Posted in News, People on 21 November, 2020

An architect by trade, Ivaylo Lefterov says hotel development is in his blood. Now overseeing the planning and construction of the world’s first energy positive hotel, he tells Sophie Harper how the model for this new build will turn the industry on its head.

Two years ago, the first render was released for a new type of hotel set to change the world by way of ground-breaking sustainable design, construction and operation. It certainly set tongues wagging and ever since has had the hotel design industry keeping an eager ear out for further snippets of information. With foundations yet to be laid – since COVID put planned works on hold that were due to go ahead this spring – it’s unclear as to whether or not the Svart Hotel, that will sit beside the Svartisen glacier in Norway, will be ready by its original due date of 2022, but Development Director for the project Ivaylo Lefterov believes the extra time to contemplate the design has only made the project better.

Speaking to Ivaylo this summer from his family home in Bulgaria, he tells me, “We’re in a blessed position at the moment as we’re still in the sort of pre-construction development phase. We were due to start foundation preparation in March/April and obviously that couldn’t happen, but in many other ways it gave us a chance to really clear up a lot of doubts we had in certain elements of the process, especially where it comes to design, and to be able to tune in all the different teams.”

Ivaylo, who has an impressive resume of hotel and resort design and delivery, says he’s had the opportunity to take a different approach with this project. “I’m involving all the hotel operational teams and a variety of additional aspects during the design process because, from experience, hoteliers might look at a design once it’s finished and pick up on things that have been forgotten about, so they should be involved much earlier on. What I’m trying to do is engage everybody so that we all understand what happens from an operational viewpoint and make sure we’re meeting those needs.” He describes his main role as balancing everybody and making sure everyone has the right information. “I glue the pieces together for the different teams. Operational people sometimes get confused with the technicalities of some of the design stuff and vice versa, everybody has their own agenda and it’s a fine balancing act at times – including for my own sanity!”

We talk about the different challenges with a project like the Svart Hotel and Ivaylo says often it’s trying to get everyone to visualise and understand something that doesn’t yet exist. “It’s been a really creative process, and really eye-opening but it’s difficult because nobody has been properly on site yet. My job has been quite intense trying to visualise everything and then communicate that with the rest of the team. I think the renders have been really helpful, but you can’t really understand the impact of the site unless you have physically been there. I’m hoping once the teams get on site they’ll understand why there have been certain elements that I have insisted on.”

Even with modern technology helping to aid our new way of working, Ivaylo says it’s not always conducive for what they’re trying to achieve with Svart, “Zoom is good for certain things but when you have more than three teams and a lot of explaining to do to each, it’s not so easy. I’m really looking forward to the first time we can all meet around a table and work through things together.”

Other than a few challenges Ivaylo says there’s actually been a lot of positive progress. “We clarified a lot on the vision, on the positioning,” he says. “It’s a very sensitive type of project for so many reasons, particularly in Norway where they’re so sustainability and green focused, it makes what we’re trying to achieve more sensitive to them. There’s a bit of a clash of cultures and that’s another balance that has to be met.” He describes the Norwegian community as being very down to earth and grounded but that for people who believe land and nature is something for everyone, luxury and exclusivity is a hard sell. “It doesn’t really fit with their way of life, so we’ve had to think of more engaging and inclusive ways to involve and work with the local community and develop our sustainability programme in line with that too.”

Jan-Gunnar Mathisen, the owner of Miris Eiendom – the company responsible for Svart, was the visionary behind the project. Ivaylo says that with a background in technology and real estate Jan-Gunnar felt there was a disconnect in the real estate industry to the environment due to the volume of damage that comes from construction. “He wanted to create a building that was self-sufficient, had a positive impact on its surroundings – even to the extent that it could generate power to support the local community, and that’s where it all started. Svart was kind of the manifestation of that vision but obviously sitting where it is – on a glacier site – it’s even more sensitive to the awareness of our environment and planet. It makes the project really important in terms of messaging.”

The plan for Svart is for it to support itself and become completely ‘off-grid’ within the first five years of opening. “That’s really to showcase the possibilities that with any new build, any future built environment, whether it’s a hotel or housing, can actually be sustainable and self-sufficient whilst minimising any harm to the planet.” He adds: “That vision has been with us for quite some time and it’s interesting how pre-COVID everyone was a bit confused and not certain about what was going on and now it’s as though everyone understands what we’re talking about. So, in a way COVID has been good in the sense that people now understand why we need to change the way we do things.”

Having spent a lot of the planning stages looking into the structure of the building to come up with something that would have the least impact on things like the seabed and natural surroundings, Ivaylo tells me how they ended up looking at prefabricated flat-packed buildings. “It’s the easiest, fastest, most efficient way to build and it’s a technology that has been in use since the 1930s – so it’s not exactly a new method, although it has of course evolved over the years, but the system and the principal is still there. The ventilation, the cooling, we’re utilising a very traditional metal that has been used for hundreds of years in northern parts of Norway, so there are a number of techniques being used within this project.”

Using a mix of traditional techniques but applying new technology to reach new sustainable levels, even the construction of the hotel has been planned to have the lowest environmental impact. “The energy we need to power the project will be generated through solar panels on site – so again, we are self-sufficient,” he explains. “In the build itself we’ll have our own sewage system and all the residual heat that’s produced through the building will be reused – whether that’s in the cooling or water systems, we’ll be eliminating our CO2 waste.”

Taking a holistic approach with the guest journey, Ivaylo tells me how education will play a vital role in what the project is trying to achieve. “We’re not going to bore guests with a load of literature they have to read up on! It will simply be through their own experience that they learn and discover ways in which to help protect our planet. We’re going to be introducing the Svart Design Lab, which will be an interactive space that guests can gain a better understanding of the hotel and the way it works. All of our adventures will be part of that experience, but equally if people just want to come for a spa break then they can do that too. Svart will be a retreat, an escape, but something that hopefully at the same time enlightens you and makes you feel better in yourself. We’re not talking about a company that plants trees somewhere to make you feel less guilty about your own carbon footprint, we’re looking at a change to the way we do things in general and creating interest in that for all of our futures.”

Working with architect and design studio Snøhetta, Ivaylo says they have absolutely the right team on board to achieve such an ambitious build. “It’s a real coming together of minds and giving different people the challenge of coming up with new ways of thinking and then linking all that together. Everyone’s been really excited by that,” he says. “The challenge is bringing all the technology together, it’s an evolving process so I don’t have all the answers, we’re just developing as we go. We’re not going for an eco-lodge vibe where everyone wears Birkenstock, this is about creating something for the future but maintaining a level of elegance and beauty at the same time. But what we really want to do is open up the conversation, raise some questions and bring awareness to show that anything is possible.”

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