For Forward-Thinking Hoteliers, Modular Construction Offers Diverse Benefits

By Menno Hilberts 

In the future, should all hotels be modular? There are compelling reasons for hospitality brands to consider industrial prefabrication, the construction method in which a hotel is built room-by-room in a factory, with modular units transported to the final site and assembled like shipping containers to create the hotel building. This approach, which has been around for a while, offers a wide range of benefits including shorter schedules, lower construction costs, better quality control, and smaller carbon footprints and other sustainability advantages.

While many builders and hotel groups have been slow to capitalize on this trend, the modular building approach has become integral to our brand at CitizenM, and we strongly believe in its value. Our first modular hotel opened in Amsterdam in 2008, and currently eight of CitizenM’s 20 hotels are made with modular units, with more underway in Los Angeles and Seattle—it’s fair to say that we’ve gleaned some insight into best practices along the way. For those innovative, forward-thinking hoteliers contemplating modular construction for future projects, here are several important advantages and considerations to keep in mind.

Faster, More Efficient Construction
Shorter construction timelines—often by at least several months—are among the most well-known benefits of the modular approach, reducing costs and speeding time to market and revenue generation. The repetitive elements that make modular construction scalable are also particularly well-suited to hospitality applications. For example, since CitizenM offers guests just one type of affordable luxury hotel room, 80% of a given CitizenM hotel comprises repetitive pieces—which means only one set of easily replicable drawings, specifications, budgets and contracts.

Typically, our prebuilt modules consist of two bedrooms framed in steel, connected by a hallway, and already enclosed. Millwork and FF&E is attached to the walls or floors, including a bed frame for an XL king-size bed, work desk, vanity and bathroom. This approach offers key guest experience benefits, too: Unlike a traditionally built hotel, where rooms share walls, ceilings, and floors, the modular format ensures that each room module is acoustically separated with its own steel frame—significantly improving soundproofing and acoustical controls.

Certain building elements, such as foundations and non-standardized common areas on lower floors or the rooftop level, will need to be constructed on site. The staging of this construction and the module installation also contributes to the efficiency of this approach. For example, with our 300-room CitizenM New York Bowery property—our first modular project in the U.S., and currently the world’s tallest modular hotel building—the lower-floor public and café areas were built on site in New York City, while 210 modular units were fabricated concurrently in Gdansk, Poland. Once the room modules were installed, a rooftop bar was site-built on top—for this type of signature, high-value amenity, a site-built approach remains valuable, as it allows the hotel team to plan and design the space in a way that takes full advantage of the local context.

It’s important also to consider the site dimensions and other possible constraints early on in the design process: Our two-guestroom modules are close to the maximum size you can transport; anything larger would have been nearly impossible to maneuver in an urban setting like New York’s Lower East Side.

Quality Control and Safety Advantages
The modular building approach not only enables faster construction, but also allows a higher degree of product quality control. For hotel brands with large and growing portfolios, this level of standardization is a significant advantage, and the consistency of production can ease potential construction and specification challenges that come with entering new markets. This is also a good way to streamline supply chains. When possible, the parts of our CitizenM hotels—which are built in different places—are assembled at a factory in mainland Europe or China. At this facility, workers install furniture, fixtures and other equipment—they even make the bed, hang the TV and lock the room’s doors. The prefabricated room modules are then inspected and signed off by a state inspector, weatherproofed, conditioned and shipped to the construction site, ready to become the next CitizenM hotel. Knowing every step of this process, we can be confident that all room elements will be safely secured during transport and installation.

Another quality control and safety advantage: In the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, modular production facilities are cleaner and safer than traditional construction sites, with a highly controlled environment allowing builders to ensure safe working conditions.

These industrialized methods also mean fewer construction workers are required at the actual building site, further boosting safety.

Environmental Benefits
In addition to streamlining project schedules and budgets, and enabling better quality control, the compact size of individual room modules also brings considerable environmental benefits to the hotel construction process. For one, the latest modular approaches employ parametric prefabrication, allowing for flexible outputs, reducing supply chain costs, and reducing construction waste to just 2%, down from 10-20% for a traditionally built project.

Critically, shortened project timeframes also reduce carbon emissions and further construction waste. In regard to embodied carbon, analyses show that the modular approach outperformed traditional hotel construction by 68%, and office construction by 49% over a 60-year lifecycle. The environmental benefits extend across the broader construction process as well. For example, fewer truck deliveries and shorter timeframes for crane work mean dramatic reductions in vehicular emissions compared to a traditional, fully site-built hotel project. This will become more important in the U.S, as states and cities enact new laws to reduce carbon emissions, and as the building industry likely moves to similarly address embodied carbon.

Final Thoughts
Of course, modular construction is not universally the best solution for a hotel property in 2020, and specific market conditions will always play a factor. In the U.S. and Canada, for instance, the approval process for modular projects can be complicated and varies widely. However, this is the case with many emerging markets, and the process will certainly become streamlined as more modular units are built stateside, and as the approach becomes normalized. There are clear precedents for the widespread adoption of industrialized building and assembly processes: The auto industry inspired brands as diverse as Ikea and McDonald’s to roll out their new buildings in a standardized fashion. And why not: With pre-fabrication, 80% of a project might be repetitive elements, but that still leaves plenty of room for custom and creative design. When modular construction is done well, it really can lead to better buildings and significant efficiencies that scale up across a hotel brand’s entire portfolio—all while reducing carbon footprints and offering benefits for the guest experience. For any hotel industry leader who recognizes the connection between innovation and growth and success, the immediate and potential value of modular construction is impossible to ignore.

Menno Hilberts is the U.S. managing director of development at CitizenM Hotels. He joined the brand in 2008, and has led its international property rollout with hotel developments in Amsterdam, Paris, London, New York and the West Coast.