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The World’s Highest Modular Hotel

The citizenM hotel that recently opened its doors on the Bowery in New York is the highest modular hotel in North America, if not in the world.

This hotel is the first modular citizenM hotel outside Europe, following the earlier successful completion of six modular hotels in Amsterdam, Glasgow and London.

All hotel rooms are pre-manufactured including fully factory installed interiors and technical installations. They are even tested and snagged before being shipped to site. As a result, considerable time savings are achieved on the building site. Errors due to M&E installation defects or finishing flaws will no longer occur for those parts of the building.

Many articles have already been written about this modular building. Much less however is known about the extremely efficient design that has been made for the citizenM Bowery Hotel and how all possibilities of the local regulations have been used.

The solution lies in the limitation

The citizenM hotel concept combines spacious public areas with compact but very high quality hotel rooms. The result of this concept is that the brand can realize a large volume of hotel rooms on relatively small building lots. This enables citizenM to offer their affordable luxury hotel rooms at prime locations for a friendly price.

When I discussed the first ideas for the Bowery design with my former team at citizenM, it became apparent that meeting the design objectives would become a serious challenge. Local regulations limited the number of gross floor area that could be built, as a result of which the number of rooms dropped below the required limit.

Looking for a solution we found that New York has an interesting regulatory system. Each building lot comes with a maximum gross floor area which, once divided over a number of floors, determines the height of the building. In addition, there are various view lines from ground level to ensure that there is sufficient view from the street. So far nothing special. However, following these guidelines would never lead to the high-rise buildings that New York is famous for. In order to expand the volume of the building the regulations provide a number of options that allow developers to create more floor area.

Basically there are two options available. One: Buying the air rights of your neighbors, which means buying the construction volume they are entitled to but haven't used and are willing to give up. Two: Creating a so-called public plaza. This means that you assign to a part of your land a public function by making it a square and thereby making it available to the general public. There are strict rules for plazas but when you succeed in meeting them you get extra building volume in return. The ownership – and maintenance - of this plaza remains with the owner, by the way.

Knowing these rules suddenly makes you understand why NYC has such an open structure as opposed to cities where the tower blocks stand so close to each other that the streets are permanently shaded. Everywhere in the city, high-rise buildings alternate with public squares and parks or are surrounded by relatively low buildings that have sold their air rights.

In the case of citizenM, buying the unused air rights of the neighbors turned out to be too cumbersome and too expensive. The creation of a public plaza seemed a better option since the compact rooms allow for a smaller building footprint. After a series of architectural studies, it was decided to place the entire building as far as possible to the rear of the site. Furthermore, a step was made in the front façade to break the mass of the building but also to meet the requirements for the public plaza.

The plaza resulted in just enough additional building volume to meet the objective of 300 rooms.

Digging in means rising high

The Bowery location offers one of the best views on Manhattan. It would have been an opportunity lost not to create a rooftop bar. That said, it seemed an almost impossible goal because by now all available floor area had been fully utilized to achieve the required number of rooms.

The solution presented itself in another part of the New York regulations. Spaces which are located for more than 50% of their internal height below street level are considered to be cellars and can be omitted in the gross floor area count. In other words, if we were to go into the ground, a rooftop bar on top of the building would all of a sudden become feasible.

The designers immediately lowered the floor of a part of the public areas so that 51% of their height was below street level. By leaving the ceiling at it's original height, a double-height space had been created, allowing sufficient daylight to flood in from street level. In addition, the garden at the rear of the building, which is visually connected to the public area, was also lowered. This was done to avoid the impression that you would be sitting in a cellar. Moreover, the public area was now directly connected to the back of house in the cellar under the rest of the building and plaza.

Thanks to this clever intervention, the floor area of this part of the building became available to create a large rooftop bar on top. The rest of the roof was turned into an adjoining terrace.

The combination of modular construction and the intelligent interpretation of regulations created a building that is not only aesthetically appealing but also offers maximum operational efficiency and returns.

Modular and smart

Modular building is revolutionizing the construction industry, allowing buildings to be realized faster and at a much higher quality than ever before. Another advantage is that modular buildings provide superior acoustic insulation as a natural result of their structure. This makes the modular option particularly suitable for hotels and apartment blocks. In addition citizenM, being an innovator in the hotel industry, proved that modular building is also very suitable for the luxury segment.

The citizenM Bowery Hotel is a wonderful example. It shows that innovative thinking and modern technology in the hands of an excellent design team can lead to smart new solutions that have a tremendous positive impact on the operation.

In order to be able to fully utilize the potential of modular construction, a good understanding of the preconditions of this building method is essential. It surely requires a different way of designing, planning, building and even financing real estate. In combination with smart design the results can be stunning.

Carel van Houte is owner of Prolodge, providing independent advisory services for the design and modular construction of commercial real estate. Previously he was chief design & construction officer at citizenM Hotels.

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