Outside is In

I was doing a hardhat tour of a new spa in the wine country yesterday, one we did the space plan for at the soon-to-reopen Hotel Yountville. (Yes, the teeny Napa Valley town whose restaurants are famed for possessing more Michelin Stars than most major cities.) I remember being a bit challenged by the dimensions of the floor plate as I was working on the design a year ago. But as I walked through it yesterday, I was delighted by what I saw.

Interior architect Lisa Holt of DLS Hotels, our client, did an impressive job of creating a light-filled, airy and charming interior as she took my design from two to three dimensions. Lisa has been an enthusiastic spa visitor and has actually owned and operated a small luxury hotel and spa with her husband and DLS partner David Shapiro.

Fortunately, one direction we could go was up. Lofty ceilings and spectacular, tall treatment room doors create a slightly Alice-in-Wonderland feeling.

In the wine country, the last place I want to be is a cave (unless it’s filled with champagne.) Lisa brought the outside in with extensive use of tall windows, repeating the elegant rhythms of the doors, and we designed small private garden sitting areas off each treatment room. Bringing the outside in takes a small footprint and helps it to live large. The wet areas of the spa give onto a lounging pool, extending the spa experience effortlessly outside.

Being able to get outside while at the spa is a real luxury, and even a little bit of outdoor space can enhance the guest experience dramatically. I know that I’m willing to spend more time at a spa when I can be outside sometime during my visit. Resorts usually get this right and plan for it from the outset, though I’m often surprised at how catacomb-y spa designs can be, and cut off from the outside.

Outdoor space is not always an option, especially for day spas in retail settings. But sometimes an opportunity is right under our nose, in the form of ugly-duckling outdoor space that has become invisible to us through its very familiarity. It’s hard to look objectively at your own space, especially if you’ve been in it a long time, so sometimes it’s worth consulting with a designer to see what they “see.” One of my favorite publications for inspiration for small outdoor spaces is Sunset. They have a long tradition of outdoor makeovers that are simple, clever and inexpensive.

A few years ago we turned some found space on a second floor balcony at Preston Wynne Spa and turned it into a cabana-curtained loggia replete with cushy furnishings, outdoor rugs, and a private pedicure area for al fresco treatments. Five feet wide and thirty feet long, it was not useful for much of anything and surfaced with a very unattractive waterproofing seal. We added decking panels that sat atop the surface to create a more attractive foundation, and a fountain to muffle outside noise, as well as lush planter boxes (these also helped create more privacy.) With some soft goods (which are easy to refresh each year) it has become one of the most popular features of our spa.

Bonnie Waters at Changes Spa and Salon in Walnut Creek, California, found an unloved easement between a parking lot and the side of her building, a plain little patch of tanbark and forlorn shrubs. She convinced the building owner to allow her to use the space, which had no other purpose, and developed it as a charming outdoor terrace for her spa’s newly expanded retail and party room, screening it from the parking lot with landscaping. Because she couldn’t make permanent changes to the easement, she used decomposed granite with pavers set into the soil, rather than mortar.

Probably the best example of enhancing the guest experience with “found” outdoor space is at Osmosis Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California. After years of operation as a landmark day spa specializing in Japanese enzyme baths, Michael Stusser, the visionary owner of Osmosis, carved a spectacular and authentic Japanese garden from a patch of creekside brush. This work of art is now the highlight of any visit to the spa and has created a remarkable identity for Osmosis.

I’m looking forward to experiencing the new spa at Hotel Yountville, inside and out, after our opening during Harvest season. Spas at their best reconnect us to nature and a more natural way of being. Outdoor space is often more than a sum of the parts; it’s always a great value-add.

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