When hotels should consider modular bathrooms

As the cliché goes, “time is money.” Hotel developers know this well, especially when construction delays cause property openings to slip by months, increasing their loan carrying costs and delaying revenue generation from guests.

To streamline hotel construction in the face of labor shortages, developers and designers are turning to prefabricated modular bathrooms instead of building bathrooms on-site.

When Modular Bathrooms Make Sense

Bathrooms can be a prime culprit in delaying hotel openings. “The bathroom is the most complex part of a hotel room,” said Seattle-based developer Greg Steinhaeur, president of American Life. “You have many different trade professionals working in a small space, plus lots of materials having to go up the lift, to build them.”

Bathrooms require 10 or more construction trades—including electrical, plumbing and finishing work ranging from drywall and painting to mirror hanging—all coming and going in a confined area over a matter of weeks. As a result, there’s an enormous risk of damage to previously completed work. Bathroom rework accounts for about 60 percent of the punch list in most hotel projects.

As with other aspects of hotel construction, another confounding factor with building bathrooms is the ever-worsening shortage of skilled construction labor in the U.S.

Although hotel developers choose prefabricated bathrooms to obtain multiple benefits, the pods are better suited for certain types of projects than others. Projects for which prefab bathrooms make sense are ones in which:

  • The bathroom count is greater than 100, in order to achieve economies of scale
  • Bathrooms have a repetitive layout—every one of them doesn’t need to be the same, but it’s generally best to have no more than a handful of layouts per project
  • Completion of the building on a fixed schedule is important
  • Skilled local subcontractor labor is expensive or unavailable

Marriott's Modular Commitment

Marriott International is a big believer in the benefits of modular construction, using it in most of its hotel brands. In May 2017, the company launched its Marriott Modular Initiative in which it planned to use prefabricated guestrooms or bathrooms in more than 10 percent of its select brand signings in North America—equating to 50 hotel deals in one year.

“We believe the modular process will be a game changer for our valued development partners, especially during a time when labor shortages can be a challenge to timely openings,” said Karim Khalifa, Marriott International’s former senior VP of global design strategies. “As modular construction gains popularity and acceptance in the hotel industry, costs can also decrease over time.”

In contrast to traditional bathroom construction on the job site, Marriott and other hoteliers have found that prefab modular bathrooms greatly simplify construction. Because the bathrooms are built in a controlled factory setting, they eliminate the rework problems that plague on-site bathroom construction. Additionally, they arrive at the job site fully finished and ready to install, eliminating the need to coordinate construction schedules for multiple trades ranging from plumbing and electrical to drywall, painting, tiling and even hanging the mirrors and artwork on the walls.

In its “Smart Construction” report, professional services giant KPMG found that offsite construction “offers a shortened and more reliable program,” which allows hotels to open up to six months earlier. Bathrooms are a prime beneficiary of modular efficiencies because traditional on-site construction can cause weeks of schedule delays. Building with pre-fabricated modular bathrooms eliminates that risk.

A prime example is the new 612-room Omni Louisville (Ky.) Hotel that opened in March 2018. Despite the city’s tight labor market, which is exacerbated by construction of 10 new downtown hotels, the project team was able to open the 30-story hotel a month earlier than originally planned.

In addition to allowing properties to open sooner despite labor shortages, hotel owners and investors also benefit from the greater durability modular bathrooms offer—resulting in less maintenance and lower operating and property-improvement-plan costs. Appropriately designed and constructed modular bathrooms can help eliminate drywall replacement and associated fixes when hotels refresh bathrooms eight to 15 years after opening.

Two Examples

Hotel developers throughout North America have used prefabricated modular bathrooms in properties ranging from select-service to luxury. Two recent projects illustrate well the reasons hotel developers and owners choose modular bathrooms.

Seattle-based American Life, the developer of the Embassy Suites by Hilton Downtown Pioneer Square—a 282-room, 23-story hotel—used Oldcastle SurePods prefabricated bathroom units to shorten its construction schedule despite a tight local market for skilled labor. American Life first used the prefab modular bathrooms in a 23-story hotel in Los Angeles, which trimmed that project’s construction schedule by two months.

In the super-heated Nashville hospitality market, Pinnacle Hospitality Partners anticipates trimming significant time from the construction schedule for the 14-story Nashville Holiday Inn Hotel and Suites by using pre-fabricated modular bathrooms.

In a tight labor market, Pinnacle sought construction methods that would enable the timely opening of a high-quality property. “Through our due diligence, we were able to accelerate the construction schedule…and the resulting streamlining of the punch list,” said Rakesh Govindji, Pinnacle's president and COO. The project architect echoed that point: “Consistency of detailing in the bathrooms will enhance the guest experience, the housekeeping efficiency and the long-term maintenance by the owner,” said Art Killebrew of Bounds & Gillespie Architects.

Using prefabricated bathroom pods also simplified construction in Nashville’s bustling downtown, Killebrew added, noting that the ability to deliver the product from the trucks to the room bays during off-peak hours helped speed the process along. “The pods all have electrical and plumbing installations done once they arrive on site, so they require no extra work during the installation process on site, other than the hook-up,” interior designer Stina Funch added.

Working with Pre-fabricated Bathrooms

Modular bathrooms are built in a factory setting to each project’s specifications, including floor plan, size (typically 40 to 125 square feet) and elegance of finish. Everything is preinstalled and ready to go, including sinks, toilets, mirrors, lighting and wall coverings.

After being trucked to the job site, construction crews crane the pods to the appropriate floor, then slide them into the structure while the building façade is still open. A two- or three-person crew then maneuvers each prefab bathroom into place, anchors it and connects the electrical systems, hot and cold water hook-ups and waste water disposal. Exterior drywall is installed on the pod as part of finishing the rest of the hotel room.

An ancillary benefit to constructing bathroom pods in a factory versus building bathrooms on site is improved worker safety by eliminating the dangers of poor weather conditions and reducing the risks of working at heights. Removing bathroom construction from the site can reduce workers' comp rates, decrease the risk of Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations and has the potential to lower general liability insurance premiums.

Additionally, some prefab modular bathroom brands are preapproved by all of the major hospitality companies’ flags (brands), which helps operators streamline the development process.

Developers have installed more than 20,000 prefabricated bathrooms in the U.S. since 2004.

    What are the Cost Implications?

    Modular bathrooms can be cost-neutral in an average construction cost market, such as where the RS Means index is around 100. In markets where the cost of construction is above that, bathroom pods typically cost less than traditional construction. The challenge is to scope the pods properly and find receptive subcontractors to bid their work in a way that accounts for on-site labor savings from the pods.

    In light of requiring less maintenance, prefab bathroom pods offer the lowest total cost of ownership.

    Talking with Contractors

    As a hotel owner or developer, a key thing to remember is if you don’t ask for modular construction, you might not get it from your general contractor.

    On one hand, approximately nine out of 10 contractors say that prefabrication/modularization increases onsite efficiency and improves labor productivity, according to the 2018 Q1 Commercial Construction Index prepared by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and USG Corporation. But more than one-third of contractors report their reason for not using prefab/modular in a project is either the owner didn’t ask for it or the architect didn’t design for it.

    As an owner or developer interested in shaving months off your construction schedule, overcoming labor shortage hassles and generating added revenue from earlier property openings, remember to tell your architect and general contractor you intend to use prefab/modular. To fully get the value of using prefab bathrooms, the decision should be made as early as possible—and no later than design documents. The later in the process the decision is made, the more likely the architect and contractor become comfortable in doing things the “standard” way and the harder it is to introduce something new like pods to the process.

    Bill Seery is director of business development for Oldcastle SurePods modular bathrooms.