Check into hotel, motel, resort high-tech designs

Hotels, motels, and resorts accommodate thousands of people. Here, engineers explain just how challenging it is to deliver unique design concepts and ensure these structures are in compliance.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer May 24, 2017


  • John Barrot, PE, LEED AP, Associate Principal, Arup, New York City
  • Kevin Christensen, PE, LEED AP, Vice President/Director of MEP Engineering, Epstein, Chicago
  • Wesley S. Lawson, PE, Senior Associate, Bala Consulting Engineers, King of Prussia, Pa.
  • Steven Mulcahy, Principal Engineer, Southland Engineering, Las Vegas
  • Christine Sauer, PE, Senior Fire Protection Engineer, JENSEN HUGHES, Baltimore

CSE: What’s the No. 1 trend you see today in hotel, motel, and resort design?

John Barrot: The concept of “smart hotels” would be the No. 1 current trend in my mind, as brands adopt various technologies to improve the guest experience. Mobile check-in, mobile guest room keys, and in-room technology are just the beginning. Brands are using guest data to personalize each stay. Engineers can harness this technology to deliver better designs. For fire/life safety practitioners, that could mean additional delivery methods for mass notification, digital evacuation plans, and specifying appropriate door-release hardware.

Kevin Christensen: Probably the No. 1 trend from an engineering perspective is improving the guest experience through the use of technology and controllability. While the term “Big Data” has been around for a while, many industries and businesses are still grappling with how to use data to improve what they do. I believe the hospitality industry has tremendous opportunities to improve operational and customer experiences through the use of collected data. I feel most of these improvements will be in having the hotels’ systems and information tied to mobile devices which, would allow guests to better interact and control their stays.

Wesley S. Lawson: The No. 1 trend we see in the hotel industry is to desire to provide high-end technology services. The use of technology is now not only important for business travelers, but also for those who travel for leisure. These systems include both wireless solutions and wired systems for additional speed of use.

Steven Mulcahy: The No. 1 trend we see in hotel and resort design is a shift from “first-cost” mentality to a “return-on-investment” mentality. We find that many owners are willing to buy better systems if a 3- to 5-year payback can be demonstrated. We’re also seeing a reduction in energy usage. For years, energy costs have been cheap and uptime has been the primary goal to maximize revenue and guest experience. Now that energy costs are continuing to rise, operational costs have become more important. 

Christine Sauer: I’m seeing the adaptive reuse of nonresidential-occupancy buildings. Whether it’s a direct result of diminishing real estate or just that prime locations are becoming available, existing buildings—from churches to office complexes to recreation piers—are being turned into hotels. The adaptive reuse can pose a challenge for architects and engineers when it comes to implementing code requirements required for converting to hotel occupancy, but in the end, some stunning hotels are unveiled.

CSE: What other trends should engineers be on the lookout for regarding such projects in the near future (1 to 3 years)?

Barrot: Brands are showing a renewed focus on good design, which will demand consulting engineers to deliver design-friendly solutions. Hotel lobbies are increasing in complexity, from the living room concept at the W hotels to co-working and other forms of mixed-use in the common areas. Mass timber is gaining momentum here in the U.S. on the back of success in Europe, Australia, and Canada. Code changes are being proposed to allow mass timber up to 12 stories, which could lead to a step-change in use of timber construction. The use of modular construction for hotels is increasing both low- and high-rise construction. Hotels are well-suited for modular construction methods, as floor layouts are often similar from floor to floor.

Christensen: Much like the commercial market’s advocacy of spaces being designed for the health and well-being of the occupants, there will be a greater trend to provided accommodations that are geared toward the well-being of the guest. Marriott has trended toward providing guest accommodations in some of their hotels as “stay-well” rooms. I think it is a trend that will continue and eventually creep into the engineering design on various fronts.

Mulcahy: We are seeing a large increase in requests for net zero energy buildings—especially in California.

Lawson: Due to the emphasis placed on energy-efficient designs by ASHRAE 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings and International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), we see advanced/integrated lighting and HVAC control systems becoming a part of the vast majority of the projects moving forward. In the hotel industry, there is no way to pass energy-usage costs onto the tenants, so it makes it even more important to have an energy-efficient building. Control systems are one of the best ways to manage systems without having a large increase in cost due to changing HVAC building systems.

CSE: According to recent Dodge reports, hotels and lodging have been growing (with some very large projects in the pipeline). Do you see this growth continuing? Is your firm placing more business development efforts in this area?

Lawson: We do see the industry continuing to grow. Especially in our local area, Philadelphia, there is a dearth of hotels. With the increasing amount of people traveling regularly for business, this will become more important.

Mulcahy: Yes. In the competitive resort casino market, properties are continually getting larger and providing new offerings to increase their market share. This is done both through new construction and by remodeling and expanding existing properties.

CSE: Please describe a recent hotel, motel, or resort project you’ve worked on—share details about the project including location, systems engineered, team involved, etc.

Christensen: 101 E. Erie, commonly known as the Draft FCB building, was built in the mid-1980s as a Class A office building and is comprised of two separately owned sections. The lower seven floors are owned and occupied by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago (MWRD) and floors eight through 20 are owned by Lexington Realty Trust and occupied by Draft FCB, a prominent advertising, branding, and strategic planning firm. The MWRD section of the building has its own separate lobby and elevator bank. Epstein’s designers and engineers coordinated the lobby design, guest rooms, and public spaces created by Pierre-Yves Rochon while Epstein designed all of Hilton’s operational spaces under the Conrad flag and brand standards. The Conrad by Hilton program includes a 289-room hotel with public spaces on the ground floor and on levels eight through 20. Hotel operational functions occupy the second basement level. Multiple food and beverage venues were developed by the Puccini Group. Typical guest rooms are located on levels eight through18, with a fitness center on Level 8. Meeting rooms occupy Level 19. Level 20 was conceived as an amenity level with hotel check-in, bar/lounge, and kitchen supporting a three-meal signature restaurant.

CSE: Have you designed any such projects using the integrated project delivery (IPD) method? If so, describe one.

Mulcahy: Yes, we prefer to build using IPD. Many of our clients have realized that the savings can be 30% or more. Because everyone on the construction and ownership team wins or loses together, it breaks down the “us versus them” mentality. An example of this: On a project we built last year, a framing subcontractor came to the scheduling meeting and declared that if they didn’t install their walls before all the other trades, their price would be $50,000 higher than what they bid. An analysis was done, and it was determined that the combined impact to the other trades was $200,000. The slowdowns of working around framing by the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection (MEP/FP) contractors far exceeded the additional cost of the framer. So by paying an additional $50,000, the team saved $150,000 and 3 weeks in the construction schedule.

CSE: What are the challenges that you face when designing such facilities that you don’t normally face for other building projects?

Christensen: If the project is a standalone motel, hotel, or resort, typically there are no serious design challenges. In the case where the motel/hotel is part of a larger developer-driven integrated mixed-use project, the segregation of the common MEP/FP systems can be quite challenging. A developer will typically not want to provide capital dollars for multiple infrastructure components for each use/building system, such as fire pumps, electrical service, chilled water, heating hot water, and domestic water. The challenge is in maximizing the developer’s capital dollars while also having the confidence that any shared systems in the building will be maintained properly by the developer or operator and have the same operational/functionality capability as if the hotel owned/maintained the equipment themselves.

Lawson: The technology of system control in hotels presents a different challenge than those for long-term rentals or condos. In a hotel application, there is no time for the occupants to learn how to use the controls, so the user interfaces must be streamlined. However, many occupants now want increased control of the systems, so the controls and technology cannot be too rudimentary.

CSE: What are some unique elements/considerations to designing/retrofitting hotels, motels, or resorts?

Christensen: Much like the renovation of health care facilities, the single most important factor is ensuring the hotel operates as if nothing is going on. Much of this can be taken care of by the installing contractor, but the designers also must be keenly aware of phasing the project such that there is little or no disruptions to business as usual. A bad stay by a customer can mean losing that customer forever.

CSE: Is your team using BIM in conjunction with the architects, trades, and owners to design a project? Describe an instance in which you’ve turned over the BIM model to the owner for long-term operations and maintenance (O&M).

Lawson: Bala is using Autodesk Revit in almost all new project deliveries. This is a very useful tool to assist the owner with envisioning the room renderings and elevations. Because the switches, fire alarm components, ducts, and grilles can all be included in the renderings, the owner has a more realistic understanding of the space, without the need for a mock-up. Providing the model to the contractors, and using it to start the shop drawings, also assists in streamlining the project delivery.

Mulcahy: We have been using BIM for more than 10 years now; it has become our standard design method. Being a design-build contractor as well as a consultant has given us some unique opportunities. On many projects, we can use our staff of union installers working with our engineering department to draw our engineering models. This has two benefits: first, it allows us to recognize problems that may occur during construction, by having the people who install the systems do so “virtually” during the design phase. Second, it increases communication between engineering and the field. Recently, we completed a hospital project in Henderson, Nev. On similar projects of that size and scope, the number of requests for information (RFIs) would be in the hundreds. The total number of RFIs for this project was one. The increase in communication between engineering and construction saved several hundred thousands of dollars in administrative costs alone. Of course, the BIM model was turned over to the owner for long-term operations and maintenance (O&M), but the benefits during construction are where the BIM model brought the most value.

Christensen: Epstein uses BIM on all our projects and has developed a significant number of production techniques that allow all of our disciplines to be extremely cognizant spatially. In general, we have not seen any requests on the hospitality side of our work for models to be turned over to our clients. This may be coming in the future, but clients are still wrestling with the ability to harness the information built into the model without having to learn or purchase the production platform in which the information resides. In addition, there is a cost to the client for designers to develop models with O&M-level information.

CSE: Do you find that advanced technology is having a significant impact on overall hotel, motel, and resort design? Please describe a project in which technology played a large role, such as receptacles, circuit length, wireless Internet, advanced security, etc.

Christensen: I believe the hospitality industry has tremendous opportunities to improve operational and customer experiences through the use of collected data (Big Data). Most of these improvements will be in having hotel systems and information tied to mobile devices, which would allow guests to better interact and control their stays. An example might be giving a guest complete control of a conference room via their phone that would allow them to set lighting levels, control comfort, operate screens, and perform various other functions. This would essentially remove all wall-mounted control devices. Extended-stay chains could allow a room’s systems to learn about their clients’ habits and adjust rooms systems accordingly. The “what-if” scenarios are endless.

Mulcahy: Wireless access and distributed antennae systems (DAS) systems are now typically required for any large resort project. Wireless controls for audio/video, lighting, and HVAC have become standard for higher-end resorts now. The challenges become greater as the system sizes grow, especially in wireless applications. Advanced technologies continue to evolve with each project; each system has its challenges along with opportunities to enhance the guest experience. For example, 10 years ago you would be hard-pressed to find a USB.