Spa style

A growing number of resorts in the region are 'extroverting' the spa experience by taking the spa concept to exterior spaces. COD reports.

The Banyan Tree Spa Al Areen in Bahrain.
The Banyan Tree Spa Al Areen in Bahrain.

A growing number of resorts in the region are 'extroverting' the spa experience by taking the spa concept to exterior spaces. COD reports.

Spas are synonymous with relaxation and wellbeing. The design of a spa area must go beyond mere aesthetic appeal, to stimulate all five senses, lulling the user into a state of peace and tranquillity.

Spas are often associated with interiors because of the intimate nature of the spa experience, but a growing number of locations are taking the spa concept outdoors, and incorporating exterior spaces into spa settings.

A spa [experience] equals the five senses being intrigued. It's harder to do this indoors, you always create ambience with artificial rain, water. It's a lot easier, more spa-like or zen-like [outdoors].

As much as 60% of hotels in the UAE offer massage services outdoors, estimates Hakan Yuruoglu, senior architect of spa design specialist firm Art Spa.

The Banyan Tree Spa Al Areen in Bahrain, the Amara spa at the Park Hyatt hotel in Dubai, and the Six Senses Spa in Sharq Village and Spa in Doha, Qatar are classic examples of regional hotels or resorts that include exterior spaces as part of their spa offer.

The recently opened Raffles hotel in Dubai also includes a spa within its botanical garden.

"Exteriors are happening more," says Liane Bakaou, director of operations, of Beauty Leaders, which offers wellness and spa facility concept design as part of its services.

"Resorts outside the UAE have lots of facilities made for relaxation and wellness. Here spa development comes from beauty centres. [The development of resorts] is still small here but growing as new resort operators are coming to the market."

The natural touch

Having an outdoor element to a spa puts the user at one with nature, says Hylton Lipkin, director of spa at the Banyan Tree Bahrain, which claims to have invented the outdoor spa concept.

"We try and have as much as possible of our spa experience in an outdoor atmosphere to the point where some of our spas you are literally having your massage outdoors.

There is just netting that separates you and the outside world and the mosquitoes. You hear the water, you hear the birds, you feel the breeze from the outside so you really feel in nature," he says.

Part of the Banyan Tree's concept is its Hydrothermal garden, which includes various cabins offering different experiences, for example, different shower experiences.

The Hydrothermal garden, supplied by Hydrotherm, includes an outdoor vitality pool that has aqua beds, water jet seats and work-out walls. The spa also has an outdoor fountain courtyard and relaxation area.

The Hydrothermal concept has been so successful that the Banyan Tree is looking to incorporate hydrothermal gardens in all its spas, Lipkin reveals. The spa also has a garden hammam.

The spa and hydrotherapy area is, at 10,000m2, the largest in the Middle East, according to design consultancy Architrave Design & Planning, which worked on the resort.


James Vincent, director of UK-based firm Syntax, a spa design, health and leisure specialist consultancy, agrees that the exterior can add an additional element to the spa experience.

Health and wellbeing are directly related to closeness to nature and being part of the natural environment. Therefore, gardens/exterior spaces are an essential component of a spa and have a therapeutic purpose.

We try and have as much as possible of our spa experience in an outdoor atmosphere to the point where some of our spas you are literally having your massage outdoors. There is just netting that separates you and the outside world and the mosquitoes.

We always attempt to bring gardens into buildings and to extend buildings into the landscape," he says.

Spa-Architects

The question is who is responsible for the design of the exterior spa area - is it the interior designer, the landscape architect, or the "spa-architect'? "It depends," says Bakaou.

"Spa architects handle both interiors and exteriors. Interior designers do both the interior and exterior. It depends on the project, on the budget."

One firm that is specialised in spa design is Art Spa. Spas the firm has worked on in the region include spas at hotels located in Kuwait and Egypt.

An exterior area can give an added dimension to the spa experience, says Hakan Yuruoglu, senior architect at Art Spa. "A spa [experience] equals the five senses being intrigued.

It's harder to do this indoors, you always create ambience with artificial rain, water. It's a lot easier, more spa-like or zen-like [outdoors].

Otherwise, we are generating some circumstances artificially. Any client prefers a massage in a rose garden to a treatment in a rose-scented room."

Yuruoglu cites a project in Egypt that features a clear floor in its cabana enabling the spa visitor to enjoy the view of the water of an artificial lake as an example of how use of the exterior space can bring that extra touch to a spa experience.

Inspired by the design of an ancient Qatari village, the design concept for the Six Senses Spa at Sharq Village and Spa in Doha features a series of outdoor spaces.

"The spa is a community within itself, comprising of four separate villages and the main reception building connected by narrow meandering corridors which open into walled compounds with plunge pools, relaxation areas, and interior courtyards," says Hoss Vetry, general manager of the Sharq Village and Spa.

The ratio of outdoor to indoor space is approximately 30% to 60%, according to Vetry.

Privacy issues

One of the main considerations when designing the outdoor area of a spa is privacy, says Yuruoglu. "During treatment, you are extremely vulnerable. It's hard to generate outdoor areas that are enclosed privacy wise. Clients need to feel comfortable in the area."

The Amara spa at the Park Hyatt got round the privacy problem by adding an outdoor area with its own shower and relaxation area to each of the treatment rooms, a solution which in fact ensures greater privacy for the user.


The concept is that the treatment comes to you," explains a representative of Mirage Mille, Dubai office, the developers of the Park Hyatt.

"This means that instead of changing in a communal locker room, having a massage in the massage room and then a hydrotherapy treatment in another room followed by a facial in a third room before going back to the locker room, the staff bring the treatments to you in one room where you can change, hang up your clothes and relax afterwards."

Complementing the interior

Ensuring that the design of the interior and exterior areas are complementary is key to successful spa design, say experts.

"The language or style of a spa must be consistent and the integrity of the design is maintained by using similar materials inside and outside," notes Syntax's Vincent.

Materials, for example, can be used to provide connections between the exterior and interior spaces.

"You leave the outdoors as neutral as possible so it doesn't stand out. Try to use as much natural material as possible, but always have hints in the outdoor structure to what has been done inside," says Yuruoglu.

This can be done, for example, by using cushions in the outside space which bring out elements of the colour theme used for the interior space.

Acclimatising outdoor spaces

Of course, one of the main obstacles with incorporating exterior spaces in spas in the Middle East region is the climate. With temperatures touching 50°C in the hottest months of the year, spending time outdoors is a far from pleasurable experience.

There are ways to get round the heat though, say spa design specialists.

"Most of the time in regions like [the GCC] we design semi-open space. People don't like being enclosed when they know there is beautiful weather outside," says Yuruoglu.

This can mean, for example, an outdoor shower that it is half covered, or a treatment room in a gazebo or using partial roof cover or netting to create shade.

Usage of exterior areas also tends to be limited to early mornings and evenings when the temperature is cooler and the midday hours when the weather is hot and humid avoided.

There are certain considerations in adapting exterior spas areas to hotter climates though, say designers. Blocking the sunlight is an obvious but key solution, says Yuruoglu.

"You need to control the direct sun you are exposed to," he notes. This can be done through using strategic placing of shading material or by locating treatment rooms in pergolas.

Choice of materials also needs to take into account the climate, for example, treating wood used in cabanas to make sure it doesn't decay, and also specifically selecting cosmetics that won't have an adverse effect in the sun.

With a huge number of hotels under development in the region over the next decade, the time is ripe for spa development to grow.

Indeed, Dubai is tipped to become the number one spa destination by 2015, according to the organisers of last month's Wellness & Spas Middle East trade show in Dubai. It looks as if spa designers have a busy time ahead - both in and outdoors.

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