By Peter Mitham
PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. – Time is money when it comes to construction. The sooner a new hotel can welcome guests, the sooner the hotelier starts seeing a return on the investment. A quick approvals process is one way to achieve significant cost-savings but modular construction is beginning being embraced as technology makes the planning, design and execution of projects that much easier.
Pioneered in the U.S. by Marriott for some its select service brands, modular construction is finding followers in Canada. Among the several companies in Canada providing this type of construction is Horizon North Logistics Inc. of Calgary, which is set to complete a 104-room Hyatt Place in Prince George this winter.
Winter is the least-hospitable time for construction workers in northern B.C., but modular construction allowed the five-storey hotel to take shape in a matter of days at the end of November.
“I felt this was better than stick-build, because their timing is really fast,” says owner Ron Mundi, president of Kamloops-based Mundi Hotel Enterprises Inc.
This is the second hotel Mundi has developed in partnership with Horizon, and the first Hyatt Place hotel built in this manner. Mundi, who owns and operates 14 hotels, got his start in the hotel business by buying and renovating motels, but in 2016 he began looking at developing new properties and identified an opportunity in Oliver, in the southern Okanagan.
“But I don’t have construction experience,” he says.
Coincidentally, Horizon North was developing the Ramada by Wyndham Revelstoke, and Mundi reached out to see what might be possible in Oliver. He worked out a deal with Horizon, and Coast Hotels, under whose flag the hotel would operate, to develop an 83-room property. Horizon offered a fixed-price contract, minimizing financial risk, and sign-off would be given by Coast Hotels. Mundi would receive the keys only if everything measured up to brand standards and a municipal building inspection.
“So, no risk to me, basically,” he says.
The hotel was completed in 10 months, opening in August 2018, and Mundi was happy enough with the results that modular was top-of-mind when he began considering a new hotel in Prince George.
Scott Richer, vice-president, real estate and development for Canada with Hyatt Hotels Corp., expressed an interest in partnering with Mundi on the project. Both felt the Hyatt Place brand would fit the market, offering something different from current offerings. But modular construction was a different story.
“Between the Coast and the Hyatt, is a huge difference in quality,” Mundi says. “They’re a different scale, different requirements.”
He wasn’t sure if Horizon North would take on the project, or if Hyatt’s demands would be too great.
Richer, however, said Hyatt had just one demand: “Our expectation of a modular-build hotel is that you shouldn’t know it’s a modular-build hotel.” So long as it delivered on the brand promise and could accommodate state-of-the-art technology, Hyatt would be happy.
Ground-floor amenities at the Prince George location would include a business centre, limited-service kitchen and pool. Horizon said it was up for the challenge on the same terms as the Oliver project – a fixed-price contract, with final sign-off by Hyatt.
“We were brought in quite early in the process to look at their Hyatt Place prototype,” says Joe Kiss, president, modular solutions with Horizon North. “We really spent a bunch of time on the front end modulizing it, making sure we have an efficient design.”
The modules were designed with an eye to not only fitting together, but doing so in a way that reduced sound transmission. They also had to take into account ground-floor amenities such as the pool (it was fabricated separately).
While the wooden modules were being built at Horizon’s plant in Kamloops, a foundation was laid and an elevator shaft constructed. The fully enclosed modules, each with two rooms, were put in place in a matter of days.
“Typically we place somewhere between 10, 12 to 16 modules a day and then after that you get into some of the interior finishing work,” says Kiss. “We happen to bring it to the state where a hotel room is fully completed, even, many times, including the furniture, fixtures and equipment placed in the room in boxes.”
The speed with which the project has come together pleases Mundi, who notes that modular construction also promises to reduce future maintenance because each unit is built indoors and is never exposed to wind, rain or snow.
“I’d love to do more modular, because first thing is the timing; the timing is really fast. And the second, I feel the quality is great,” he says. “When they do the modular, they always build inside … Any 2×4, 2×6, or plywood sheet never even touches water, so I’m not worried about any mould or any other issues coming in the future.”
An efficient modular program could also take recognized brands into new markets, something Richer finds exciting.
“[It] hopefully can be replicated for markets that are similar to Prince George in Canada that maybe, under a traditional build type, may not be as feasible,” he says.
Whitehorse, with its equally hostile climate and challenging labour market, is a case in point.
“That would be an excellent example of where, if you could do the bulk of your construction off-site, and then ship to the market, you would be mitigating your risk,” says Richer.
The full potential of modular hotel construction has yet to be explored in Canada, however.
“It’s still relatively new,” says Kiss. “We see an exponential growth. … The brands, all of them, are very seriously looking at developing their prototype model options based on a modular approach.”