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Hotel changes the landscape of building

Financial Times on Thursday 22nd January

The biggest hotel to be constructed from shipping containers opens in London this week.

Travelodge, the budget hotel chain, imported the containers from China - complete with bathrooms, plastering and air conditioning units - then stacked them into a 300-room hotel near Heathrow in just three weeks.

The steel modules are made by Verbus Systems, a London-based company that designs, manufactures and supplies what it calls a "Lego kit" for developers.

Paul Rollett, director, believes Verbus can thrive even as recession ravages the "backward and grossly inefficient" global construction industry.

"Our proposition is absolutely unique," he says. Verbus supplies oversized shipping containers - as much as 5 metres wide - that are strong enough to build high-rise buildings anywhere in the world. It has provided a developer in Liverpool with two modules that came fully finished, with pillows fluffed on the bed.

Mr Rollett, who forged his career in global supply chain management, wants to bring the same kind of production and distribution techniques that revolutionised the manufacturing of cars and electronics to the world of construction.

By making metal modules with standard shipping container fittings, they are cheaply transported by boat and truck.

For medium-sized hotels - those with more than 200 rooms and six stories - Verbus claims its modules are up to 20 per cent cheaper and 50 per cent faster than traditional building systems. "It cannot be beaten," says Mr Rollett.

The Heathrow Travelodge took 58 weeks from start to finish - 16 weeks faster than a conventional build would have been. During one evening, an entire floor of 60 rooms was lifted into place in three hours.

Travelodge, which opens the building officially today, plans to expand aggressively over the next decade and expects to use containers in many of its larger hotels.

Made out of Corten steel, which does not rust, the containers can be stacked 17 stories high without the need for additional support. They can also be recycled. "We could unbolt this building, take it down, refurbish the rooms and move it to Sydney," Mr Rollett says.

Nonetheless, Verbus is still small. The company has not made a profit since it started trading two years ago as a joint venture between consulting engineers Buro Happold and constructor George & Harding.

Turnover was just under £10m in 2008 as the company delivered about 1,000 rooms. Mr Rollett expects the company to make a profit in the current year.

The company does have a rival, Tempohousing, which used 1,000 containers to build student accommodation in Amsterdam in 2006.

The Dutch company makes 2.4 metre-wide modules and recycles old containers at its factories in China and the Netherlands. Tempohousing modules can support themselves up to seven stories and go 14 high if external construction is used.

By contrast, Verbus subcontracts the manufacturing of its oversize modules to a Chinese container maker, and says it is capable of producing more than 500 units a week.

On top of contracts to supply hotel rooms to Whitbread, Travelodge's rival, Mr Rollett says Verbus is in talks with more than 10 contractors, including governments in the Middle East, about the supply of tourist, student and worker accommodation.

It remains to be seen whether developers will break with convention and adopt steel modules over bricks, concrete and timber en masse. But Mr Rollett argues that containers are the most reliable option, as well as the cheapest, especially in extreme environments.

He cites Canada, where construction must be rapid because of permafrost; west Africa, "where you can't build timber-frame hotels, because the termites eat them"; and the United Arab Emirates, where cities are springing up in the desert.

The future envisioned by Mr Rollett, with buildings worldwide made from identical metal blocks, would require a profound shake-up of the established order and, in its most extreme form, would be the stuff of nightmares for traditional builders and architects.

But as Mr Rollett says, industrialisation is a powerful force.

"If Heny Ford in 1903 had started making houses and not cars, the world would be a completely different place. I just can't understand why buildings aren't made in factories."

Related information >>> Verbus Projects
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