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Hotel building the Easy way

INNOVATION - As expected, the EasyGroup's first hotel flies in the face of convention, stealing a modular system from a cruise ship fit-out and using a contractor with a very unusual background.Phil Bishop reports

LAST week cont ractor Urang finished the refurbishment ? three weeks ahead of schedule ? of the first EasyHotel, a new concept in hotels from Stelios Haji-Ioannou's EasyGroup. The hotel in Lexham Gardens, Kensington, in the heart of London's museum district, is distinctive for two reasons. It is cheap and it is simple.

Rather like the EasyJet airline service, in fact.

It is possible, according to the EasyHotel website, to book a room in th is pr ime locat ion for as lit tle as £20 a night, although you might have to hunt hard to f ind such an offer. Enter cer tain dates online and the price is anything up to £175 a night. For this you get a room that is either 'small' (80 sq ft), 'tiny' (70 sq ft) or 'very tiny' (60 sq ft) and is unlikely to have a window. You can just about swing a cat in the 'small' rooms, but only a tail-less Manx.

There is minimal service. Instead of a dining room there are vending machines. But there is a bed, payper-view television and a shower/WC pod in every room, plus plenty of familiar Easy-orange branding.

This is a price-led concept for the budget traveller.

On the outside, number 14 Lexham Gardens is a grand, five-storey Georgian terrace that was previously an 18-room hotel. Urang has ripped out all the old services and converted this space into a shiny new 34-room hotel in just five months.

This has been made possible by the use of a prefabricated walling and ceiling system from the home of the flat-pack, Scandinavia. The only original feature left is the staircase, with its oak bannister and fleur de lys wrought iron balustrades.

Urang secured the £450,000 refurbishment contract against much better-established construction companies and it is by far the largest contract it has taken on to date. Urang director Steve Bushell believes that being a small, young company made it more adaptable to the new building system.

EasyGroup's brand general manager Roger Powell confirms this. He says: 'Using a new method of const ruct ion we needed a builder willing to grasp a new concept and be f lexible in approach.' Each room of the hotel is made up of between 12 and 15 panels for the walls and up to 15 panels for the ceilings. There are no wet trades here except in the stairwell area, where the original walls have been lef t uncovered by panelling.

The panel system is supplied by Inexa, a Danish company. Ceiling panels are pressed steel. The wall panels are a sandwich of pressed steel on plasterboard with a filling of insulation material. They are 100 mm thick, except where they are used against preexisting party walls ? then they are just 25 mm thick.

The wall sect ions ar r ive on site numbered , according to plans produced by Inexa and EasyHotel's architect, EPR. The numbers tell Urang exactly where each piece slots into place.

Steel base trays are fixed to the floor and each panel is put in place with a tongue-and-groove connection to the adjacent sect ion. A 50 mm overlap provides a secure fit. The panels are not screwed to each other, only to the base plate and to tracking above.

The panels arrive with a vinyl finish, protected by a plastic film that is peeled off after installation.

No further painting or coating is required.

Mr Bushell reckons the system saved six to eight weeks on the contract through the virtual elimination of wet trades and because the walls were being fabricated while the contractor was taking out the old services. Urang started on site in January and began wall and ceiling installation in mid-Apr il. It took just two months to install in the region of 1,000 prefabricated panels, whose arrival on site was phased over four deliveries.

Further time and cost is saved because the walling system comes ready-certified to meet the sound, fire and insulation requirements of the building regulations. Acoustic tests still have to be conducted on site. These don't come cheap but, because all the rooms are the same, only 5 per cent of the building (two rooms) had to be tested , rather than 10 per cent.

The minimum requirement is sound protection up to 43 db ? here the rooms are protected up to 48 db.

Urang takes no credit for the concept. That came from Easy Group, wh ich had used the system to fit-out the first EasyCruise ship in Singapore.

Inexa has been supplying walling systems for more than 20 years, initially for cruise ships and offshore platforms, but this is its first onshore UK contract, says the Danish company's UK representative, Barry Rowe. He adds that Inexa is tendering to supply the system for new-build student accommodation in Sheffield, Salford and Bradford.

The only problem Urang has encountered with the system is that the building structure needs to be absolutely true.

Mr Bushell says: 'The biggest lesson we learned is that, particularly in an old building, you need to measure it to death. There is some flexibility, but within limits.' Urang found that the alignment of one old wall prevented it from fitting five rooms onto the first f loor as planned.

Mr Bushell says: 'There was a brand manual we had to follow that specified room size. We couldn't go any smaller. It was quite a challenging couple of weeks. We'd have one solut ion and then look at it again and it didn't quite work.' In the end, through liaison with architects and the walling system supplier, the team came up with a way to configure the rooms so that they all fitted in.