The all-modular construction approach to international hospitality adopted by citizenM provides a new path for the industry, from both the business and construction sides. The Amsterdam-based hospitality company operates five hotels in the U.S. and more than 20 properties worldwide, all of them owned by citizenM.
And it’s just getting started.
As a fully-integrated real estate developer, designer, project manager and hotel operator, citizenM represents a new brand of luxury boutique hotels around the globe. The citizenM business model standardizes modular hotel design using just one room type and believes its core guests appreciate the consistency. The only changes made in the product from place to place are minor and done to meet local codes.
The company is replicating this centralized business model across Europe, Asia and North America by working from its European headquarters for design in Amsterdam and manufacturing in Poland to partner with local contractors as the company grows.
While building fully modular hospitality space is a relatively new approach in North America, says Ernest Lee, citizenM managing director, Americas, the construction method has been mainstream for a while in Europe, alongside wood framing and steel buildings. “To implement and embrace innovation, you need to have full control,” Lee says. “This has allowed us to make different decisions to be a pioneer from a development standpoint.”
The Netherlands-based company has plenty of experience to draw from. Founded in 2008, the firm has 21 hotels in Europe, North America and Asia with a total of 4,799 rooms. Worldwide, citizenM expects to roughly double its room count over the next few years.
Now also operating in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, the company will open hotels in Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco in 2021. Additionally, there are citizenM sites under construction in Chicago and second locations underway in Seattle, L.A. and Washington, D.C. A hotel is under development in Menlo Park, Calif., adjacent to the Facebook campus.
On a Mission
With the help of a handful of general contractors that move from city to city with citizenM, the mission of the company is to grow substantially in the U.S. “Having that fully integrated business model, in addition to a very long-term vision, allows us to really push the envelope of what innovation means in design and construction,” Lee says.
Brian Markham, associate principal in Arup’s Seattle office, says delivering a “cohesive and consistent look and feel while reducing construction costs and waste and shortening construction timelines and associated disruption to the area” are the keys to citizenM’s modular approach.
“To implement and embrace innovation, you need to have full control.”
—Ernest Lee, Managing Director, Americas, citizenM
This focus also allows citizenM to embrace sustainability, which Lee says comes from the company’s Northern European roots. He says core values include limiting disturbances to the cities the firm enters, reducing construction waste and being conscious of its carbon footprint. Applying energy-efficient technologies and systems means citizenM requires BREEAM-NC Excellent or LEED-BD+C Gold accreditation on its projects.
Moving citizenM into North America isn’t about showing a proof of concept, it’s about finding the right locations to develop and design while growing the brand’s presence in cities that fit the development plan.
“We pick our markets based on a lot of different metrics and criteria,” Lee says. “At the end of the day, it is a city that meets the demographics of our core guest, a modern business traveler.”
Cities must offer a deep employment base and have ample and diverse business needs to attract travelers but also provide lifestyle and leisure elements desirable to guests who want to combine personal and business trips.
That goal is realized in citizenM’s South Lake Union property in Seattle. The project was an ENR Northwest Project of the Year finalist and national 2020 Best of the Best hospitality winner. The seven-story, 264-room hotel utilized numerous construction efficiencies despite the fact that its nearly 230 modular rooms were assembled in Poland. By locating manufacturing in the company’s European plant, it was better able to control assembly and oversee quality control and efficiency.
“The benefits are not just product quality, but the ability to be in much more control of our timeline,” Lee says. Having concurrent construction and manufacturing in both the factory and on site produced a “tremendous advantage” for the company, he says.
“We value the location highly and think it is a great start for the eventual filling out of that region,” Lee says. “We hope others are encouraged to follow similar paths in their approach to development and design.”
Seattle’s distance from the manufacturing facility also required careful consideration in shipping, delivery permitting and sequencing. Working with city and state regulators early in the process—and throughout construction—allowed citizenM to adjust components of the design, such as a plumbing, in consultation with local regulators.
Mortenson built citizenM’s first Seattle hotel and is building another in Seattle’s Pioneer Square; it is also working on projects in Los Angeles as well.
“The innovation happening in manufacturing and other industries is far ahead of construction, where we’ve been building the same way for a long time,” says Phil Greany, Mortenson market director and director of business development. “We’re an industry that is ripe for change and disruption. Just like citizenM is disrupting the hotel experience, modular design and construction disrupts the way hotels are built, to deliver buildings faster, at higher quality, to eliminate waste and flatten the labor curve, all of which are important in our current market.”
The company’s approach of looking at the construction process as a product and not a project is a different perspective, with a learning curve for both the owner and contractor. Lee says working with a local general contractor helps in terms of regional expertise and experience with local trades. “We obviously come from a level of experience when it comes to modular and how to deal with supply chains and the idiosyncrasies modular brings,” Lee says.
Brent Johnson, mechanical engineer in Arup’s Seattle office, agrees. He says modular construction offers a steep learning curve for adapting to vitally important local issues, such as Seattle’s seismic challenges, that require close collaboration with the manufacturer. “With modular construction, repetition is the key to growing your design and delivery expertise and to achieving the marketed highlights of speed, consistency and minimal disturbance,” Johnson says.
Because this style of modular construction remains relatively new in the U.S., and relationships with suppliers and trades are still in the early stages, every project brings new lessons. Lee says the company’s vision is to look at these relationships through a long-term lens. “Learning on one job is transferred over to the next, and that knowledge is consistent and continuous,” he says. “We are doing a better and better job.”
Suffolk Construction is building both of the Miami citizenM projects, and Alexis Leal, Suffolk’s chief operating officer, says the modular approach has allowed Suffolk to control the job’s variables. “Using 3D design coordination and proof-of-concept sample rooms, we have been able to accelerate installations as certain components—such as bed units, headboards, prewired controls, showers and vanities—are being preassembled off site,” Leal says. “This approach is positioning the projects to be delivered within schedule while still maintaining the high-quality standards of the brand.”
Nathan Jenkins, Mortenson market executive, says the citizenM-Mortenson partnership is about creating a team willing to innovate and try something new, not just about hiring a builder. “There was never really a question of how innovative it was,” Lee says. “It has been in our blood since the beginning.”