Serving the lodging push: cheap, quick preassembly

When Norman and Sally Hosler flicked on the TV in their Knights Inn hotel room in September, they saw a video featuring the hotel chain building another hotel, room by preassembled room. ``The bedspreads were on the beds, the furniture in place, and the light bulbs were even screwed in,'' Mr. Hosler says. ``They just brought the thing in on a truck and put it up.''

The Hoslers, co-owners of three office supply stores in Powley, Calif., have since stayed in a number of these units around the Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, areas.

What impressed them was the economical and quick way each unit was constructed.

Cardinal Lodging Group, which owns the Knights Inn chain, is the largest of about 200 modular builders and manufacturers - most of which are small and built to order - in the country. The company says it will produce about 27,000 modular 12-by-24-foot units this coming year for homes, retirement centers, businesses, and hotels, says Robin Hepler, a Cardinal Lodging spokeswoman. About 28 percent of these go into motels.

Indoor construction - the units are 95 percent complete when they leave the manufacturing plant - reduces construction time and the risks involved with bad weather, says Ms. Hepler. ``It could take anywhere from eight to 14 months outside ... we can do it in about 90 days, and we've done it in almost half that time,'' she says.

Another of the few lodging companies that completely build their own hotels, then manage them, is Lees Inns of America.

``The end product is better, because it's energy saving, uses more materials, and incorporates sound-deadening features you can't get building on site,'' says William Lee, who runs the company's modular unit plant.

Mr. and Mrs. Hosler say the product is high quality for its price range. ``Had we not seen the tape,'' Mr. Hosler says, ``I would not have known it was prefabricated.''

Mr. Lee also says his company is discussing selling some modular units to some of the big-name hotel chains. Much of the new building expected by the industry will involve these economical preassembled units.

But some people, like Hosler, think modular units could become too uniform and dull. ``They're all the same,'' he says. ``Even the picture on the wall is the same in every room.''

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