Contract: Bota Bota, Montreal
Published in Contract magazine, November/December 2011
Luxurious staterooms. Dinner cruises. Barges-turned-music venues. It was only a matter of time before the spa would have its day on the water, too. In recent years spa boats have been popping up and pampering leisure enthusiasts in environments that offer the look and feel of a luxury liner, sans the hefty cost and actual travel. Bota Bota is one such floating resort, docked in Old Port, Montreal, and housed in a 1950s-era vessel that first served as a commuter ferry, then a floating performing arts center. It was adapted and redesigned into its current incarnation by Sid Lee Architecture.
From a distance, Bota Bota almost melds into the surroundings with its black-painted steel panels and, upon approach, has an unmistakable industrial look. “We wanted to respect the site by creating a new identity that doesn’t move away from the fact that it’s a ship,” says Jean Pelland, a principal at Sid Lee Architecture. “We were looking at both the future and the past, marine inspiration, and the industrial side of nautical design.”
Creating a sea of tranquility
Aside from the shape of a ship, there’s nothing more recognizable about a nautical vessel than the porthole, and portholes, in turn, can offer uncommon lens-like views. So the architects incorporated them everywhere possible in the skin of the ship’s main level. Steel panels perforated with 30 small portholes gently illuminate treatment rooms and provide unobstructed glimpses out to the city—a major factor for why the waterfront site was selected in the first place. “It represented the physical land we couldn’t find in Montreal,” says Bota Bota co-owner and managing director Geneviève Emond. “We wanted to offer guests amazing panoramic views and a feeling of traveling without moving.” The designers also inserted an operational vertical window in the panels, should a client want fresh air. Extra-large portholes measuring 5 feet in diameter boast almost 40 inches of depth, affording guests a unique leatherette-covered perching spot and vantage point. “The portholes have a cocooning, as well as acoustical, effect. When you’re sitting in one, you hear less of the surrounding noise, making it an introverted space,” says Pelland.
Introversion was the intent throughout the project in order to create a state of contemplation for the client. In the same vein, the designers used an abundance of black both outside and inside to make the architecture vanish, as well as give it mystique. The spa’s name, Bota Bota, sounds like a reference to boats, but in actuality, it is Chinese for “drop by drop.” Sid Lee’s office conceived the name to allude to patience and personal journey. Pelland elaborates, “The idea is to take time, drop by drop, to address a personal need to get away from activity and the intense nature of what you do on a daily basis. This design speaks more to the mind than the aesthetics.” The black palette achieves this for the clientele aboard, but also for the passersby outside who, at night, witness a constellation of light emanating out of the darkness from the spa’s portholes.
The pitfalls of maritime design
At the project start, the architects had no idea how complex designing and building on a ship would be. The biggest constraint was working with existing tight spaces. The program mandated single and double massage and treatment rooms, lounging and dining, locker rooms, a yoga and meditation space, staff facilities, toilets and showers, a sauna, steam room, manicure/pedicure lounge, pools, and Nordic baths. To address this, the architects built upward from the vessel’s footprint, essentially adding two floors. All components had to be fabricated to precise specification to not waste space. Unnecessary machinery from when the ship used to operate was removed to make way for guest locker rooms.
Adding more floors, however, posed the next challenge—keeping the boat afloat despite an increase in volume. The team consulted naval engineers to learn more about flotation, and then devised their own plan for buoyancy. “Any time you build a prototype in architecture, you have to embed the learning curve as you’re doing it. So we had to twist and turn to design from these findings,” says Pelland. Those adjustments were largely material substitutions to decrease weight. For instance, a thick layer of poured concrete for heated floors was tweaked to a 1?-inch-thick Styrofoam substrate through which heated pipes run, a thinner layer of lightweight concrete, and ceramic tiling on top. Thin steel was used for the porthole panels. The designers specified residential glass and aluminum guardrails for the deck zones, as opposed to the thicker commercial-grade product. And instead of wood, the team used narrow-gauge steel for the lockers. Two buoys, running the length of the ship on either side, assist in floatation.
Finally, there was an issue of regulating temperature. Montreal is notorious for its cold winters, so the skin of 670 portholes had to be strategically implemented. The solution was to prefabricate the porthole panels with a layer of thermal glass sandwiched within, creating a barrier from the cold that typical porthole glazing doesn’t provide. Conversely, summer sun combined with the ship’s black-painted surfaces can result in overheating. The architects devised a geothermal loop (opposite page) that works just like other such systems, except the coil is in the water beneath the boat instead of soil. The natural climate control is just as effective as a land-based one. Air exchange vents regularly release heat from the ship, and what the geothermal loop doesn’t do, supplemented electrical and gas machinery will.
The people have spoken
Sid Lee Architecture designed Bota Bota as a cohesive package, complete with branding, logo and font concepts, and signage. The studio’s holistic approach yielded such a hip and successful spa that Condé Nast Traveler named it in its 2011 Hot Spa list. “It seems unreal when we think about it,” says Pelland. “It was an ugly duckling before that would have ended up as scrap metal somewhere, but we made it a tribute to adapting architecture.”