Block Buster

Forget Legos. Hotels such as the upcoming AC by Marriott NoMad move modular construction from budget-friendly architectural innovation to design-driven mainstay.

Fully customized design, a cleverly rotated guestroom tower, boldly sculpted public spaces and brand-leading finishes: this is the new face of modular hotel construction.

Think of it as Modular 2.0. Once considered a cost-conscious paint-by-numbers choice for low-rise, wood frame hotels, modular construction is now being used in high-rise steel volumetric projects. Case in point: the AC by Marriott NoMad, opening late 2019. There, architect Danny Forster is leveraging new technology and advances in construction software to change the industry’s thinking about modular.

AC by Marriott NoMad

Back in black: dark, striated glass accents the wall in front of the bathroom area (left) and the sink (right), visually uniting the two elements. Photo: Courtesy of Danny Forster & Architecture

“I don't want this project to be just the world's tallest modular hotel,” says Forster, founder of Danny Forster & Architecture (and the longtime host of the Discovery Channel's Build it Bigger series). “I want it to exemplify the best practice for how to deploy this technology. We use it where its best qualities shine—in repeatable spaces such as hotel rooms, where homogeneity and quality control are most critical—and we don’t use it for spaces that don’t lend themselves to modularity.” 

AC by Marriott NoMad

Architectural details on the wall of each module are more than they appear: in addition to the visible lines here, the outer surface is ribbed for an additional textural element. Photo: Courtesy of Danny Forster & Architecture

For the AC NoMad, that means the first four floors of the tower, the podium, use traditional cast-in-place concrete construction for the public spaces, giving Forster the freedom to create dramatic sloping ceilings, stadium-style staircases, and double-height spaces, none of which would be possible in a purely modular building.

AC by Marriott NoMad

This cutaway shows the double height public spaces and angled ceilings that will give the lobby an eye-catching vibe from inside and outside the hotel. Photo: Courtesy of Danny Forster & Architecture

For this record-breaking project, AC by Marriott, which has several modular hotels within its portfolio (including AC Oklahoma City Bricktown, featured in Boutique Design’s March 2017 issue), has a crafted brand design strategy which encourages collaboration around an established design aesthetic.  Dave Walsh, senior director, Global Design, explains that the Marriott team “provided these design tools and guidance while empowering Forster to create a custom solution relevant to the market and the owner’s vision.”   

AC by Marriott NoMad

This rendering shows the process of craning modules into place onsite. Peeping into the window of the one on the left shows artwork already in place. Rendering: Moso Studio

The result is unique, not boxy, heavy, or boring (as modular building is often assumed to be). The façade is expressed as a simple repeating AB pattern of warm and cool toned metal accents using lighter colors on upper floors, making the already tall structure look even taller. Moreover, this façade design disguises the joints between guestroom modules, thus allowing the tower to be experienced as an iconic, monolithic piece of architecture, as opposed to a series of stacked boxes—a common critique of past modular towers.

The pattern of the concrete panels on the south façade of the building echoes the glass/steel/glass/steel format of the modules' windows and metalwork giving the tower a sense of texture and scale. The horizontal slab cover at the bottom of each module is cleverly sloped, which helps avoid the “heavy” look one gets from stacking the ceiling of one module under the floor of the next, according to Forster.

AC by Marriott NoMad

Test stacking the modules ensures a perfect fit. Photo: Courtesy of Danny Forster & Architecture

Inside, the architect put the creative emphasis, especially in the guestrooms, on a selective range of custom FF&E, architectural materials and fabrics that offer a bold twist on AC's palette. The elevator core is clad in undulated wood, expressed as a central spine that provides continuity from the generally darker lower floors to the lighter guestroom palette. While it's one of the paler elements in the lobby, the same material becomes a medium hue on the wall behind the beds, marrying light walls and bedding with the black striated glass that serves as the door to the toilet and the bathroom backsplash. Small accent tables, finished in bronze with the underlying wood exposed in a diagonal cutout, resemble the angular geometry of the façade. Each of the 168 rooms has a unique custom-made art piece—which is economically feasible in part because the framing is done at the modular factory in Poland.


Danny Forster

Danny Forster. Photo: Courtesy of Danny Forster & Architecture

Forster says there were two critical challenges to using modular construction with such a large project: (1) having to make major design decisions disproportionately early in the process, and (2) not being able to closely monitor ongoing construction as it's being manufactured off-site (in this case, Krakow). DF&A developed technological solutions for both issues. To help the client make informed (and accelerated) choices early in the design process, Forster (in conjunction with 3d Vista) developed proprietary technology that marries a VR flythrough of the modules with all of the possible finish options preloaded with a pricing tool so that the client could visualize every choice and know immediately how it would affect the bottom line. To keep an eye on construction in a factory thousands of miles away, he and his team use 360° cameras in the factory to “see” the modules at four different stages of construction: the steel frame, mechanical rough-in, drywall and finish work. “That way, we can catch mistakes before they're made or, worse, repeated in each room,” says Forster.

One thing that is sure to be repeated: the hybrid of stick-built podium with a modular tower, which Forster believes will be standard for future hotel tower construction.

View more from this Boutique Design issue