Once the hallmark of budget hotel chains, modular construction is emerging as an efficient, low-waste technique for boutique and big-name hoteliers in the U.S. and the UK.
At a new Hampton by Hilton hotel in Aberdeen, 155 bedrooms were built in pods of two in China, furnished, then shipped to the UK, where they were stacked container by container atop each other. Nearly every detail of the rooms had been decided and ordered long before breaking ground, from the furniture and fixings, to the kettle and teacups in boxes waiting to be unpacked. Where a similar traditionally built hotel might take 56-60 weeks, this modular building took 44 weeks – and the on-site time was four weeks.
“Modular construction is becoming more popular, and one of its major benefits is the reduction of time on the construction site,” says Richard Harris, Head of Capital Work Services EMEA (Hotels & Hospitality) at JLL.
Foundations are laid before the bedroom modules arrive in shipping containers, then the construction period consists of stacking and linking the units, fitting and furnishing any non-bedroom spaces, and completing external facades and areas.
The need to plan
In the Yellowstone National Park, three modular hotels in the $90 million The Canyons Lodge and Cabins project were built in six months, compared to the 30 months it would have taken for a traditional construction.
The speed of the build is facilitated by a longer period of detailed planning – and a rigid adherence to the agreed design.
“There is, however, a lack of flexibility to creating this way. You have to have a defined design ahead of construction, so production of modules can be secured,” Harris says. “Most hoteliers have a brand and product standard, so that aspect does suit.” Changes that can be accommodated in a traditional build – such as partitions, openings plus wall, ceiling & floor finishes – can be expensive, if not impossible, once factory production starts.
On the flip side, because every aspect down to the number of screws required needs to be agreed upon before breaking ground, modular builds produce up to 80 percent less waste than traditional construction. “Modular builds are more efficient and environmentally friendly than traditional builds – they consume half the energy, produce half the waste, and take at least a third of the time,” Harris says.
Enabling quality control
Many hotels groups have dabbled in modular building through the use of prefabricated bathrooms, which are built in a factory environment where temperature, light and humidity are controlled.
“The quality of a modular building is a lot better than an on-site build, because its elements are created by the right craftsmen doing the right jobs in ideal conditions,” Harris says. “That’s why bathroom modules are so popular. Talk to any hotelier and they’ll tell you most guest complaints are about bathrooms – whether they’re functioning and clean.”
The regimented checks that modular bathrooms go through before getting anywhere near the building site means that there are fewer defects at completion of the build and ongoing maintenance issues once the room in operation. Elements of the guest experience such as the soundproofing between rooms and on windows are also apt to be better, Harris says.
Modular is maturing
As modular construction suits projects that involve replicating numerous units – such as motels, which generally comprise bedrooms only – the method has traditionally been associated with lower-cost chains.
But advancements in technology that allow greater customization have opened the door for more creative products.
“Hoteliers often want to put their ‘brand’ signature into the design, particularly in public spaces like a ballroom or restaurant,” says Harris. “Now, modular builders are becoming more flexible to providing different colours, sizes, or looks. That variety of choice makes it more inviting for hotels that aim to provide localised, individual experiences.”
Architects are also getting to grips with how to express an aesthetic with a new form of construction that’s traditionally been assumed to produce repetitive or characterless designs.
Take Dutch boutique hotel chain, CitizenM, whose nine hotels are constructed by a modular system, including its latest addition which is next to the Tower of London. In order for the hotel to fit into the historical context of its busy central location, architectural firm Sheppard Robson designed a steel and aluminium façade that hid its internal grid structure of stacked bedrooms – without losing the efficiencies of prefabricating the 370 building blocks of the hotel.
A new way of building for new times
With the U.S. and UK struggling with construction workforce shortages, modular construction could be one solution for hoteliers to continue building with smaller labour crews and better efficiency.
Major chains are already on board such as the InterContinental Group, which is building a Holiday Inn Express near Manchester with shipping containers from China. In the US, Marriott has three modular hotels in the pipeline, including one which will open months ahead of a traditionally built neighbour, while the Hilton Group will open Africa’s first modular hotel in the Ghanaian capital Accra.
And it’s likely there’ll be many more to come. “As technology improves, modular builders can be more flexible and accommodating to one-off requirements. That’s already gotten better in the last 10-20 years,” Harris says.
While some spaces may always remain the domain of traditional workmanship, the increasing popularity of modular construction could inspire the innovative architecture that would allow unique, local-feeling hotels to be efficiently built from pods made anywhere in the world.