Dec 20, 2023

Episode 122

Louis Thompson


Louis Thompson began his hospitality career working with Six Senses. While there, he learned about the importance of sustainability, innovation, and regeneration.

In 2011, after 10 years with the wellness-focused brand, Thompson founded Nomadic Resorts. It was a natural next step for the entrepreneur, who was experimenting with crafting eco-friendly resorts in remote locales. Take the Wild Coast Tented Lodge near the Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. Thompson, who designed the building to blend into its natural surroundings, also trained 80 people from a neighboring fishermen’s village to help with the construction.

Today, Thompson is again pushing the envelope as he introduces salutogenic architecture to a new audience, where he hopes to influence mental wellbeing through design. Here, he shares his vision for the future of hospitality, including the development of niche experiences that cultivate community.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Louis Thompson of Nomadic Resorts. Hi. How are you? Thanks so much for joining us today.

Louis Thompson: I’m good. Thanks Stacy. Very nice to be on your show and much appreciated.

SSR: So we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

LT: So I was born in Cambridge in the UK, but I spent a lot of my childhood in Devon at a Steiner School. So that’s one thing I have in common with my business partner, Olav, is we both went to Steiner Schools and probably had a little bit more flexible education than most people, I guess.

SSR: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that, for those that don’t know what that is.

LT: Oh. Well, actually I went to an experimental school, so we didn’t actually have to go to lessons. And I was pretty privileged in a way. It was boarding school, but it was in the most fabulous part of Devon in the UK and they had this huge estate, so we’d just run around the woods making dens and kind of causing havoc and riding around on BMXs. So it was a pretty good childhood. And our main class was in organic gardening. So that was a little bit different from most people, I think.

SSR: Yeah. Were you a good gardener?

LT: That’s an interesting question. I think I’ve been called many things. I’ve been called super gardener, was one of my titles. But actually, technically as a gardener, no, I’m not that good. I’m good at designing gardens, but… Yeah. Okay, I can take a cutting or whatever, but I wouldn’t say I’m as good as some of the gardeners I know. Put it like that.

SSR: Do you think this education put you on this creative track that you’ve been on for most of your career?

LT: Yeah. I think almost certainly. I think in terms of liberty of expression that we had at that school, we had a lot of woodworking, arts and crafts types of activities which were considered on equal footing to academic studies. So I think, yeah, that almost certainly has affected my development and my career, I’m sure.

SSR: So you went to this school, this very experimental school. Did you go after that to a more formal college education?

LT:  I actually went from that school, I went to the direct and complete opposite, and I went to Rugby School, which is a very posh private school for neo fascists. I’m only joking. But, yeah, I went to a very strict school that was very well known for bullying, actually. I wasn’t bullied particularly myself, but it was a real tough school. It was where they invented the game of rugby. So there was a whole very macho vibe, basically.

SSR: What drew you there? Or was this not of your own choice?

LT: I don’t know. I played rugby and I played rugby when I was a child, and I think the idea of going there and playing rugby for Rugby School was probably what motivated me. But in retrospect, I probably should have given my parents a little bit more say in the things, I think. But I had a good time, so I can’t complain.

SSR: Nice. So what did you study there?

LT: I studied A Levels and then I actually, I have a kind of unusual academic career. I went on to study French and European politics. So I’m glad I didn’t stick that one out because as a British… My career would’ve been like torpedoed at Brexit time. So yeah, I’m kind of glad I didn’t pursue that much further, but I did my degree at the University of Sussex, my first degree in European politics.

Madi Hiyaa restaurant in the Maldives; photo by Joe Agdeppa

SSR: Got it. So how did you end up in the design, hospitality, architecture world that you went into?

LT: It’s a little bit of a weird story, but the first part of the story is fairly straightforward. So for my year abroad at university, I was sent to Réunion Island, which is next to Mauritius in the south of the Indian Ocean, but it’s a part of France. So I studied for one year over there, and then I decided actually I didn’t really want to do the European politics route at all. And so I finished my degree, and then I went back with my wife. And I did my hospitality management degree in France. And this is back in 1999. You’re making me feel really old now. And what was slightly strange about that experience was that I was asked to prepare a business plan. My business plan was for a zero carbon hiking lodge in the mountains of Réunion Islands, and this was a long time before that was trendy.

And then one thing led to another. And then I ended up sending a spontaneous letter of application to a guy called Sonu Shivdasani, who was, at the time, he was the CEO of Six Senses. And it was a little bit a kind of a long shot for sure, but I did actually write a pretty coherent letter and I kind of studied what he was trying to do. And to cut a long story short, I was employed by him and sent to the Maldives to do permaculture design in one of his resorts at the time called Soneva Gili, which was a fabulous resort. Now it’s called Lankanfushi Gili. I think it’s still one of the best resorts in the world actually.

SSR: Yeah. And what were those early days like there? Because they were ahead of their time, right? I mean, in terms of looking at sustainability and just a holistic approach to design and architecture that wasn’t being done widely throughout the industry.

LT: Well, the whole start of that experience was a little bit of a weird one. So when I got to Soneva Gili with my 18-month-old son and my wife, I started designing this farm-to-fork restaurant there and doing an organic vegetable garden. And within a month of being in that place, I heard this huge noise like a kind of jumbo jet. And I was like, well, that’s a bit strange because there aren’t any jumbo jets around here. This is in the desert island, middle of the Maldives. And then suddenly, this water started flowing underneath the vegetable garden, through the vegetable garden, a lot of water, and then the fence collapsed and the whole huge wave washed the vegetable garden out from under my feet. And that was the 2004 tsunami. So yeah, that was kind of a baptism of water or… Baptism of fire you say? I don’t know. So a pretty scary experience. But what happened after that was really weird. I was playing pool in the evenings with the guys who were in the construction department, and they adopted me basically and said, “Do you want to help us rebuild the resort?” Because there had been villas washed out to see, and all the landscape was screwed. Everything was in a bit of a mess. And so that was really the start of my career at Six Senses and Soneva, was a landscape regeneration project at Soneva Gili. And we rebuilt the resort together and these guys taught me the nuts and bolts of overwater villa Construction.

SSR: Wow. You got thrown into it head first, but it must have been an amazing… I mean, after something very terrible, an amazing experience out of it.

LT: Yeah. But that also brought me quite close. I got close contact with Sonu and worked with his design team and his development team. And that was a very exciting time at Six Senses. That was 2004 to 2010. That was a crazy cool time. There was a lot of new projects, a lot of new developments. And we were really pushing the boundaries of sustainability in the hospitality industry at that time. So I helped with them to develop their holistic environmental management project, which is called HEMP, which is a good name, and then we also did the kind of technical services requirements for the sustainability thing. So I got really exposed to some very clever people, some very pioneering ideas about sustainability. And, yeah, I just carried on. I worked with them for eight years.

SSR: Yeah. What was your biggest takeaway from the time there?

LT: I think probably it was really this kind of innovative approach to the guest experience. And I think there I really honed my skills by learning from Sonu, who is actually a master creator of guest experience. So I think that was probably the main thing that I took away from the whole experience, was the whole design process. So I wasn’t in the design industry, so I learned from conception all the way through to construction and pre-opening. And that was a hell of a lesson for me and understood me in good stead since actually.

SSR: Yeah. And wasn’t that the time… I remember a conversation we had a while back. Didn’t you start treetop dining too and had to figure that out?

LT: Yeah, that’s right. So I’d been working at Soneva Kiri for, I guess, three and a half years, and I was asked to do a design competition for a zero carbon eco villa and a treetop dining pod. So I’d made this design competition and I wrote the brief, and I sent it to all of the kind of major treehouse people, which was pretty cool because I still know many of them now. And I got the most extraordinary feedback I got. People wrote whole volumes. It was like a hundred-page documents that they sent back, incredible stuff. And then the one that won was just two pages and a really good hand sketch. Actually, it wasn’t even that good a hand sketch to be honest, but it was just a fabulous idea. So I remember pitching it to Bernard Bohnenberger and Sonu at a kind of… Yeah, it was kind of a nice lunch party actually. And to my surprise, they just turned around and said, “Yeah, okay, let’s do it.” Didn’t ask me a budget, didn’t ask me a timeframe. They just said, “Okay, that looks cool. That looks like it’s going to work.” So that was my first experience working directly with Olav Bruin, our creative director who’s still my business partner now, and one of the founders of Nomadic Resorts. And the first project we got to do was the treetop dining pod.

SSR: That’s really fun. So you were there for 10 years. What made you then decide to start Nomadic after that or was there something in between Six Senses and you both launching Nomadic?

LT: No, one was a consequence of the other. Basically when I was building Soneva Kiri, it was a very, very elaborate project. You know? Private runways, lever speedboats, jetties, vegetable gardens, pig farm. It was really, really complicated. And the villas were kind of $6 million a pop kind of things. And at one point, we had this sort of 1,200 workers on site at the same time. And at the end of the project, I got together with Antony Paton, who was the opening GM, Olav, who was the architect or one of the architects on the project. And we kind of did an internal post-mortem. And in that post-mortem, we asked ourselves, “If you were to do this again, how would you do it?” And what came out of that conversation, which was a fairly inebriated, quite fun affair with a lot of Thai seafood and dodgy whiskey, what came out of it was basically that the future of this industry would be modular construction. So prefabricated buildings that could be manufactured in a controlled environment and then shipped to these remote locations and installed by a small team of technically proficient people as opposed to having tons and tons of these laborers around.

And that meant that you could do a much more precise kind of installation of the tents. And also it was a significantly lower footprint in terms of its ecological impact, but also much quicker, which was important. And then what we concluded was that if you could disassemble those buildings, then not only would you have a lower longer term lifecycle analysis and environmental footprint, but you would also be able to get permissions for things more easily. Right? So if you can take a hotel room to pieces and put it in the container and take it somewhere else, there was a kind of interesting angle in that. And that was really why we called the company Nomadic Resorts. So I founded it in 2011. I was still working at Six Senses, so it was a bit naughty. And what I did is I recruited the best designers and engineers that I’d worked with at Six Senses and offered them equity in Nomadic. So I still got the same people I still involved now, really.

SSR: Yeah. Okay. So going back, I mean, watching that come together, like 1,200 people, runways, all the things that you had to do to make that resort successful, you thought there was an easier way. Right? and so that’s what you’re going to do with Nomadic. So looking back, have you guys kind of figured that out over the last 10 years?

LT: That’s a good question. Yes, I think we have actually. To be fair, I sometimes joke, I sometimes say it’s taken me 10 years to pitch a tent. And it’s not entirely untrue. But basically it was much more technically sophisticated than we’d supposed. So we started out with this cool idea of doing a cocoon type tent with insulation and all the kind of elements and facilities and amenities you’d have in a traditional luxury hotel room, but fabrication in a completely different way. Where that led, that led to thermal modeling software, computational fluid dynamics, membrane analysis, and structural engineering for storm events and ballistic profiling of things that could hit a tent skin. And it has become very technical, I suppose is the simplest word.

So the kind of products that we’re developing now are, I suppose, top of the game in terms of the actual design methodology going into what we do. And I think we’ve got probably some of the best engineers in the world who work with us in that particular area. So have we succeeded? I think we got very close with Wild Coast Tented Lodge in Sri Lanka. That was a real kind of test of what we’d learned and whether we were able to execute. And I think we passed that with flying colors. Could have done it a bit faster in retrospect, but it was a difficult place and we were working with 120 local fishermen as opposed to having tons of experienced tradesmen. So there were some other challenges associated with that, but that was a great experience to work with the community.

SSR: Yeah. So have you just had to teach yourself all this? Have you brought in experts? I mean, it sounds very complicated. So how have you taught yourself? And research is one thing, but then actually being able to do it, if it’s so technical, how has that worked to make sure that these are a success?

LT: Basically, we recruit the best people in each field. So that’s how we did it. We found the guy who’s the most experienced safari lodge installer in South Africa. We found a German technician for membrane installation. We found XCO2 Energy, who are our partners who were very proficient in environmental design. And then of course Olav is much more technical than me. I can barely make my computer work. And so he’s always been really at the forefront of the design side of the business, I guess. And I’ve taken more of a kind of business development approach, I guess.

SSR: Yeah. Well, that’s awesome. And you have a term for it. Right? A certain type of architecture, right?

LT: Yeah, we’ve got different kinds of approaches that we use. One of them is basically a thing called biophilic design. And biophilic design is basically to tune into man’s inherent need to communicate with nature. So to put it in a very simple way, in pre-history, the caveman who could remember where the mushrooms were had an advantage over the kind of less environmentally aware cavemen who got lost in the woods for three days. So basically, human beings have this innate need to be able to interact with their natural environment. And quite early on, I mean, this was like 2011, 2012, I read a book about that. And we integrated that biophilic design principle into our projects. And now that’s become something that’s really a little bit more common, but I think we’re still at the tip of the iceberg of what that actually means and how you can produce these wellness environments that can improve people’s health as opposed to trying to mitigate the bad stuff. We now think that there’s a kind of positive design opportunity to really be able to take that whole wellness architecture to a new level. And that’s quite an exciting thing to do. And we call that salutogenic architecture.

SSR: Yeah. And why has this become such an important mission and goal for the two of you?

LT: I think that there’s a very simple thing about this. Right? Is that basically the culture that we live in, it’s quite an atomized culture and a lot of it promotes anxiety, loneliness. I think social media imbues people with a sense of inferiority or concern or worry. You know? You don’t have a six-pack, whatever it is. All of those things, I think, cause people a lot of anxiety. And I think that there’s going to be an epidemic of mental health concerns in the future. And I think that the wellness community generally has had a funny kind of role in that. We saw a certain side of the wellness community express itself during the COVID pandemic. But what I think is, I think we need a more human, a more sensitive type of approach to personal development and wellbeing really.

SSR: How do you think that hospitality and design specifically can help have a role in influencing mental health?

LT: So one of the things I did learn in Six Sense… So I’m not a spa guy. I mean, I’ll go to have a massage once every a year maybe to… usually because it’s been given to me as a birthday present or Christmas present to perfectly be honest. So I’m not like a naturally one of those sort of wellness insiders. But what I do know is that there’s a lot of talk about longevity and about the three or four kind of horsemen of the apocalypse kind of illnesses. You know? We’re talking about Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer. These kinds of things. And we’re seeing more and more of these influences and podcasts expressing their lifestyle improvements for these kinds of things.

But in reality, what I think is going to happen is that you’ll get these kind of niches that develop. And there’ll be hospitality projects that are developed to cater to the needs of very specific groups of people. And this is something I really enjoy working on as well actually, which is, let’s say… Okay. You might like to do yoga, and you might have a yoga teacher in New York where you’ll have really cool yoga stuff, I’m sure, and you want to go on holiday and you want to have a kind of experience where you can continue your practice on holiday or maybe even improve your practice. And then you’d go somewhere like Playa Viva and you’d go and have your yoga experience in Mexico and you’d have excellent teachers.

And what I think will happen is that basically the hospitality sector is going to split up into little niches of things. So you’ll have your yoga retreat for the yogis. You’ll have… One of the ones that we are really enjoying focusing on is the adventure sports activities kind of niche. You know? People going hiking, mountain biking, surfing, kitesurfing. I think that’s going to be a huge thing because all of those activities you have, particularly if you do them with other people, is you can get this sense of flow, which is flow like experiences. So you can have this kind of enhanced personal experience.

And what’s interesting about those kind of flow states is that the people who do them together can commune about that. Right? so you can develop a sense of community around those experiences, be it yoga, be it kitesurfing, be it mountain biking. Those things can create a secure environment to share your experiences within a hospitality venue. So that’s kind of an interesting thing that we think is going to really expand in the years to come.

And what’s interesting about that further, even more interesting about that is that basically… I think we all know. We’ve all been to one of those kind of soulless resorts where nobody ever talks to each other and it’s almost impossible to have a conversation. And everybody’s too cool anyway. Right? They’re too cool to sit down and have a drink with somebody else or around a campfire. The whole thing is not curated to that fulfillment. So what we are trying to do is say, okay, let’s take core experiences, develop the idealist environment in which to perform those experiences, and then create these kind of nodes or hubs where people could then hang out and actually meet each other. And then if you go to another resort, you become a community. So if you go to another camp, kitesurfing in Tanzania, you can hook up with other people. And there you really can create something that’s much more unique and a lot more impactful than your traditional vacation experience.

SSR: Got it. I love it. So it’s building a community of sorts?

LT: Yeah. But not in that kind of loyalty reward card, whatever thing. This is at a kind of more deeper psychological level. And you can consider these things to be almost like physical refuges where people can explore both their inner landscape and also the ecosystem in which the place is located.

Playa Viva in Zihuatanejo, Mexico; photo courtesy of Nomadic Resorts

SSR: Yeah. Well let’s talk about those places because, I mean, where you build and how you build is beautiful. I mean, the one I was looking at before we got on the phone, the new one you’re building in Mauritius that’s overlooking a really amazing kitesurfing spot.

LT: Yeah, that’s Anbalaba. That’s a great project. Well, that’s the first one that we’re going to do under our own brand actually. We’re going to manage the hotel ourselves. So that’s quite an exciting change of vibe as well. So basically what it is that Anbalaba is a mixed use development with residential, some apartments, good restaurant, et cetera, but it’s on a slope directly overlooking Le Morne Brabant, which is one of the best kitesurfing spots in the world. So what we’ve been doing there is kind of developing the ultimate kitesurfing refuge where you have this fantastic swimming pool and bar area. We’ve got a vegetable garden on the roof of the structure. We’ve got this kind of spa tucked underneath the swimming pool. And that’s going to be a really exciting venture for us both in… It’ll be challenging, but it’s also got a sense of community in the sense that you can buy an eco villa within that community as well, which is… So there’s 14 villas for sale as well, one very organic thing with green roof kind of and plants hanging all over the place. So that’s going to be a new departure for us, I guess.

SSR: Yeah, that’s exciting. And I love the building undulates so it almost is one with its surrounding. Right? Because it’s like a covered green roof and it almost… I mean, a lot of your buildings blend. So I mean, which is harder to do architecturally, but beautiful in that it’s truly respecting its surroundings.

LT: Yeah. I think that that’s really a key part of our work, and this is to do with biomimicry and this is to do with other kind of design principles that we’ve adopted over the years. But I think there’s also a question of sensitivity, is that at the end of the day you have to take responsibility for what you develop. And for us, integrating things into the landscape is really a core part of that. So we’ve done a lot of green buildings with green roofs and integrated into hillsides. We’ve done a lot of tents because of the inherent low impact. And then of course we’ve worked a lot with bamboo because it is the most sustainable looking natural building materials I think generally. So yeah, that’s something I think we’ll always do and I think it’s a part of our DNA, is to create impressions but leaving light footprints or something like that. Something along those lines is to really try and respect basically the environmental and social context in which we operate.

SSR: And so you said this resort’s a new departure for you. So you’ve built others, but some are with other operators, some are like a restaurant, part of a bigger project, an overwater restaurant. So why the shift now? Why do you think it’s time for you guys to “go off on your own”?

LT: We’ll always design stuff for other people. So we design for many of the big hotel companies at the moment. And there’ll always be a need for that kind of slightly unusual, atypical building typology. And I think there’s no question that we will continue to do that with partners and clients who we’ve worked with over the years. But what was really the kind of initiator of this is we realized that there was a significant gap in the industry. Right? There’s a gap in the market. And that often the hospital industry is pointed at as guilty carbon footprint flights. You know? You’re bad, don’t go on holiday, stay at home, sleep on a hard floor and don’t have a feather mattress, whatever. But this really came from Antony and I working out what were the friction points in the traditional luxury resort environment. And the conclusion we came to was that basically it’s not necessarily about the traditional parameters of luxury. Like High thread count sheets, air conditioning, flat screen TVs. I mean, everybody has that stuff pretty much now. Not everybody obviously, but within our market, our target market. So the question we asked ourselves is, “Could a hospitality project be a vector of good?”

So that question was an interesting one because we concluded that actually yes it could. If you were to plant a tree in an endangered environment for every guest who slept a night in your camp, if you could provide local restaurants, wellness practitioners, guides with gainful, fairly paid dignified employment, if you could celebrate local cuisine and local culture, then potentially the impact of that is quite different from your traditional luxury resort. And I think the times now come for that to come to fruition. And Sonu did a tremendous amount of pioneering work in changing mindsets and perceptions. And I think that now there’s an opportunity to kind of take some of those considerations, but maybe withdraw the ultra luxury part. The ultra luxury part is a bit complicated because if you’re in a 400 square meter villa that’s fully air-conditioned, you’re going to need a lot of solar panels to cool it. So what we’re trying to do is kind of extract the essence of the best experiences you can have within those environments and make it a little bit more accessible to normal people who don’t have hedge funds.

SSR: Well, thank you for that. What do you think is luxury though today? Because I’m curious. I mean, I do think the settings that you’re in and the spaces you’re creating are luxury in themselves. Right? Because it is a remote destination, it is kind of that mental health break. Right? So is that also a form of luxury in its own right?

LT: Yeah. I think luxury has changed significantly. Right? So those traditional parameters that I mentioned earlier are very common. And I think that COVID actually introduced new ideas about what a luxurious experience could be. And I’m thinking fresh air. Unpolluted fresh air? That’s a luxury for many people. Right? There’s many people in the world breathing, day in, day out, completely toxic, polluted air. I think silence, or at least nature sounds as opposed to cars and blaring horns and police cars and televisions and whirring fans from air conditioning, I think that’s also luxury. I think personal space. You know? Anybody who’s had to take the metro on a regular basis knows that actually personal physical space is also something really that’s quite nice.

And then I’d probably add to that now this notion of a curated physical experience in nature. That could be hiking to the top of a mountain, that could be sailing on a traditional boat with a local fisherman to a little island and having a grilled fish, that could be kitesurfing an amazing wave or break or whatever it is. I think all of those things now, there’s a new kind of opulence. And we’re seeing this a lot. We get contacted by different people who are trying to generate these eco communities and have these kind of incredible places where people can do extreme sports. They have the most incredible fitness requirements now. Absolutely curated nutrition, having… How many different people are eating different stuff? One guy’s… It’s called paleo. Another person’s vegan. They’re having a curated food and beverage offering that corresponds with your preferences. That’s also another kind of luxury.

SSR:Time is luxury these days, just having that time and that escape. So I think what you all are creating is really quite interesting because I think it’s what people are craving for these days.

LT: Yeah. And then also being able to enjoy those things with like-minded people is also a huge, huge thing. And I think Sonu, again, was good at that stuff. And other groups are good at that. I think Habitats have done a good job in that in creating a kind of community of people with a shared perception or a shared sense of fun maybe as well. Maybe that’s also a thing. You know? Having fun is also a luxury actually. That’s probably the ultimate luxury.

SSR: Yeah, exactly. What is it about what you do that you love the most? Which part of the process? Is it the actual building? Is it finding the property? What is it that you love about what you do the most?

LT: Yeah, that’s an interesting one. I know what it’s not. It’s not the kind of accounting and business administration stuff. That’s definitely not something that I thrive on. I think it’s that first moment where someone gives you a challenge to develop a certain idea on a site, and you have this kind of very, very free flowing brainstorming and ideation process. This is where we wander around looking at shells, trying to find kind of bird’s nests and wandering around. And quite often clients think we’re completely crazy because everybody else is looking at the mountain and the views and we’re wandering around looking at mushrooms and insect bodies. But I think that that side of the equation I think really, really is a lot of fun. And when you get to present those ideas initially, it’s a very strange dynamic that with the client. So I remember Wild Coast Tented Lodge, we came up with… It was a pretty crazy idea to sort of build these giant hollow boulders out of bamboo. And we did this kind of very conceptual presentation to the owner, the CEO, and the project director. And then there was complete silence. You know one of those uncomfortable silences that goes on just a bit too long? And then the guy goes, “We’re in. Let’s do this.” Those kind moments, those moments are pretty good when you can pull somebody over into your way of thinking. I think those are quite good moments. And I think the same would applied to the Madi Hiyaa restaurant for Banyan Tree. That was like very, very far out idea.

SSR: Yeah, talk a little bit about it because it’s absolutely beautiful. But I mean, the shape and the structure, just talk a little bit about what you created and how you created it and why

LT: So the mission given to us by the Banyan Tree team was to develop an iconic dining experience that could help them relaunch Vabbinfaru as one of the key culinary destinations in the Maldives. And it was actually during COVID as well, so we couldn’t go to the site, which was a pain. But I knew the Maldives very well because I’d worked at Soneva Gili and Soneva Fushi before. And I’m also a scuba diver, so I knew what lies beneath. Basically, we’ve actually done three buildings based on different members of the ray family now. So this is kind of a weird situation. We’ve done a manta ray, we’ve done a modular ray, and now we’ve done a pink whiptail ray. So it was actually, in a very strange way, a kind of natural progression. And I think maybe it will be one of the last ones we do of that particular biomimicry inference. But what came out was we want to do a kind of flatter ray. The pink whiptail rays have a flatter body and a longer tail. And so we also wanted to experiment with a new kind of structural system using bamboo called a hyper paraboloid column. It’s a very techie thing. And then I think where Olav really showed his genius, to be honest, was to create the tail of the building that kind of wound back over the jetty, because there was already an existing jetty and structure there, and the idea was to create something amazing in that spot. And I think that idea of having that shingle tail that winds back along the jetty was really something a little bit of fairy dust sprinkled onto the thing, I think, and was super pleased with the outcome. It looks amazing. And also big shout out to Olivier Betting from Asali Bali, who were the builders who did a absolutely fantastic job. So we built a lot of stuff ourselves, but this time it was a Bali contractor who did the build. And yeah, amazing.

SSR: Yeah. What is it like to constantly have to reinvent? I mean, is that what you kind of thrive on? There’s no one formula for what you guys do.

LT: No, I mean, that comes up a bit actually. It’s not really a problem for us, to be honest. Olivier and I have a kind of compatibility in terms of our approach to design. And you just have to sit us down in a room with the challenge, or even in a restaurant and a bar. I mean, we’ve drawn things literally on the back of napkins many times actually. And I’m not exclusively a designer, so I also, I’m interested in anthropology, I’m interested in wellness, I’m interested in politics, I’m interested in cultural dynamics of what’s happening at the moment. So all of those things kind of come into the mix a little bit as well.

But I think the principal thing is that we don’t say to ourselves, “Oh yeah, we’ve got to do a building that kind of is iconic or splashy or bling or whatever.” We don’t really work like that. Basically what we do is we basically take our inspirations from very fundamental things. And that’s a kind of critical thing. So nature is the source of all true knowledge. Right? So it’s never going to dry up. Right? The way that we design is never going to dry up because there’ll always be, I hope, an inspiring seashell, an interesting palm front, a weird little tuber like growth on the side of a tree, or one of the ones I want to do for ages is do a whole series of mushroom formed buildings. So it’s endless, right? It’s endless. And that’s the fun bit, I think, is finding the little quirky alternative structure that will fit and will also satisfy the client’s requirements because that’s also important.

Things have to be commercially successful. Right? You can’t just do something that looks great, but it sucks. You can’t do that, right? Otherwise, people would tell us to go away. They’d tell us to go home. So it’s actually quite important to us, strangely enough, that things actually work technically. So people don’t realize that side of the equation. But we are from the hospitality industry, and we do understand back house requirements. We understand staffing, we understand manning requirements, ergonomics. All of this stuff might not look like it’s integrated, but it is very much.

SSR: Is there one project that you really would like to do that you haven’t done yet?

LT: Here you go, that’s a… Yeah, I think there is one thing I’d like to do. And actually, we are doing it now, so it’s just a question of time, but we’re not doing it in the way I’d initially imagined. So one of the things was to do a floating resort. But at the moment, we’re doing a series of houseboats in Kerala, in the backwaters in Kerala. They’ve asked us to kind of re-look at the traditional Kerala houseboat, which is a genius design anyway, so that’s a real tough ask. But I think one of the things I would like to do in the future is instead of doing overwater villas with tent structure, I’d like to do stuff that properly floats. When many, many years ago I went and visited the Mergui Archipelago in the Myanmar… And this was when it was kind of a adventurous spot, well, I think it still is now, to be honest. And this is one of the most last unspoiled seascapes in the world. And there are these people there called the Moken Sea Gypsies, and they’re the last boat dwelling nomads on the planet.

And those guys had these amazing kind of houseboats, quite simple design. But each member of the family of an extended family would have its own little boat and they’d tie them together and they’d kind of pull them together. So you’re a whole caravan of these boats. So I think floating restaurant bar, rooms, spa, go full monty on that. Yeah, I think I’d love to do that. And I also think it will happen quite soon because prime beachfront real estate is now very expensive, and also overwater construction is actually quite environmentally offensive in some ways in terms of effects and oceanography and the effects on erosion and et cetera, et cetera. So I think that would be one of the next ones that I hope that we’ll get the opportunity to, maybe on a lake or near a waterfall would be fantastic. You do some kind of crazy floating experience. Yeah, I’d love to do that.

SSR: That sounds amazing. Which one of your projects has been the most challenging?

LT: Oh, that’s easy. That’s Wild Coast Tented Lodge in Sri Lanka. And the reason for that was just because of the scope of work that we had on that project. So we were the architects, we were the landscape designers, we were the interior designers, we were the MEP designers, and we were the main contractor for the bamboos and the tents. And it was our first major opportunity to do a significant project. We were basically a startup. So I was wearing dozens of hats on that construction site. And it wasn’t an easy place to work. Southern Sri Lanka, super remote location, full of incredibly dangerous animals. Everything from crocodiles to leopards to cobras to the bears. It was like something out of the Jungle Book. No kidding. So that was in itself very stressful to be a very, very long way from civilization. And because we were so far away, we were super dependent on the local community who were also working for us, and we were working very, very long hours. So I was getting up at 5:00, collecting the boys, and then we were getting to site by 5:30. We were starting work at 5:30. It was so hot during the afternoon that we had to take this long break.

And I’d taken massive risk. It was a huge gamble. I’d said I’d jacked in my job at Six Senses where I was very comfortable and very well enumerated and had loads and loads of different advantages and lived in Bangkok. And I basically jacked it in and said, “Okay, we’re going to try this.” And that was a lot of pressure on my wife and my family as well, who lived in literally in a… We called it the shack. It was literally a kind of open wall structure. It was quite nice. It was quite near the sea. It was actually quite nice, but it was seriously, seriously rudimentary in terms of the actual living standards that most people would consider acceptable. It was well, well below… You know? No water-

SSR: She’s a good woman. She’s a good woman.

LT: Oh, yeah. She is. She’s a real trooper. You wouldn’t believe it. Some of her friends have said stuff when they’ve turned up in some of the places where I put that woman, and literally wanted to kill me on several occasions actually, strangely enough. Yeah. So she’s been fantastic.

An overwater shot of Madi Hiyaa in the Maldives; photo by Joe Agdeppa

SSR: But it worked. You figured it all out. Was there ever an animal encounter?

LT: Oh God, there were loads. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I mean, I’ve had loads of animals encounters. Don’t even go there. But in Yala itself, the boss’s car, we were doing an inspection of the mock-up room. And on the way back, the client had a really fancy orange Range Rover like Autobiography, which is a seriously fancy car, and we were in like a crappy old Tata Mahindra pickup truck driving behind. And we’d done all this work and we were going back, and then suddenly I saw this crocodile come out of the woods and kind of try to nip at the tires of this car. That was one of them. Then another time, just an elephant just suddenly appeared. Like a proper elephant. Not an African elephant. Obviously Asian elephant is smaller. But when people have elephant encounters, they go riding on elephants and that kind of thing, that’s all fun, but an actual wilderness elephant encounter is quite different. And then one time in Thailand, I was marking out one of the villa sites and I was with the surveyor. And I asked the surveyor. I said, “Have you seen any snakes in here?” He said, “Yeah, absolutely loads.” I said, “How big?” And he went like that. And he was actually talking about the girth of the snake as opposed to the length. So it was a good 25 meter diameter snake. So that means you’re talking about something that’s five, six meters long and could probably kill you quite easily. I also had an encounter with king cobra. Yes. Let’s not go there because it’s… I’ve also had flesh eating bacteria as well, which I got in Sri Lanka. So yeah, I’ve had a few adventure experiences. Put it like that.

SSR: Oh gosh, I love it. I don’t even know where to go with that. Where do we go from there? I guess taking this leap of faith, I mean, looking back, what would you wish you would’ve known then that you know now? Or I always ask, is ignorance bliss?

LT: Yeah. One of the things, and probably going to make me sound like a little bit of a rotten fellow, but one of the things that I hadn’t understood initially when I started on this was the implication of air conditioning. Right? I didn’t have a kind of technical knowledge. I was mainly in doing landscape design. I didn’t really understand what we call MEP and HVAC engineering. And we’ve built these massive villas in the forest, and we did our best to make it as sustainable as possible, but the actual truth of the thing was that fundamentally, massive air-conditioned spaces is not good for the environment. And I probably wish I’d known that at the beginning. And I probably… I wouldn’t have got very far. To be honest, everybody was telling me to shut up, but I would’ve liked to have been able to push back a little bit more on air conditioning right from the outset. Now I’m in a position where we can do that, but had I really understood the longer term sustainability impacts of mass air conditioning, if you look at Paul Hawken’s latest book, Drawdown, talks about what are the major climate threats. And it’s not flying in an aircraft. That’s a bad thing obviously, and you shouldn’t do it, but living in a fully air-conditioned large volume space and using air conditioning in a significant way is a massive thing. We’ve got to learn to live with our environment, particularly if it’s changing at the rate that it is now

SSR: So how are you combating that as you build?

LT: So we use principles of bioclimatic design. So we try and develop buildings so that they’re integrated, not only into the physical environment, but they’re also sensitive to the meteorological conditions. Right? So we try and create naturally shaded places, we try and minimize the footprint of the building, but also we try and use insulation in an appropriate way. There’s a thing called computational fuel dynamics, which is very interesting as you can actually project the airflow through a building using a computer model. I’m sorry about that. There’s a little bit of noise in the background. So yeah, those kind of things. I think that’s part of responsible design and that’s part of being a good global citizen. And also leaving a legacy that you can live with or you can deal with. I think that’s the other part of it is there’s many, many things that we can now use. We have incredible digital tools available to us in terms of BIM, Revit. You know? We have these kind of incredible tools. And I think now is the time to stop building just fully air-conditioned cubes because Le Corbusier said so 50 years ago.

SSR: And you’re working in these extremely remote places, as you mentioned. How do you get all the supplies there and everything that you need? What are those logistics like?

LT: You want to know the simple answer?

SSR: Yes.

LT: A complete nightmare. So that was why we started doing the modular buildings. Because you’re missing three 8 millimeter, 316 stainless steel bolts in Tanzania or Namibia. Right? You can have 20 people sitting around for two weeks because you don’t have your stuff together. So that was… I mean, I’ve seen some crazy stuff. I’ve seen glass being unloaded off Adoni and the Maldives where $65,000 worth of glass just fell off the boat and smashed completely and put the project back six months. I’ve had situations where I’ve had literally hundreds of people waiting for a boat to arrive with some very simple tools. So that’s really the art form. And I’m not a master of those dark arts. I have people who are, which is to be able to do tool lists, material lists, fully, fully detailed, and then have also to added in a contingency to make sure that you don’t run out. That’s the other thing.

And then you get curveballs as well. A certain moment when I was building Wild Coast Tented Lodge, I was like, “How many of these self-drilling galvanized screws do I need?” This is insane. I was importing them as well because they weren’t available in Sri Lanka. I was like, “This is insane.” Okay, there’s 35,000 shingles. I understand that. But I calculated this, right? And I’m not that bad at maths. And then of course, I went to the village and went and hung around the village and started really looking at the local architecture, and I realized that everybody who built these extensions of their houses using galvanized self screwing screws. And obviously each day they’ve been just pocketing a few. And I’m not going to chuck any stones because I actually… They’re nice people, but things like that, oh yeah, that’s a real headache. So that takes a certain kind of personality to be able to do that effectively.

SSR: Yeah. So your pods and your tents that you create, so you create them offsite and then you bring them? Yeah?

LT: Yeah, because we can roll the steel to particular diameters, we can check the quality, we can check welding. And now we’re getting better at this. Hopefully we’re coming into kind of a new era. And also you’re not affected by the weather. Right? So if you have a traditional construction contract, you have variations associated with the weather, the contractor comes back to you, says, “I can’t work for three days because it’s raining,” and you eliminate those kind of pressures.

So what it all means, essentially… So actually, I read a book about this. This is how I got into this. It’s called Refabricating Architecture by Kieran Timberlake. I read it in 2012, I think, whilst I was doing Soneva Kiri. And that was the kind of click moment for me. Guy compared traditional sequential construction methodology with how you build a Boeing 747. And a Boeing 747 is basically a computer model with a million different parts, but those million different parts are all manufactured in parallel and bought to one place and assembled, whereas the traditional construction methodologies, you do the excavation, you do the site clearance, you pull the things you, and it’s…

So what we realized is that takes a lot of time. So if you can basically compress the sourcing of all of those elements and then have some super smart dude working out exactly how that’s going to be measured, stored, distributed, then you can basically squish the timeline.

And this is what we’ve been all about, right? We’ve been saying, okay… I’ve worked on projects like five years. I worked on Soneva Kiri five years. From the concept design through to the opening was five years easy. And so what we said is maybe there’s a different way of doing this, maybe there’s a smarter way of doing this, maybe we can use technology in a different way and maybe we’re going to be able to do this in 10 months or 12 months. And that’s a little bit the holy grail. And I hope one day we’ll be able to do something like that in that kind of timeframe, I guess.

Bamboo clad Madi Hiyaa restaurant; photo by Joe Agdeppa

SSR: Right. Well, yeah, because still having to build other structures. Right? It’s not just the tents or the pods. There’s still some sort of onsite building that you need to do.

LT: And people get this wrong all the time. So there’s also what we call the reticulation, all of the piping, the generators, the wastewater treatment, the restaurants, the bars, the cooking equipment, all the other consultants. Yeah. So it’s not… Yeah. It’s never going to be a kind of package system. But I think we can get to a point where we are significantly better in the way that we deliver projects for clients. And I think it would be extremely desirable for clients to be able to have a more reliable project development and process with a more predictable budget and a more predictable timeframe. I think it’ll be a huge competitive advantage for some companies.

SSR: A hundred percent. Well, I hate to end this conversation, but we always end the podcast with the question that is the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson learned along the way?

LT: I think that’s something I think particularly interesting in this digital AI universe that we now inhabit, is that I realized that true beauty requires small imperfections. Right? Because in those little imperfections, there’s this humanity. There’s a word in Japanese. Kintsugi. And you might’ve seen this, where somebody breaks a teapot, probably gets clip around the ear for it, and then you glue the teapot back together with gold to kind of celebrate that imperfection. And I think what I found is that that gold, that kind of adhesive of bringing different things together and being able to connect them, that’s probably my greatest lesson learned, is the diversity of connection options there are.

SSR: I love that. Well, thank you so much for spending the last little bit with us. It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you and hear your story because I think it’s a really quite interesting one. And I can’t wait to see what you guys do next.

LT: Okay. Well, thank you very much for your time, Stacy. I really appreciate it.

SSR: Thanks. Hope to see you soon in real life.