I saw a headline the other day on Huffington Post.com – “Super Efficient Crew Builds 15-Storey Chinese Hotel in Just six days”.  There was a video with it, which showed – well, yes, this steel frame structure did go up in six days, but I think it was a bit of a stunt, and the “six days” is somewhat disingenuous.  The foundations had already been built, and there was no sign of any plumbing or electrical wiring, nor any wall or other finishes.

But let’s not belittle the achievement.  The fact is that the structure, a steel frame with pre-fabricated panels did indeed go up in six days, whilst a normal concrete slab and column method will take months, if not years, to complete.  The quicker you can get a hotel open, the faster you can start receiving income and paying down debt.

That’s why hotel investors have been looking at new technologies for hotel construction.  Steel frame and pre-fabricated panels is not that new.  Sweden’s Top Housing used it to build the Labadi Beach Hotel in Accra some 20 years ago, and the Sheraton Hotel in Ikeja opened in 1985, having been built with the same methodology.  Top Housing effectively provide a pre-manufactured, pre-packaged system.  It is all shipped in in containers, the first part you need is there when you open Container #1, and the corkscrew is at the back of the last container!

Sassi, a South Africa-based company offers a similar system, actually branded “Building in a Box”, currently being looked at for a multi-unit roll out of a mid-market hotel product in Angola.

And taking the concept of a “hotel in a box” that much further one discovers that it is (almost) possible to ship in a hotel that is already built.  Known popularly as a modular building system, it has been used very successfully at the 307-room Travelodge Heathrow Central in the UK.  The supplier of the modules, each of which comprises two bedrooms either side of a “slice” of corridor, was Verbus, which manufactures them in China.  Shipped in on a container vessel, and then trucked to site, the 181 modules were lifted into position by crane, bolted together, and then cladded with glass or aluminium panels.  Inside each module all wall, ceiling and floor finishes are in place, the bathroom and plumbing are all there, as are the electrics.  All that is missing is the furniture and the laundry bag!

At the Heathrow site, put 30 modules in place each day, so that’s about the same 6-day period as the Chinese construction.  Due to the location under the flight path, the modules had to stand up to stringent sound-proofing tests – and passed.

Apart from the time saving – claimed to be 30 per cent less than traditional build – the units come at a fixed price (no variation orders) and factory-controlled quality.  On-site the construction methodology is simplified, and the cost of supervision is reduced.  The overall cost is not claimed to be any less than traditional build, but factoring in the massive reduction in the construction time means that whole life cost is far less.

And then there’s the humble shipping container.  Second-hand containers have little value, as they are expensive to transport empty, that’s why you see so many lying about the place.  But an enterprising Dutch company, Tempo Housing, had the idea of refurbishing containers and using them as hostel and hotel bedrooms.  On the small side, admittedly, but fine for student housing and economy hotels.  There’s a “container hotel” under construction in the south of Nigeria using this very system, and it has been used for student housing in the Netherlands.

Time is money.  The faster one can get to market, the faster the returns.  In territories where logistics and local conditions, including weather, skills shortages and so on, make traditional build a sometimes very drawn out affair (and many African locations fit that description), the modular system can be extremely attractive.  However, those very logistical problems can also hinder the use of the system – one container stuck in the port, or at a land border, can throw the whole programme out of the window.

It is not for every hotel project.  I don’t think the modular system is appropriate for a deluxe hotel, nor is the pre-engineered system such as Top Housing’s suitable for a village property, where low-rise traditional build (using local materials and labour) is likely to be far cheaper, and more suited to the market.  But hotel investors are strongly advised to consider new building technologies for their projects, especially at the economy and mid-market levels – it may well pay off.

Trevor Ward

W Hospitality Group, Lagos

trevor.ward@w-hospitalitygroup.com