Seattle luxury hotel and NYC public-housing projects use pre-fab bathroom pods.
In most hospitality and multi-unit residential projects, the bathrooms are a key schedule driver.
“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.”
“Historically, the number of trades and amount of coordination required in a bathroom exceeds pretty much any other area in a building,” noted Les Bluestone, partner, Blue Sea Development Co., New York City.
From luxury hotels to public housing, building a typical bathroom requires sequencing ten or more construction trades–including electrical, plumbing, and finishing work ranging from drywall and painting to mirror hanging–all working in an area of about 50 to 100 sq. ft. With many trades coming and going in a confined area, there is substantial damage risk to previously completed work. Bathroom rework accounts for about 60% of the punch list in most multi-housing projects, and can cause weeks of schedule delays.
As with other parts of a building, another confounding factor with bathroom construction is the shortage of skilled labor in many U.S. markets.
These were challenges Steinhaeur and Bluestone faced when developing two very different projects–an Embassy Suites by Hilton luxury hotel in downtown Seattle, and a public- and low-income tax-credit housing project in a revitalization of a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY.
The hotel project
Seattle’s construction and real estate market is hot, as evidenced by dozens of cranes throughout the downtown core and the phenomenal office growth of companies such as Amazon.com.
One of the projects is a new 282-room, 23-story Embassy Suites by Hilton hotel in the city’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood. Adjacent to CenturyLink Field–home of the NFL Seattle Seahawks–the downtown hotel anchors the east half of the Stadium Place development, said to be the largest transit-oriented development in the Northwest United States.
For a similar-sized hotel project in Los Angeles, developer American Life chose to install pre-fabricated modular bathroom pods from Oldcastle SurePods, Orlando, FL, to address the logistical, scheduling, and labor-shortage difficulties of building bathrooms on site. With modular bathrooms, “the flow of the job went faster and smoother,” said Dan Medeiros, designer and detailer for Pan Pacific Mechanical, Fountain Valley, CA, the mechanical contractor for the Los Angeles project. “The framer was able to get the walls built faster, and we were able to move to the next floor level much quicker.”
In contrast to traditional-bathroom construction methods, pre-fabricated bathroom pods consolidate more than ten construction trades into one factory-built unit. The modular bathroom pods are easy to lift, place, and connect. Pre-fabricated bathrooms are saving American Life about 32,000 labor hours on the Seattle project, which allows the developer to re-deploy those workers to other parts of the building to speed overall construction, which Steinhaeur predicts will cut the construction schedule by eight weeks.
American Life specified modular bathrooms to the Hilton-brand standard level of finish. To accommodate the layout of guest rooms in different parts of the hotel, the team ordered five different bathroom floor plans.
On the East Coast, 2,500 mi. from Seattle, Blue Sea Development Co. also served as the lead entity in a development partnership for New York City’s Prospect Plaza housing.
The multi-phase Prospect Plaza project, developed on behalf of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and NYC Housing Preservation & Development, is transforming 4 1/2 acres in Brooklyn’s Oceanhill-Brownsville neighborhood into 394 housing units, including 80 units of NYCHA public housing and 310 affordable-housing apartments, retail space, a community center, and a public park.
Although the public- and low-income tax-credit housing differs substantially from the Seattle hotel, Blue Sea Development faced the same bathroom construction challenges. Like downtown Seattle, the Brooklyn project site posed the logistical challenges of staging thousands of individual bathroom materials–toilets to sinks to mirrors–in a dense urban area.
One concern not present in the Seattle project was the Prospect Plaza development team’s pursuit of several green-building designations (Energy Star, National Green Building Standard, and LEED). To meet the energy-efficiency standards imposed by the programs, Blue Sea needed to meet airtightness requirements between individual apartments and the exterior.
To streamline construction, while ensuring airtight, high-quality bathrooms, the Blue Sea team also chose the SurePods. “Anything that can reduce the bottleneck of bathroom construction is helpful for completing a high-quality project on time and on budget,” said Bluestone. “The bathroom pods also passed the airtightness requirement better than anything that could have been field constructed, and people are generally impressed when they see the quality of the bathrooms.”
Working with pods
Modular bathrooms are built in a factory setting specific to each project’s specifications–floor plan, size (typically 40 to 125 sq. ft.), and elegance of finish. Everything is pre-installed and ready to operate, including sinks, toilets, mirrors, lighting, and wallcoverings.
After being trucked to a job site, construction crews crane the pods to the appropriate floor, and then slide them into the structure while the building façade is still open. A two- or three-person crew maneuvers each pre-fab bathroom into place, anchors it, and connects the electrical systems, hot-and-cold-water hookups, and wastewater disposal. Exterior drywall is installed on the pod as part of finishing the rest of the hotel room or apartment.
Although developers like American Life and Blue Sea chose prefabricated bathrooms in order to obtain multiple benefits, the pods are better suited for certain types of projects than others. Projects for which pre-fab bathrooms make sense are ones in which:
- bathroom count is greater than 100
- bathrooms have a repetitive layout
- building completion on a fixed schedule is important
- skilled local subcontractor labor is expensive or unavailable.
Developers naturally wonder about the costs of modular bathrooms compared to building on site. Modular bathrooms are 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 properly spec the pods and find receptive subcontractors to bid their work in a way that accounts for on-site labor savings. CA