There are several different approaches one can take take for any design project—narrative-based, research/evidence-based, user-centric, wellness-based—just to name a few, with each approach providing its own set of benefits.
What sets user-centric design apart from the other philosophies is that this method tries to tailor and optimize the space around how users can, want, or need to use it, rather than forcing them to change their behavior to fit the space.
It’s a method that Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB) tends to gravitate to, says Sheyla Conforte, principal and director of interior design. And they went full speed ahead with it when tasked to design the new United Club and Global First Lounge at London’s Heathrow International Airport’s new Terminal 2.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to improve people’s lives and their experience through their environment,” Conforte explains. “I think our best projects have been those where we’ve really been able to understand who is inhabiting the spaces and what has made their experience ideal or the best it can be. At the scale in which we operate in interiors, it is very much about the individual and how they’re experiencing their surroundings, as opposed to a building. Our statement is more about how people view things based on a smaller scale and on the micro level, rather than macro. So in that regard, it makes more sense for us to look at it and really study it in terms of the user.”
Open to both first class and business customers, the lounge in Terminal 2 serves a wide range of customers and demographics. SCB needed to identify who exactly would be using the space, as well as the frequency with which people visit the bar area versus the dining area or private phone rooms. To determine travelers’ expected needs and behaviors, SCB worked closely with United’s Customer Experience Group. In addition, the team at SCB took into account their own personal experiences and observations.
“We frequent these spaces ourselves in our daily lives, whether for [business] travel or leisure, so there is a personal understanding of what the expectation is and so we can put ourselves in those shoes and affect the design that way,” says Conforte.
What they found was that the food and beverage requirements for the space were going to present a challenge.
“There’s some real criteria that need to be addressed in terms of feeding count that we needed to be able to meet in order to make this a viable space for United,” Conforte explains. “Part of the program was to be able to provide the customer with an elevated level of menu options. That in and of itself requires a more robust kitchen, which then takes away from useable lounge space, putting more pressure on us to find ways to be able to create a relaxing environment where there was an ease of transition between spaces, with a limited amount of real estate to work with.”
They were able to integrate the “chill” factor with a spa zone with shower suites shared by both the United Club (which makes up the bulk of the space, available to business class passengers) and the United Global First Lounge (open to first-class passengers). These facilities are a great amenity for both leisure and business travelers alike. Either is able to shower and refresh in one of these suites, whether they’re on the first leg of a long journey, or are about to enter into a day full of meetings. This zone also offers “family services,” as Conforte calls them, where travelers can have a suit pressed or a dress steamed before they’re on their way.
Some chaise lounges are also placed along the perimeter of the space for those needing to disconnect and decompress.
For those with work to do before take-off and who would rather be in the middle of the action, there are a variety of spaces to choose from, such as “power bar tables” that provide connectivity and an open, “more Starbucks-like feel.”
Both the United Club and the United Global First Lounge have a large bar with views onto the tarmac and activity of the runways, dining spaces with both open and more intimate settings as well as private phone rooms.
In addition, the United Global First Lounge features a modern tea lounge and a private wine room with dining accommodations, both of which reinforce the level of luxury expected with the first class travel experience and set it apart from other airline lounges. The tea lounge also gives it a regionally relevant spin.
“We needed to understand the travelers’ behavior patterns, what their expectations were relative to the competitors and other lounges because at the end of the day, they’re making the choice to fly United rather than a competitor airline, and to the extent that we could affect that decision by creating a differentiator in the lounge that is part of the travel experience, that was an important factor for us,” Conforte says.
“This project was a long time in the making. From start to finish we’d been working on this for about three years from the day the initial concepts were developed to the day the doors opened. Every decision was evaluated from multiple angles and with different objects in mind, so the choices were deliberate and priorities were established with a lot of care.”