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The Dream Cabin: Reinventing what it’s like to sleep in a hotel room

January 10, 2019

Combining design with technology, a research team and hotel chain YOTEL are trying to give road warriors a good night’s rest

Heavy eyelids, aching limbs, foggy brain. You’re slow—to move, react, think—and a little clumsy. Add jet lag on top of that and you’re completely out of sorts, and perhaps feeling a little ill. Yet you need to perform—that presentation isn’t going to wow the client by itself.

You need sleep. You tried to get a good rest at the hotel last night, but it’s always the same story: no one ever sleeps well during the first night in a hotel.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates one in three adults suffer from insufficient sleep, which can cause short-term performance and safety issues, not to mention long-term health risks. Sleep is important. And when people are on the road, it can be hard to come by.

Stantec wants to change that. By combining research into sleep and circadian rhythms with design and technology, we think we can help people get all 40 of their well-earned winks by designing a better hotel room: The Dream Cabin.

Rough night? Stantec is combining sleep-related neuroscience with technology to help hotel guests fall asleep easier, get a restful 40 winks, and wake up refreshed to take on the day ahead. In YOTEL Boston’s Dream Cabin pilot project hotel room, all that guests need to do is enter their wake-up time on a tablet and let the room do the rest.

Better sleep, better life

“We’re trying to improve the quality of life for everybody, ultimately,” says Tony Fiorillo, former technologist and digital practices principal with Stantec’s Buildings group. Tony and director of design visualization Pilar Botana are based in Stantec’s Boston, Massachusetts, office. They are collaborating with Suzanna Gombos, formerly of Stantec and now an associate at Boston’s Stack + Co. Architecture + Construction, and Dr. Steven Lockley, a neuroscientist and circadian lighting expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School. The research team has partnered with YOTEL hotel in Boston, which is allowing the group to design the Dream Cabin where theories about designing for better sleep can be put into practice.

If the Dream Cabin hotel room’s sleep monitoring device senses restlessness overnight, the room will adjust temperature and other settings to help settle the guest back to sleep.

“Suzanna and I understand that as part of the designed environment we can use solutions that have been used for centuries: light, sound, and temperature,” says Pilar. “In the past, designers had little control over those settings. Now, smart technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) are allowing architects to modify these elements throughout a day-night cycle, creating dynamic environments that adapt to our specific health needs, such as the sleep promoting room we are designing. Technology is acting as the enabler to curate these very specific environments, and that’s where Tony comes in.

“Right now, smart technology is having a moment. If you think about the possibilities—machine learning, IoT—this is only the tip of the iceberg. We can leverage these tools and take this idea further by controlling and adapting an environment for people’s specific needs,” Pilar adds.

In addition to helping guests sleep better, there’s a business case behind this project: Designing a hotel for the 21st century.

“Hotels are always looking at what’s next and how they can set themselves apart from the competition through their restaurants, lobby, and amenity design,” Suzanna explains. “This project creates a different type of hotel room, which hasn’t really changed in decades. We’re reinventing what it means to sleep in a hotel.”

This is what you can expect to see if you spend the night in YOTEL Boston’s Dream Cabin. Among other room features, the light canopy above the bed adjusts to promote sleepiness at night and alertness in the morning.

Designing the dream

So what, exactly, is the team doing to create a Dream Cabin that promotes restful slumber? Working with Steven to understand the science of sleep, the team designed a YOTEL room that incorporates the correct spectrum and intensity of light to help alert the brain in the morning or prepare the brain for sleep at night and sets temperature levels to optimize the sleep process. The Dream Cabin also comes with a sleep kit—eye masks and earplugs—for each guest.

“We’ve custom developed lighting patterns for the whole day—lighting patterns for waking up in the morning, lighting routines for going to sleep, all controlled either through voice or tablet,” Tony says. “We are taking a similar approach with temperature and sounds.”

All the guest needs to do is enter their desired wake-up time on a tablet in the Dream Cabin and the hotel room does the rest. By combining sleep-related neuroscience and IoT technology, the room will adjust lighting and temperature to encourage sleepiness and a reasonable bedtime in the evening, and energy and wakefulness in the morning. If the Dream Cabin hotel room’s sleep monitoring device senses restlessness overnight, the room will adjust temperature and other settings to help settle the guest back to sleep.

The group will also study how well guests sleep in the room. They have set up a control group of guests sleeping in standard rooms that will also be studied for purposes of comparison and measurement. (Of course, participating in the study is voluntary for guests.)

“This is a great step toward bridging the gap between science and architecture,” says Pilar. “We understand how the system works in a controlled environment, but we are now applying that information to the real world. The scientists learn from us in understanding practical applications, while we—designers—are learning from them and reinventing the way we think about the built environment and health.

“But most importantly, we all have our sleep issues—we want to help alleviate some of those for travelers.”

Turn down the blue light

Even a small change in overnight sleep can have a major impact on a person’s daytime function, says Steven, who is a consultant to Stantec on this project. With the Dream Cabin designed to improve sleep at night and alertness during the day, lighting plays a huge factor in the design. But it’s not just the intensity of the light that’s important, it’s the spectrum.

This doesn’t feel like work to me,” says Tony. “It feels like discovery.

As Steven explains, while most light appears white, it’s formed from different wavelengths on the color spectrum. Blue light is most effective at alerting the brain and resetting the circadian clock. Therefore, if you want someone to be more alert, then increase the amount of blue light in the white light exposure. If you want someone to be less alert—for example before bed—you’ll want to decrease the light intensity and reduce the blue light content, making the light redder. The Dream Cabin takes these factors into account in the dynamic lighting design.

“By having the right light at the right time, we can promote better sleep and better wakefulness. In the morning, by giving you bluer, higher intensity light when you wake up, we can promote alertness and help you start the day more quickly,” he says. “In a hotel setting, that’s great for guests because they’ll sleep better, feel better, and interact more appropriately with their environment. The way we light our environments can have a very positive effect.”

Steven believes incorporating the biological effect of light in a hotel room is a great example of thinking creatively. Now, that thinking needs to be applied in a broader way.

“Anywhere with a light bulb is a place we can do a better job with lighting,” he says. “Currently, lighting design has really been focused around vision, around how we see. Now we need to rethink everything in terms of some of these biological benefits of light.”

Over on Seaport Boulevard at YOTEL Boston, Trish Berry, the hotel’s general manager, says the partnership with Stantec complements the hotel’s objective to provide an ideal stay for its guests.

“At YOTEL, we are all about adaptable design and innovative technology and the Dream Cabin partnership with Stantec is a great reflection on how we are always looking for new and clever ways to make the guest experience even better. We are very much looking forward to the results of the research and seeing how we can incorporate findings into our future design,” says Trish.

Innovation beyond hotels

This Dream Cabin team received funding, time, and support from Stantec’s Greenlight program, which supports our employees’ great ideas. For the group, the project is more than a passion. It’s education, it’s collaboration, it’s an experience.

“This doesn’t feel like work to me,” says Tony. “It feels like discovery.”

The team plans to document the Dream Cabin design process and create a set of guidelines that can be adopted by a new generation of hotels.

“Hopefully, it doesn’t stop at hotels,” says Pilar. “Sleep is an important topic in college settings, for example. Sleep deprivation affects cognitive performance and ultimately academic achievement. We are having interesting conversations with local universities about student housing design that promotes good sleep. Then there’s workplace, residential, and hospital settings where the quality of patient sleep directly affects healing time. There are a huge number of applications for this combination of design and technology that we are excited to explore.”

The team is pleased with the progress of the Dream Cabin pilot project, which received mandatory ethical approval from a third-party scientific committee in late 2018 to move forward with the study. Control group sleep studies will begin in early 2019. The team projects a bright future (bring on the blue light) for their work in the hotel industry.

“The technology is there, it’s just a matter of combining it with something that can really help people,” says Suzanna. “It’s not just intelligent light and temperature—it’s even smarter than that, it’s making sense out of all of it. We’re very excited to test and use this innovation in a meaningful way.”

Project Acknowledgements:

The Dream Cabin project team would like to express their gratitude for the support of the following individuals:

Tamara Roy, Michael Grant, Ray KettnerMichael Joyce, Jo Ellen Kelly, Bill Ward, Matthew Storey, and Matt Roberts

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