Citizen M Hotel Is a Demonstration of the Promise of Prefabrication

CC BY 2.0. My room in the Citizen M/ Lloyd Alter

It's an industrial design approach, a product that is refined almost to perfection.

A problem with architecture is everything is pretty much a one-off. An architect's work evolves and is built on precedent, but you can't give the next client exactly what you gave the last one (unless you are selling crystal shaped museum additions.) But industrial designers, they are lucky. They get to prototype and refine and develop their designs and the more they make, the better it gets. I have always thought that architecture should be much more like industrial design, which is one reason why I loved the idea of prefabrication.

The problem with shipping container architecture is, well, the container. It is a toxic box designed for freight, not people. But the shipping! By standardising the dimensions of the box so that it could be transported on boats, trucks, trains, cheaply and quickly, this was the revolution.

Citizen M Exterior

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

That's why I have always been impressed with the Citizen M hotel, designed by Dutch architecture firm Concrete Architectural Associates, which I have been writing about on Treehugger since 2012. Since I was coming to New York City for the North American Passive House Network conference, I thought I would finally give it a try, in the Bowery hotel designed with SBJGroup.

Citizen M assembly

© Citizen M

The Citizen M hotels are built out of modules that are roughly shipping container sized, built in a factory in Poland. They are then shipped with just about everything installed except the duvets and towels. Because of the narrow width, there are a lot of design compromises, such as the bed filling the entire width of the room, creating a situation where if two people are in it, one has to climb over the other. Or do they? In fact, like everything else, they have rethought the bed. As they explain, "The bed is square! When sharing with someone, you might like to put the pillows by the window to sleep. No climbing!" I immediately wondered, why isn't every bed square? It makes so much sense.

Citizen M ceiling

Admiring the sprinkler heads and air ducts/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

When I was in the bed, I looked up and examined the ceiling, as architects are wont to do. Usually there are random sprinkler heads and detectors and vents randomly located. Here, everything is perfectly and logically placed, even and neat and aligned. This is not the ceiling of a hotel room, it is much more like the interior of a luxury car. Basically, the fit and finish is the best I have ever seen in a building, it is all perfect.

When I first entered the room I had a bit of trouble, because the door is really heavy, I had to put some weight into it. It soon became clear why; In my previous post I described what I called the Paul Simon rule of normal construction, where One Man's Ceiling is Another Man's Floor. In modular construction that isn't true; each module has its own ceiling and floor and walls, too. This dramatically reduces noise transfer.

In a discussion of acoustics at the Passive House conference it was noted that if you build a really good Passive House quality wall, then other sounds that would normally be masked become more noticeable. The reason they have to invest in such a solid door is that this is just about the quietest hotel room I have ever been in. Seriously, this is Manhattan on the biggest Pride weekend ever, and I can hear almost nothing. No corridor noise, no neighbours, and the omnipresent fire trucks, police cars and motorcycles, almost nothing. The decibel meter app in my phone registers 29 dB, which is whisper quiet.

HansGrohe taps

Now how do you turn on the shower? / Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

About the only concession that Citizen M people make to North American tastes is that you don't need an adapter to plug in your electronics. The shower controls are the HansGrohe European designs that you have to figure out how to turn on (I have used them before but still got it wrong) and the toilets are very low water Geberit bowls that don't really flush well and require a bit of a brushing. But it is all done with Euro style and quite a bit of humour.


I wrote this post at this desk/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

For years I have also complained about smart technology and wondered what it is good for, and this room was the best demonstration of its promise that I have seen yet. All of the lighting is RGB LEDs, so that you can tune the room from business to romance. (Be careful about turning on party mode!) But using their wake-up alarm was the true shocker. The lights turn on from a low red glow to daylight, the blinds open, the TV comes on with a good morning message, everything is interconnected. Technically, it is another world.

Bathroom end of room

The entry and bathroom end of room/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Fundamentally, eight feet is too narrow for a hotel room. Fully half of the space is taken up by entry circulation and bathroom, whereas in a wider room that stuff might take up a quarter or a third. They have done wonders with what they have, but it is still kind of silly to have the bed taking up the entire end of the room, you have to crawl over it to look out the window. I have been meaning to ask how they actually make the bed, and will update if they tell me.

room at Unite d'Habitation

My room in the Unite d'habitation Marseille/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

A few weeks ago I stayed in a room about the same width that Le Corbusier designed in the Unite d'habitation, in a narrower bed, but in many ways it was a more sensible layout; you could get to the window wall and you weren't looking at the sink.

On the other hand, I have never been a room of higher construction quality, of such technical refinement. They have done this a thousand times and worked everything out to the last detail. It is a machine for sleeping: totally quiet, with sophisticated technology, and a lot of fun.

Common areas

Common areas/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Some might complain that the lobby and public areas are indistinguishable from the ones we showed in the Netherlands in 2012. That there is no local charm, that outside of the view you have no way of knowing whether you are in Amsterdam or the Bowery. As a hotel it not only has no sense of place but no sense of time, because they just keep refining what they have done before, a sort of slick mid-century vibe.

But local charm wears thin when what you really want is just a good night's sleep. And if you want to really see how an industrial design approach to architecture might work, and to really understand what you can do with prefabrication, there has never been a better example than Citizen M.

Lloyd Alter paid his own way for this and did not inform Citizen M that he would be writing about it.

Light switch

Like a said, a sense of humour/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0