Portico Fall 2021: Hannah Dean, M.Arch ’14, M.U.R.P. ’15, Leads the High Standards Behind Affordable Luxury

Some architects spend years dreaming of working in Europe. Hannah Dean, who has lived in the Netherlands since 2016, was never one of them.

Dean, M.Arch ’14, M.U.R.P. ’15, is technical services manager in Europe for citizenM, a Dutch boutique hotel chain that boasts “affordable luxury.” The job hits her sweet spot: using her architectural skills in a more tech­nical, instead of design-based, way.

“I’ve been extremely lucky,” Dean says of her educational path and the career that followed. “All the breaks I could have had, I’ve had.”

But in those early days after she quit a job she loved, moved overseas, and endured a series of job-hunting dead ends, those breaks felt few and far between. 

Within days of getting married, she and her husband, who earned a Ph.D. in 2016 from the naval architecture and marine engineering department within U-M’s College of Engineering, moved to the Netherlands so that he could join the faculty at Delft University of Technology. 

Dean, who hadn’t been “super keen” to leave her role as a technical designer in the metro Detroit office of Stantec, found it tough to enter the Dutch job market. Since graduates of Dutch architecture programs are licensed upon graduation, and Dean was not yet licensed, she was competing against better-credentialed candidates for very few jobs. 

After eight months, she got one of those aforementioned lucky breaks: a friend of a friend connected her with a Netherlands–based architect who just happened to be from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He hired her at his small shop, which gave her a pathway to not only a paycheck but also her architectural license — since her boss’s California license meant Dean’s time working with him qualified for NCARB AXP.

Since she wasn’t in love with the concept design work she was doing, “I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue in practice, but it was important for me to get my license,” Dean says. After stretching out the exam process over two years of trips home to see her family, Dean became licensed in the state of Maine. 

Another stroke of luck in Dean’s career was that a tenuous cell signal on an Arctic Circle vacation allowed her to know that citizenM had received her job application and was interested in speaking with her. “I knew that I liked construction, and the job used my architectural skills while allowing me to be on construction sites, which felt like a double win,” Dean says of what attracted her to the job. And since citizenM is a multinational company, the official language is English, another win since Dean’s lack of fluency in Dutch had closed doors on other opportunities. 

When she joined citizenM in 2017, the company had opened 12 hotels: one in North America, one in Asia, and 10 in Europe. Today, there are 22 citizenM hotels worldwide, with five opening in North America this year and another five scheduled to open next year. Dean’s first solo project was in Copenhagen, followed quickly by Zurich and Geneva. Her current projects include hotels in Dublin and near Victoria Station in London.

Dean describes her job as being similar to an owner-rep, joking, “My job is to say ‘no,’ to be the bad cop. I’m a bit of a chameleon that a design manager needs to motivate the local teams, but basically I give final approvals from a brand and aesthetic perspective on every aspect of our buildings, including the exterior, the front of house, and the guest rooms. I’m not onsite every week taking measurements and making a punch list. I’m there to make sure that the feel is right, and then I’ll draw on my architectural knowledge and problem solve if it isn’t.”

Many of citizenM’s hotels in Europe are in historically protected buildings, so Dean has to liaise between internal teams to ensure that the brand standards are effectively modified to accommodate the retrofits. One thing that makes the process easier is that citizenM owns the buildings it operates. “In some ways, we’re more like a real estate investment company than a hospitality company,” Dean explains. As opposed to the franchise model of big chains like Hilton and Marriott, “we buy properties, develop them to our needs, and then operate and maintain the building ourselves. We’re vertically integrated, so if we want to make changes, we don’t need to get a bunch of owners in line. We just do it.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. Each country has its own standards and its own understanding of roles and responsibilities. For the Copenhagen project, Dean and her team didn’t realize that Danish architects don’t work past RIBA stage four. They produce the construction document set that goes out to bid, but they don’t vet the tenders or provide construction oversight. “There was that sense of being ready to break ground and looking around and saying, ‘Where is everybody?,’” Dean laughs. Brand standards also can be lost in translation, especially when local architects want to put their stamp on the work. “We know what we want, and we tell you what we want. There’s no room for interpretation, and that can feel constrictive to some architects.”

The biggest challenges, though, are the wildly varying accessibility and fire codes between countries, which can have a huge impact on design. “I spend a lot of time adjusting room layouts to comply with local regulations,” she says. “In Geneva, we had to replace all of our bamboo because it’s technically a grass so it didn’t meet fire requirements for hard, dense woods.”

Dean counts her time at Taubman College, which she says “took a chance on her,” as yet another lucky break — the one that set her up for her current success. “Both my architecture and planning degrees taught me how to think, problem solve, and make connections, and that has served me well,” she says.

“Beyond that, having talked with colleagues who went to other institutions, I think we had more fun at Taubman.” 

Amy Spooner