy.
Hotels are experiencing a functional shift. The very definition of hotels now includes short-term rentals, dispersed hotels, and hotels that must maximize technology to facilitate guest flexibility.
Hospitality design is desired in other contexts. Design focused on guest or user experience is being sought on other building types such as: multifamily, office/workplace, theater, sport, and senior living. Our luxury suites at Columbus Crew Stadium, the ACL Theater renovation in Austin, and our recent commission for a luxury senior living campus in Atlanta all are commissions for BLUR because of the client desire for the comfort and refinement of hospitality design.
Aesthetics, generated by social media and AI, have begun to shape our client’s expectations. Clients want designs that stand out, and often reference images from the internet without a tether to budget realities, design practicality or market logic. It’s our job in this current climate to find a way to utilize this expanse of imagery as inspiration, while developing designs anchored in the reality of a practical user’s experience.
Speed-to-market goals are accelerating, while permitting is ever more time-consuming. Speed to market has always been an objective, but the time frames desired for the delivery of both documents and construction is accelerated beyond anything we have experienced.
“We are seeing hospitality trends that reflect larger trends in society. Designs are more casual than ever”
GDN: What is the path that an architect has to follow to realize the client’s vision, especially when you are dealing with multinational companies in the Hospitality Industry?
S.R.: BLUR follows an iterative process familiar to most firms. At each scale and threshold, we study alternatives and present the alternatives with analysis and our recommendations. We find the overall process goes more smoothly when the client team is part of the underlying inspiration and logic. BLUR does not typically spring design on clients, we bring clients along.
We start with research: digging into the site, the region, the city, the client, the program, and the building type. We want to understand the underlying parameters so as we begin to design, we know when we can stretch or break a rule. Often the most impactful solution comes from a seemingly unbreakable rule.
We begin with the project big picture. We present multiple masterplan options, along with simple massing implications. After we have consensus on the urban design or master plan, we zoom in on building plans and create alternate studies. Usually, the project team will gather to review and debate the alternatives. This process continues as we zoom into components, and then into ever more detail. I assume most firms do this, but we believe that what sets us apart, is that we do this more. BLUR wants to exhaust the options, so the decision-making is well-founded.
GDN: Do you think that architectural perspective has changed over the years? If you could travel back in time, what professional advice would you give to your younger self and what do you say to all young professionals that work with you for the first time?
S.S.: Over a forty-year career everything has changed and yet nothing has changed. How we draw, how we communicate, how we present, and the pace at which we work, have completely transformed multiple times since I first started.
Reflecting back, I am amazed at how little we presented to clients to receive full buy in for a project. It might happen off several drafted plans and elevations and one hand-drawn perspective rendering. Today for a hospitality project there are photo-realistic renderings of every key space; on our Gaylord Rockies Lodge renovation for the lobby and four restaurants, we presented 47 renderings.
These are just tools, awesome tools, but in the end, the creation of the built environment still requires a leader with a vision who can guide others through a complex process. A process that we believe seeks for the full team to share and enhance the vision, but ultimately guided with clarity to a cohesive, compelling result.
As for the advice I would give my younger self and my team, well, here goes:
- The best business development is doing a great job for the clients for which you’re already working.
- Understand that working hard pays off.
- Understand the forces at play that impact our clients.
- Enjoy the ride. It is the process, the friendships, and steps along the way that make the career memorable and fun. Conceiving a compelling concept or strategy, finishing an intriguing massing study, or key image, wrapping up a complex presentation, solving a tricky technical coordination elegantly, walking onto a site with the structure just erected, are all moments of satisfaction and pride to be savored.
You find yourself in a position that allows you to make the world a better place one small element at a time.
Value that opportunity, even when it gets tedious and stressful because in the end your contribution matters.
Scott Sickeler and BLUR Workshops’ projects have recently won in Future House International Residential Awards 2023 for The Lumberyard project and the 1450 w/ Peachtree Street project and a 2023 American Architecture Award for the Opreyland Beer Hall.