Pairing creativity with profits and sustainability

Photo courtesy of the Devin Avery

Kara Bartelt–Director of Operations, The Hoxton Los Angeles–discusses urban design, architecture, and engineering in dynamic built environments.

Gridium:          Hello everyone, and welcome to this conversation with Kara Bartelt–Director of Operations, The Hoxton Los Angeles. Kara ran engineering, operations, facilities, and safety at the famous Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, before that she taught at the University of Southern California, and herself has an undergraduate degree from MIT and a master in architecture from Yale.

My name is Millen and I’m with Gridium. Buildings use our software to fine-tune operations.

We’ll be discussing Kara’s vast experience designing and running buildings, and we’ll focus on the challenges of operating dynamic properties like the Ace Hotel, combining historic elements of the skyline with modern building amenities and a world-renowned music venue.

It’s a pleasure to have you on the podcast, Kara. I studied at UCLA and as I sit here in San Francisco, wearing a Patagonia jacket in August, I can’t help but think about some beach volleyball in Venice or reading poolside in downtown LA.

Kara:               Hello! Thanks so much for having me on today. We’re at peak heat here in LA right now so I have a hard time remember what a Patagonia is right now.

Gridium:          Speaking of downtown LA, how is your city’s urban core renaissance coming along?

Kara:               Downtown LA ever ceases to amaze me! I’ve been a part of downtown LA for the
last 12 years since when I had my office in the Spring Arts Center building – and each semester I’d bring students here to study the urban core and all the different districts that make up DTLA.

Most recently the two hotels I’ve worked with – the Ace and now The Hoxton – are on the south end of the Historic Broadway core – 5 years ago Ace was really the end terminal building of the district – it is so not the case anymore. Historic buildings that were once islands are now surrounded by new developments.

But I do kind of feel like it’s the calm before the store – as Broadway which was once a mix of small business and mom and pop shops – it’s now eerily silent for several blocks as spaces have cleared for new development. In two years it will have completely transformed. The new Apple store was finally just officially discussed for the Tower Theater a couple blocks down. It’s a new renaissance indeed.

Gridium:          From what I can tell listening to my friends who like geeking out on urban planning, autonomous vehicles are expected to have a big impact on city development. We’ve written a little bit about that here at Gridium. What are your expectations for AVs and cities?

Kara:               In some of the studios I directed in architecture school we explored this – so I love the idea. We spent time designing spaces imagining a world with AV vehicles. I remember a project by a student Spencer Purdy who is now an architect consultant in urban developments in Vancouver in small 1-2 person “pod” vehicles that you could store in buildings in much more compact spaces than cars. Imagine AV car pods hanging like dry cleaning racks as the new above level parking garage…

Not sure if you’re familiar with the debate on the electric scooters – Birds – primarily on the westside of LA, but I feel this shows that we’re on the cusp of a new transportation system.  There will need to be an urban system designed to accommodate that level of flexibility of movement in a city. Cars are for people. Sidewalks are for pedestrians. Bikes now battle it out in green bike lanes between the two – so how do we design for a different balance of now Automated Vehicles… I think DTLA is a perfect place to grapple with this and figure this out. So I welcome it.

Gridium:          You love buildings. Why?

Kara:               That’s where the drama happens! Buildings not only shape us. They reflect our cultures. Our history. Ourselves.

I grew up in the Midwest – pretty homogenous environment my entire childhood. I saw my first examples of truly “Designed” residential living (with a capital D)- when I saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater coffee table book in my History class in high school. And I was like WOAH. So love him or hate him, Frank Lloyd Wright did open my eyes to the possibilities of how buildings navigate our relationship with the environment. Buildings can change the way we think – the way we experience the world. I think a good place can change the way you think about the world – ultimately it will make life better.

Gridium:          Do you have a favorite building? How about a favorite architect? My older brother studied architecture and design, so I prepared myself to ask you that if it’s Frank, who is number 2?

Kara:               That’s so funny you ask–yes I have to admit Frank was my favorite until I actually studied Architecture as an undergrad and had more exposure to the world.

I do still have favorite buildings, like the Centre Pompidou in Paris for the functional and technological approach to design.

I always loved, and miss visiting, the Marcel Breuer designed Whitney Museum of Art for its broad urban moves that set it apart from the neighbors – the building pointedly interacts with the street and the City.

I’d have to mention the Yale Center for British Art by Kahn in New Haven CT. It has the softest concrete you’ll ever feel – and the cleanest mechanical rooms you could ever imagine.

But I tend to not play favorites anymore. I appreciate buildings like clothing – balance of fashion and functionality and history. I appreciate different buildings in different parts of the world for all their different roles.

Gridium:          I’ve seen you describe a hotel as its own ecosystem (by the way, the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson has written about that idea as well)…can you explain your thinking?

Kara:               I will have to check him out! Definitely – this stems back to when I was a professor of architecture. As a professor – initially you are designing a challenging problem for your students. Instead of working to have them perfect an architectural typology – like make the best museum, design the best school, etc. I think the most interesting places and building forms come from the blurring of typologies. We studied what happens at the crossovers of building function.

If you follow the adage that form follows function – what is happening in our society when the functions of our daily lives change. How does that change our buildings?

So I would create a semester architectural problem by examining a location in Downtown LA and purposely colliding or mixing different functions of the basics of life: live, work, play and communal gathering – gathering can take the form of eating, sharing, watching cultural event in a theater, having a spiritual experience, etc.

So here I am flash forward 5 years – and the reason I love urban hotels so much is that’s where all these elements of life take place. Hotels are spaces for all of life to mix, intermingle in work, live, play. And then the icing on the cake is that in hotels people allow themselves to live an alternate life of sorts – they experiment. Try new things. They are willing to try something new in a way – and they expect to experience a place – hopefully achieving delight. Hotels are really magical spaces – especially in a place like downtown Los Angeles.

Gridium:          You’re running hotels in downtown LA. Is that made any more difficult by the likelihood of having celebrity guests in the house?

Kara:               Ha – we certainly have our share of high profile guests on property. In the most extreme circumstances it can entail an extra level of care we afford them for access and privacy reasons – but it really doesn’t negatively affect operations.

In my time at Ace we had a particular celebrity in residence – I won’t mention who he is – but the space was really his creative home away from home and he used it as an artist’s studio. Beyond the maintenance issues that bringing an artist studio into a boutique hotel… paint everywhere…it was great to have him reside with us for awhile.

The nice thing about downtown LA is it’s nearby but removed from Hollywood and away from the movie studios. So most celebrities that stay or frequent the hotel do so without much fanfare or being bothered. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked through the space and said, Was that just?… And it is. But they are able to come into the hotel, be themselves and escape a little too – so it’s a good thing.

Gridium:          A hotel is a prime example of human-occupied space. Do you think that there must be a trade-off between occupant comfort and energy efficiency?

Kara:               Never! It’s a balance. A building’s most basic function is to provide us comfort – shelter from the storm and protection from the elements. We have seen modern buildings over emphasize human comfort and thus have negative effects for energy efficiency, but basic human needs have to be in balance with the environment. Not so much of a tradeoff – but a balancing act. Humans and buildings are both very adaptable – you just have to have knowledge and desire to be able to do so. I definitely find with better knowledge about energy efficiency, one’s opinion of comfort can be altered to accept other contributing factors.

Gridium:          I’ve read some of your thoughts on creating spaces that people enjoy. Striking the chord of an enjoyable space is so much more than gold plated faucets, right?

Kara:               Most certainly – sometimes it starts with a well made, beautiful faucet. Because it’s about the details. I think that creating a space for people to enjoy means you are choosing and combining all the right elements.

Throughout my career in architecture and now working with the Ace and The Hoxton, it’s about curating all the unique elements that make up a place. It’s the small details including to  the last screwheads on the wall panels, the texture of the fabric that touches your cheek, it’s about the light that enters and filters through the curtain, it’s about the music that you may hear that reminds you of a great time in your childhood, it’s about the food that you eat that transports you to another part of the world. It’s about the people you meet or just watch from afar – all these elements creating delight in spaces and make for a good experience.

Gridium:          What inputs do you include in your analysis of potential energy efficiency investments?

Kara:               Well there are the typical things I look at when evaluating ROI: like the costs to do project, time impact, the revenue impact – but the biggest thing I try to pay attention to is what operational changes will we have to make given the new system or product? Who on property will this affect? How will it affect them? Does it have any negative or positive impacts that might help or disrupt what others rely on?

Even in something so simple as changing out a lightbulb for energy efficiency, you have to evaluate in the life cycle surrounding the entire bulb project – who does this decision impact? Who is going to buy the bulb when it wears out? What tools will they need to fix it? Because if all the supporting infrastructure is not thought through, the ROI will not be realized because of new operational inefficiencies. Then the juice is not worth the squeeze.

Gridium:          I understand that you ran multiple renovations at the Ace Hotel–what are some of your project management tips for building operations balancing ongoing building service with subspace renovations?

Kara:               It takes pristine project management skills and it’s all about speed. You have to do a constant balancing act evaluating time it takes to accomplish something versus the cost to do it versus the loss of revenue to make the best call. Sometimes you had to take the non-critical path and start/stop work – do the job incomplete at first – because we had real revenue that we could either make or loose.

So we phase projects and sometime taking longer than it would or even spend more money in the end than you would if the building were not operating, because there was more revenue potential if you waited.

Gridium:          Running a hotel is one thing, running a music venue theater is another. What’s it like to do both?

Kara:               Hah. Running a hotel is in these two scenarios is like having two hundred people each in their own little microcosm – where the theater is like having two thousand people all in one huge space, it’s own macrocosm.

On the hotel side in building operations you make many very small moves, space by space, to manage efficiency, keep things running, keep your attention on one person at a time and try to perfect the entire block.
But in the theater there is the element of chaos and you’re making big moves, big decisions that have an immediate and large scale effect. You can see how much energy you spent or saved the next day. With the hotel, you are making a lot of little operational changes that don’t show their net effect until much later.

Gridium:          Before operating a building, you taught at USC. What surprised you most about building operations?

Kara:               That I could get the same gratification out of managing a really great team as I did when I was teaching young adults in college.

The dynamic is different in operations than it is when you’re teaching at University, but essentially everyone wants to do better. It’s about communicating a vision and helping people see how it’s achievable. In the same way I would motivate students to push themselves, go outside of their comfort zone, take risks – I get to do that every day in operations. It’s a great experience to be a part of that for others and meanwhile do a great job in what we’re here to do for our business.

Gridium:          A hotel is also a business. How do you think about the linkage between OPEX and operating income?

Kara:               Obviously you want to have one more than the other – but they are indelibly linked. Sometimes you have to spend more/invest more to have greater return on that expense. Sometimes time is a factor – you have to game out the exchange for the long or short run. This is all fun for me. I love spreadsheets – I love mapping out scenarios to make the best decision. Testing it – seeing if calculations or predictions came true. It’s like a game for me.

I also love finding ways departments that are traditionally 100% expense lines on a P&L can begin to generate income – do this through rebates and incentives offered by municipalities. Also find that by using different online systems, software we can literally get small paybacks to offset operating expenses. Who doesn’t like finding little pockets of money where you least expect it?

Gridium:          I understand the next album in your career will be at The Hoxton, a new hotel
also in downtown LA. What are some of the challenging elements to launching a new property? What is exciting about such a project?

Kara:               Extremely excited to be working on The Hoxton – to be a part of this property at the rebirth – not only of the building but of this area in the city – is so gratifying.

But the mix of old infrastructure and new systems and technology is definitely a challenge from the get go and then definitely into operations for years to come. I think urban renovations of historic buildings are like giving a lung transplant to a centenarian. It can be a real shock to the system and takes some time for the building to accept the transplant and to iron out the kinks, but when you make it through it’s so amazing to see an old building breath well again.

Gridium:          Great, well, thanks for speaking with us Kara. I look forward to staying at The Hoxton one day, and if the Ace is any indication, I’m sure it will be lovely. Keep up the great work!

Kara:               Thanks so much!

About Millen Paschich

Millen began his career at Cambridge Associates, trained in finance at SMU, and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, business, and green chile burritos.

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