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Chinese modular hotels ensure speedy job for Robertson

Robertson Eastern is building two hotels in Aberdeen simultaneously using a modular system supplied by Chinese contractor CIMC.

Project: Hampton by Hilton hotels, Aberdeen
Client: Hampton by Hilton
Contract value: £12m
Region: Scotland
Main contractor: Robertson
Modular bedrooms contractor: CIMC Modular Building Systems
Start date: March 2016
Completion date: March 2017

“The big challenge is the speed it goes at – it’s crazy.”

Robertson Eastern senior project manager Alistair Broadley is showing CN around two hotel construction sites in Aberdeen – one in the city’s Westhill area to the west of the centre, and another in the D2 Business Park next to the airport.

Both are set to be Hampton by Hilton hotels and both are being built using the same modular method for the bedrooms, with the D2 site 10 weeks ahead of the Westhill one.

“The overall programme is 44 weeks, whereas you’d expect it to be closer to 56-60 weeks,” Mr Broadley says.

“You’re realising about 15 weeks’ cash in the drawer. That’s the whole premise.”

Double time

Hilton appointed Robertson to build both of its two new hotels in Aberdeen, as it was keen to have one contractor overseeing the projects at the same time.

“We had done something similar in Aberdeen before with two office projects, which were of similar value to these hotels [approximately £12m each],” Mr Broadley says. “They had two distinct management teams and a senior project manager overseeing both.

“The client here was very keen that whoever won [the job] had an overarching view of the two, so that any lessons learned on one could be transposed to the second almost by default.”

This is the same model Robertson is now deploying for Hilton – Mr Broadley is senior project manager overseeing both jobs, with a separate contract signed in January this year for each hotel.

“Being ready for the containers is absolutely critical. Failure to do that would have huge costs”

Alistair Broadley, Robertson Eastern

The 155-bedroom D2 hotel started first in March this year. The Westhill hotel is slightly larger at 178 bedrooms and began 10 weeks later in June.

The D2 build is rapidly approaching completion, which is scheduled for next month, with cladding going on and the roof complete when CN visited. At Westhill, the containers started going in just one week before our visit, highlighting the remarkable speed at which the projects are progressing.

When Robertson agreed terms, the hotel modules were already being constructed in China by CIMC Modular Building Systems, a division of CIMC, one of the world’s largest shipping companies.

Two rooms are built inside one shipping container, fully furnished, before being shipped to the UK over six weeks and travelling up to Aberdeen by road. CIMC has been employed on a design-and-build contract by Hilton, so once the containers reach the site, CIMC is then responsible for craning the containers into place, not Robertson.

“They have a full package of items they have to satisfy,” Mr Broadley says. “We then have a novated design team who co-ordinate the design through to us, and we take the modules on board and deliver the whole hotel.”

Prepare to succeed

The main challenge for Robertson comes in ensuring it is fully prepared for the modules to arrive on site in order to take full advantage of the benefits of this kind of construction.

From arriving on site to the delivery of the first containers, Robertson had nine weeks to put foundations in, construct the first-floor steel frame and pour the concrete decks, with CIMC needing two weeks prior to the containers’ arrival to conduct final surveys. The container installation itself then takes just three to four weeks.

“To take full advantage of modular you need to be prepared. There’s no point having a mad rush to get the containers in only to then sit back for three weeks”

Alistair Broadley, Robertson Eastern

“Being ready for the containers is absolutely critical. Failure to do that would have huge costs,” Mr Broadley says. “You have to sterilise the site to a point when they’re putting the containers in because it’s such a big crane, with such loads, that you can’t really be working in and around it safely much.

“The next big challenge is being ready from the moment the containers are in with the follow-on trades. To take full advantage of modular you need to be prepared. There’s no point having a mad rush to get the containers in only to then sit back for three weeks.”

As soon as the team had access to the roof, it installed a temporary weather strip between the containers to immediately make them windproof and watertight. After that, Robertson went straight into the containers to carry out the minimal work needed inside the rooms – taking protection away and removing temporary bracing steel, of which there are 10 pieces in each container.

Other than that though, the rooms are completely fully furnished and almost ready for occupants.

“The bedrooms are completely finished, decorated and all, so there’s very little that we do in them – we put up a fire alarm, put a data point in for a TV – and right at the end the rooms are dressed,” Mr Broadley explains. “Even the kettle and the cups are in little boxes, stacked inside the rooms, ready for unloading, and the hook for the iron’s already fitted inside the wardrobe.”

One quirk of the hotel’s design results from the ground floor height being greater than that of the floors above – 4.6 m – to allow for higher ceilings in the reception and restaurant areas. There are some bedrooms on the ground floor, however, which means there is empty space above the ground-floor modules. “So we have to put a space frame – a steel frame – in on top of the container,” Mr Broadley says, to allow containers to be placed on the floor above.

Speedy services

The nature of the job means most of Robertson’s work inside the hotel is very services-driven. “At the front end of the project there was a big focus on utilities – design especially,” Mr Broadley says. “We have very early access to get utilities through the corridors and into the main risers.

“We had the containers that contain the risers fabricated with the service floors already in them. We designed the floor and we gave them the sizes for the hatches, so that as soon as the containers are put in, the floors are in, and we can start running utilities up through the risers.”

Robertson also installed a precast concrete lift shaft, with a central core for all of the utilities to run up through the building and to the roof. The team influenced the design of this, too, so that when it was installed, work could begin on site right away.

“The speed of it has caught everybody by surprise”

Alistair Broadley, Robertson Eastern

“That concrete came with all the openings to the side for ducts coming out onto each floor,” Mr Broadley says. “When they came and installed the lift shaft, all the riser floors and hatches were in, so there was no dependency on follow-on trades before services could start.”

The sequence is simple once the containers are in: make it weathertight, get it safe and get people in. “Then it becomes a traditional job after that,” Mr Broadley says.

CN received a tour of the Westhill site first, before travelling over to D2 to see the hotel in a more advanced state. “I hope you’ll say, ‘I can’t believe it’s only been 10 weeks’,” Mr Broadley says as we walk around Westhill. “We are in the home straight [at D2] – ceilings go up next week, we’ve got carpet going in.”

It is striking that the team goes from one muddy site with a steel frame and a handful of containers to an almost fully-clad building in the space of 10 weeks.

Mr Broadley points out that to build an open-plan office block in Aberdeen typically takes around 60 weeks, and that’s without fit-out. Here, the hotel will be completely finished in 44 weeks.

“The speed of it has caught everybody by surprise,” Mr Broadley says.

This sense of amazement has not stopped the team learning lessons as work has progressed, with the efficiencies made on D2 being applied to Westhill to ensure a sprint finish for Aberdeen’s newest hotel.

Local labour

There has been a great deal of talk among contractors about Chinese companies entering the UK construction sector – but this project highlights the fact there are already firms working here, albeit using UK labour.

CIMC Modular Building Systems also won a contract to build a Holiday Inn Express near the ExCel Centre in London, and produces and delivers the bedroom modules on a design-and-build basis.

This does beg the question, though: what about local subcontractors?

“It’s a reality of the fact that business is global – it’s unfortunate, I suppose, to a point, but it’s the client that drove it,” Mr Broadley says.

“[Hilton is] a worldwide brand with access to all these different marketplaces, and the Hilton name comes with a lot of trust. And CIMC have done Hampton by Hiltons before.”

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