Cover The Shinta Mani Wild resort in Cambodia is set amid a conserved forest area where the wildlife roams freely beneath stilted tents

Hospitality designer Bill Bensley’s commitment to holistic building is seen in his boundary-pushing and sustainable designs for hotels and resorts worldwide

Landscape architect and interior designer Bill Bensley is renowned for his visually and sensorially rich resorts. But more importantly, he has made it his life’s mission to preserve the sanctity of the Earth through focused ecological practices.

Having grown up in a self-sustaining farm in California, it could be said that eco-consciousness is embedded into the designer’s personal philosophy. “In Bangkok, my home is a haven in the middle of an urban jungle—this is very much something influenced by my upbringing,” he shares.

“Many of my projects have adopted ideas such as in-house farms, composting and a closed system in the garden meaning that nothing goes to waste; I was brought up to respect Mother Nature and this respect only grew when I studied landscape architecture.”

Bensley recently purchased logging rights to 865 hectares of forest as part of the Shinta Mani Wild Bensley Collection, an eco-conscious resort in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, which he owns. In Worldwild China—which Bensley calls “a luxury human zoo”—he influenced the client to house visitors on just five per cent of the 809-hectare premises, keeping the rest for free-roaming rescued animals.

In a bid to encourage sustainable practices in the hospitality industry, Bensley released an open-source white paper entitled Sensible Sustainability Solutions, which outlines practical ways to create truly green hotels. The comprehensive document offers both a broad scope and precise details, such as using glassware instead of disposable cups. 

“We are on the brink of a new extinction—Covid-19 makes that feel all the more poignant—and it is essential that we start making actual changes,” shares the designer. “Many of the changes I propose are not only common sense, but can also make hotels far more profitable—and help them cut costs, too.”

See also: How Architects Are Bringing More Greenery To Singapore With Biophilic Design

Tell us more about yourself. How did you end up living in Southeast Asia?
Bill Bensley (BB) I have called Bangkok home for 37 years now, and still get such a kick out of designing here. When I moved to South East Asia after graduating from university, I started off in Singapore, with my first project in Bali.

I fell in love with this corner of the world and despite learning the languages—both spoken and architectural—I often feel no number of visits is enough to reveal all of its complexities, wonder and beauty. Southeast Asia is also home to some of the most incredible artisans and makers in the world; their creativity is limitless and their skill ever so inspiring. 

How do you convince clients to prioritise biophilic design?
BB By showing them that it is worth it. At Capella Ubud in Bali, Indonesia, I convinced the client to change tack: instead of building a 120-room hotel that would have destroyed the forest completely, we built a 24-tent camp that tip-toes ever so softly on the land and does not change drainage patterns. Not a single tree was cut down.

Using this principle I call ‘low impact, high yield’, you can probably spend far less on building materials and are able to sell those exclusive tents for far more than a standard room. If we are to survive global warming, we need to start seeing these changes as imperative.

See also: Hotel Review: Tatler Checks Into... Shinta Mani Angkor Bensley Collection

Could you tell us more about the upcoming WorldWild China project?
BB
With changing mindsets in China following the wildlife trade being declared illegal, our client is as convinced as I am that this is the way forward. The client’s original idea was a theme park of sorts, so we stuck to that fantastical theme but spaced out the hotels so that there is more of a unique experience in each of them.

For example, in the Africa section, the two hotels are inspired by termite colonies and the cliff homes of the Dogon and Tellem people in Mali.

How can city hotels be similarly creative in engaging biophilic architecture? 
BB
One great example of this is Parkroyal on Pickering by my friends at Woha, who created a hotel and office space (packed with gardens). In terms of interiors, one could look at the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge in New York, which is full of green spaces and natural materials despite being in the heart of the city.

Another example is one of my own. In The Siam in Bangkok, one finds a courtyard full of palms, while the lobby is centred around a fern-filled void.  

See also: Woha Founding Directors Wong Mun Summ And Richard Hassell On Creating A Greener Singapore