Developers share the benefits and challenges of modular hotel construction, now in use for hotel projects of all scopes, sizes and locations.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Hotel developers looking to speed up a project’s time to market are increasingly turning to new-breed modular hotel designs, which have evolved to the point where customized, fully finished guestrooms are now factory assembled and shipped to the job site. And as evidenced by the variety of modular hotel projects now underway nationwide, it’s a product that’s not nearly as cookie-cutter as one might expect.
In recent months, modular rooms have been employed to build the 249-room Pod Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; the five-story, 142-room AC Hotel in Oklahoma City; and the sustainability-minded 410-room Canyon Lodge & Cabins in Yellowstone National Park. Despite the clear differences between these properties, their developers all chose modular construction essentially for similar reasons: speed and weather.
“We chose modular construction primarily for two reasons: One, it would allow us to avoid winter construction. We get feet and feet of snow and it’s a really hostile environment for construction,” said Dylan Hoffman, director of sustainability, Yellowstone National Park, for Xanterra Parks & Resorts. “The other major goal was getting in as quickly as possible, and modular (construction) allowed our schedule to be significantly expedited. We anticipated taking five years and it took under three, so it really got that (Canyon Lodge & Cabins) project up and going much more quickly.”
The time-saving aspect of modular—which can lead to an abbreviated construction time that’s months or even years shorter than a traditional stick-built plan—stems from the self-contained nature of the units. Essentially, guestrooms, maintenance areas, stairwells and hallways can all be completed at the manufacturing site, and need only to be positioned and connected to the larger hotel building’s mechanical systems once on-site. And since the units arrive sealed, weather delays—another common cause of traditional-construction lags—have minimal impact on modular projects.
“The weather has very little to do with holding you up, because the units all come watertight and ready to go,” said Charles Blaichman, owner of CB Developers, which is partnering with BD Hotels on the Williamsburg Pod Hotel project. “If you’re delivering (the units) in the middle of bad weather, it doesn’t affect you.”
And once those units are delivered, the pace tends to quicken considerably from there. Experts say a smaller hotel can be roughly completed in four to seven days; a larger property, like the AC Hotel in Oklahoma City, is projected to take about 10 days to erect. The main hurdle, in some cases, is simply having the site ready by the time the units arrive.
“The modules were actually ready before we were ready to take them on-site by a couple of weeks,” said Jagdish Patel, VP of operations, hotel management for NewcrestImage, which is developing the AC Hotel in Oklahoma City. “One of the challenges that some urban locations may have, or even rural, is that you have to have somewhere to store the modules before they’re craned in. Our modules sat on-site for about a week or two before they were craned in, and we were lucky enough to be able to find some dirt to lease nearby the hotel to store all those modules.”
Patel said that in comparison to traditional new construction projects, with modular the most intensive work happens at the beginning, in the planning and ordering stages. Since the room is practically ready to use once it arrives on-site, every single aspect of the room has to be carefully considered and specified long before delivery day.
It was a similarly exhaustive planning process for the Canyon Lodge & Cabins, which is LEED-certified and driven by its commitment to the environment. Still, the modular approach was surprisingly adaptable to those needs.
“The focus of LEED is primarily site and material selection, the energy performance of the building and the indoor environmental quality, but there are also some cool things that we were able to do,” Hoffman said . “We used countertops that were made of recycled glass and fly ash, which is a byproduct of the burning of coal for electricity. It’s essentially a concrete product; all the countertops and window sills have this recycled glass material in it, which we think is a pretty unique visual that represents the sustainability of the project.”
Blaichman, whose company is co-developing the Brooklyn hotel along with BD Hotels, noted that the site itself—rather than the perceived quality of the modular product—is the major determining factor in the viability of the modular method. As convenient as modular rooms may be for some locations, to others the process is simply too cumbersome.
“It is a little difficult in the middle of a very crowded city, so a place like Brooklyn—where you can have the lane closures and easy access and you’re not in the middle of midtown Manhattan—obviously is a much easier place to do it,” said Blaichman. “That would have to be with any city; logistics have to be right. Also, having more of a vertical construction would work a little more efficiently. These are all things you learn as you go. I would actually do apartments using the same method.”
This construction method is being used in urban cores too, however. Modular installation is underway in New York City on a 20-story, 300-room citizenM hotel, where the units were constructed in Poland and shipped to New York, according to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal.
More and more, brands are expected to start promoting the modular method. Patel said NewcrestImage opted to go modular for the AC Hotel in Oklahoma City based on Marriott’s recommendation, and it is foreseeable that this trend will continue. Experts said the flexibility of the process, and the breadth of design options, make modular construction suitable for a host of flags and property types. And once the specs are in place, modular rooms can be assembled and prepped with a high degree of consistency, which is, after all, at the heart of every branded proposition.
“It’s interesting, as a potential franchisor, to have a product that you can sell to a franchisee and maintain quality control of the entire unit from wall to wall, including furnishings,” said Richard Born, owner of BD Hotels, whose Pod Hotel is set for an April or May 2017 opening. “All in all, it was a very positive experiment, because I know that it could be done just about anywhere and you’ll have the same quality control. Anywhere you could bring this to, you’ll be able to have the same product, whereas that’s not necessarily the case for conventional construction.”