Four Things to Know About Designing Sustainable Waterfront Hotels

chairs at a waterfront

Few settings are as appealing for travelers to kick back, celebrate, and soak up nature’s beauty than a hotel by the water. That’s no secret to hoteliers: A study by Allied Market Research (conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak shook up the industry) forecasted expansion of the “beach hotels market” from $163.2 million in 2016 to $201.3 million in 2023—a compound annual growth rate of 3.2 percent.

As lovely as waterfront settings can be for creating memorable hotel experiences, they are increasingly at risk as global warming raises sea levels and reshapes coastlines around the world. Every destination is different, of course. But hoteliers either considering or operating properties near water would do well to size up water-related risks and consider steps for protection.

Water is the most destructive thing in the world, and where it can go, how it will get there, and how it will recede are all significant in laying out a property.

Some at-risk locations have recognized all the above and taken serious action. Boston, for instance, has elevated Main Street and created floodable parks in the Charlestown district, while Mayor Marty Walsh has pledged 10 percent of the city’s $3.49 billion capital budget for 2020 to implementing similar steps toward such resiliency. Meanwhile, along the Gulf Coast of Florida, Tampa Bay has been advised by a climate science panel to prepare for a sea-level rise up to eight-and-a-half feet by 2050, but it has yet to take any action.


Hoteliers driven to take action against water on their own have a wide range of options for properties in operation as well as on the drawing board. Here are four things hoteliers should know about designing sustainable waterfront properties.

Regulations vary widely.

In Florida, State and Federal codes stipulate where oceanfront buildings can go, how close they can be to the beach, how they must be designed to ‘accept a storm surge,’ and what elevation they must attain in a flood zone. The Caribbean, on the other hand, was late to regulate, with several countries only adopting Florida’s building codes at some level after Hurricane Andrew rolled through with Category 5 destruction in 1992. Architects and designers keen to protect builds in the Caribbean now implement Florida’s codes as a matter of course.

The right kind of storm drainage can make all the difference. Options include retention and detention ponds; walls to protect from storm surges; siting on higher ground for longer views as well as elevation above storm surges; and maintaining coastline ecosystems as the first natural layer of protection. The last is particularly close to the hearts of landscape architects.

Understand the site.

Perhaps the most significant step is to understand a site—for example, its ecology, vegetation, and elevation—and to be strategic about where things are located and how they can be designed to mitigate climate change and sea-level rise. Got spidery mangroves lining the beachfront? They may not be pretty, but they belong there. If they absolutely must be removed, it’s best to replace them with other native vegetation—and with more than was taken out in the first place.

Employ indigenous materials. 

Employing indigenous materials for resiliency against water is often less expensive than shipping in something from a distance. Designed properly, a flood barrier made from local building materials, say, will be more aesthetically pleasing than concrete, and much more authentic. That’s a big plus for contemporary travelers who live to experience all things local.

Consider an upland beach

No beach onsite? Building a beach is always an option, but it’s invariably expensive and complex, perhaps requiring installation of obtrusive groins in the water and parallel to the shore to check erosion. There is no guarantee an artificial beach will last, either, as Mother Nature deposits sand and water where she wants. Considering an upland beach that has a connection to the water can work, as well as having a killer amenity space and pool area with views to the water.

Humans have a natural inclination to be near water. As noted by marine biologist Walter J. Nichols in his book Blue Mind, water “adds to, enhances, and expands” our efforts to reach a calm and mindful state. Hotels by the sea invariably make people happy, provided they’re outfitted to last.


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Paul Kissinger, FASLA, PLA, is a principal at EDSA who creates environments that exude energy, offer economic viability, and enhance overall aesthetics. Founded in 1960, EDSA is a planning, landscape architecture, and urban design firm based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and offices in Orlando, Baltimore, New York, and Shanghai.