2 Sonoma County hotels part of growing wave of modular construction

The North Bay is set to make a big entry into the world of permanent modular construction this summer, as the first of two five-story hotels are set to start rising like stacked blocks in a process that can shave nearly a year off the build.

It's part of a national trend where developers are turning to manufacturers to help with soaring construction labor costs and lengthening project-approval times.

Crews started digging up a parking lot between Davis Street and Highway 101 in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square district in January for an AC Hotel location, one of Marriott International's new upscale lifestyle brands. But over 12 hours by heavy truck and a few states away, the 142 guest rooms for that hotel have been rolling of construction lines in Guerdon Modular's sprawling Boise, Idaho, factory since fall.

Elsewhere in Boise, Prefab Logic is gearing up to produce 100 rooms in 60 modules for one of Marriott's Farifield Inn & Suites locations, to be delivered to a nearly 2-acre site at 405 Martin Ave. in Rohnert Park. The company also had helped Factory_OS set up its 267,000-square-foot factory on Vallejo's Mare Island, which nearly a year ago started turning out some of the 1,000-plus modules Google ordered for employee housing.

The Santa Rosa project will have a concrete first story, with the lobby and amenities such as lounge and restaurant. With 20 days of rain since the project started and subcontractors having trouble staffing crew, the timetable for the concrete podium to be completed is four to six months.

But up to two months before that structure is complete, 80 percent of the modules will start rolling out of Boise for a staging site about a mile away from Railroad Square, according to Mark Hegarty, vice president of operations for MW Builders, the Texas-based general contractor for the project. Then will begin what's planned to be a carefully orchestrated caravan of two or three modules at a time from the staging site on specially designed flatbed trailers to where a crane will hoist each into position over three to four weeks.

As that process starts, the remainder of the modules will leave the factory, Hegarty said.

Another time-saver at the construction site with modular construction is local inspections. Because of the volume of work coming out of Boise, California has positioned building inspectors there to stamp approved modules bound for the Golden State. That leaves less for local inspectors to have to check before granting the certificate of occupancy.

Because the modules arrive fully finished and furnished, the next three to four months after will be spent largely on exterior, hallway and common area finishes, Hegarty said. Each module has a guest room and lavatory on either end of a hallway cross section. Plumbing and wiring for each room is brought to a junction box in the hallway, and after the units are stacked, crews connect utilities and finish the hallway. This plug-and-play volumetric modular construction leaves the rooms needing after installation largely just cleaning and adding flat-panel televisions, which tend to be targets of theft if put in at the factory, according to a Marriott official.

'It has eliminated six to eight months (from the construction time), depending on the size of the building,' Hegarty said. This is MW Builders's first project with modular hospitality project, but the contractor has employed panelized building, where walls and joists arrive prebuilt.

Conventional construction can take up to 22 months for this type of project, as framing for the rooms would take about a half-year after the podium was complete, Hegarty said. The scheduled opening is in March 2020.

Two big factors for going modular with the Santa Rosa project were workforce availability for subcontractors and the cramped size of the job site, said Hegarty and Todd Winnerman, MW Builders president.

'Shipping costs push (modular) out of a lot of markets (outside California),' Winnerman said. 'Hospitality projects in (conventional) wood framing is quite a bit less expensive than working projects in California.'

Rebuild activity after the wildfires in the North Bay in October 2017 and further north in California last summer have made finding local contractors difficult not just at a reasonable price but at any price, he said.

'We're pulling in some (subcontractors) from the Sacramento area and Central Valley,' Hegarty said.

Dallas-based Bedford Lodging, developer of the AC Hotel in Santa Rosa, estimates that even including sizable transportation costs of moving modules from Idaho to California, going that construction route probably whittled 20 to 25 percent from the hard construction costs, according to President Jeff Blackman. But in the middle of the U.S., modular construction may be over 10 percent higher than conventional methods.

'Speed to market is the first variable in investment analysis,' Blackman said. 'How quickly can you build it and get revenue.'

And with about 400 rooms lost to the Tubbs Fire in the Hilton and Fountaingrove hotels at the north end of the city, local officials were eager to get the rooms back for their economic multiplier effect, Blackman said.

The Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park projects will join 26 North American hotels Maryland-based Marriott has opened via volumetric modular construction, according to spokeswoman Barbara Delollis. The chain has two more locations that are set to for the modules to arrive soon.

The modular initiative was announced by Maryland-based Marriott in May 2017 after several years of study, according to Eric Jacobs, North America chief development officer for Marriott's select service and extended stay brands. Key reasons were external pressures on projects: extended development times through overloaded local planning departments and big jumps in labor costs.

'Since 2011, construction timelines have extended one month a year,' Jacobs said. 'What traditionally takes four or five months for a three-story wood-frame hotel is not 20 to 22 months in construction. Anything we can do to help owners and investors to shorten the development timeframe will help. It gives greater comfort for our lenders. It gives cities a better way to predict labor and jobs.'

Marriott has developed volumetric modular prototypes for four brands and plans to add Four Points later this year.

Side benefits from such modular construction are more consistent construction quality, better soundproofing and less jobsite waste, Jacobs said.

'Noise (transfer) under the door and from side to side and up and down are No. 1 complaints from guests, and (the Santa Rosa site) is next to busy freeway 101,' he said.

Because each module is built to be road-ready, each has 12-inch insulated walls, providing 2 feet of sound proofing between rooms, he noted. And factory construction waste is roughly 2 percent, down from 5 percent at traditional construction sites.

Marriott's move toward 10 percent modular is part of a boom in such construction for the hospitality industry, according to the Virginia-based Modular Building Institute's 2018 report on permanent modular projects, as opposed to modular relocatables often used for classrooms and homes. New York, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, California and Washington accounted for 83 percent of modular hotel rooms added.

The institute said the hospitality industry is the fastest growing market for modular builds, with 31.3 percent annual unit growth, to 1,989 rooms in 2017. Growth is expected to remain strong as several other national hotel brands are in talks with key modular builders, the report said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, real estate and construction. Contact him at or 707-521-4256.

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