Designing Hotels for Tight Urban Markets

Designing an urban hotel is a bit like playing Tetris; you have to put all the little pieces together just right. Just ask architect Rob Uhrin. He’s been squeezing hotels into tight spaces for 15 years. Of course, he’s worked on plenty of properties that spread out across acres of land, but it’s in the space-constricted urban projects that his expertise in hospitality design and brand knowledge comes into play. As a principal at Cooper Carry, Uhrin runs the hospitality practice in the firm’s Alexandria, Va., office. The studio has designed more than 40 new properties in the past decade.

“Our traditional market has been full-service hotels, but we’ve found lately that select-service hotels are filling more of our workload,” he says. “That’s because of the desirable business model [of select service] and the hotels themselves are exactly what works in many of the tight, mixed-use, urban environments.” He notes that urban markets require a certain amount of density to make the land values work. Where a particular site needs 625 keys, for example, to be profitable, developers don’t want to rely solely on one single hotel brand to occupy the spot. “There was a time before the recession where you could reach that density by building a hotel and adding another use to it—office, condo, or retail outlet,” Uhrin says. “But as time has shifted and those markets became less valuable, we saw hoteliers and developers grouping different brands together.”

This trend has taken off so much that developers are now putting dual-brand properties in smaller and smaller urban footprints. “If the location is desirable, the brand will bend over backward to get into that space,” Uhrin says. And there are times when combining two brands makes the economics of the system that much better. “For instance, we had a high-end four-pipe heating and cooling system that we used for both brands in the same project, and we spread the cost out over the entire property.”

When an architecture firm understands the brands well enough to pull apart the prototypes and put them back together, it can gain a lot of efficiencies. “If you can find an extra 10 keys just by being more efficient, that’s a huge help to the development team.” He says that the prototype usually isn’t as important as the brand standards. So instead of being hyper focused on the prototype, it’s often more useful to make sure all the identifiers are there and that the brand is happy with them. “It comes down to working within their vision,” Uhrin says. “For some brands it’s all about the room, for others it’s about the welcoming sequence of things that people see as they’re going to check in.


He points to one of Cooper Carry’s hotel projects in which he needed to put 200 keys into 10,000 square feet of space in the NoMa district of Washington, D.C. With the city’s stringent building height restrictions, the hotel could only go so high. The firm solved the problem by packing a select-service brand—Hyatt Place—in tight and making it as tall as possible to fill the buildable envelope. “In the process, we came up with some unique rooms and some unique ways to stack things together.” He’s quick to add that all of the things that make it difficult to develop these properties also bring value when it comes to higher barriers to entry. We’ll soon find out when the NoMa Hyatt Place opens this May.

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