When Host Marriott decided to upgrade the life/safety systems in its hotels, aesthetics were as much a concern as longevitiy and sustainability. The units had to look good while performing at their best.

Hotels are some of the most difficult buildings to renovate, because there is never any downtime. Visitors can be found in the lounges, corridors, and guest rooms 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, leaving little time for engineers or contractors to repair broken equipment, let alone install new mechanical systems.

Nonetheless, Host Marriott is in the middle of a major renovation project, which includes upgrading many of its 100-plus hotels. Rooms are being redecorated, façades are being changed, and mechanical systems are being retrofitted in this multi-million dollar undertaking. In addition, life/safety systems are being upgraded in order to meet the owners' stringent requirements.

The challenge is how to renovate the 15- to 25-year-old hotels while they are still being occupied, as well as making sure the buildings meet the expectations of guests now and into the future.


Host Marriott is one of the largest lodging real estate investment trusts (REIT) in the U.S. The company owns, or holds controlling interest, in more than 100 luxury and upscale hotels in North America, including hotels that operate under the brand names of Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Fairmont, Hilton, and Hyatt. All are owned by Host Marriott but are managed by Host Marriott's sister company, Marriott International.

In 2005, Host Marriott became even larger when it signed a merger agreement to acquire 38 luxury and upscale hotels from Starwood Hotels and Resorts. The Starwood portfolio consists of 25 domestic and 10 international properties managed under the Westin, Sheraton, W Hotels, The Luxury Collection, and St. Regis brands.

Once the merger is finished, Host Marriott will look over its newly acquired properties to see what types of renovations are required there as well. Overseeing capital projects related to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems is Randy P. Gaines, CEOE, senior director, MEP/systems, capital expenditures with Host Marriott Corporation in Bethesda, MD.

"We have a variety of different hotels - everything from 400-room suburban hotels to 2,000-room convention center hotels," said Gaines. "As a result, we have renovation projects ranging from full chiller plant changeouts to guest room fancoil changeouts to full fire alarm and building system upgrades. At any given time, we have many major mechanical systems that are being upgraded."

Due to their many different needs, most of the hotel brands have created 10-year capital plans, and it is Gaines's job is to review and prioritize those plans related to MEP systems. He determines which systems need to be repaired and/or replaced based on several factors. Items take priority if customers are complaining about the same problem in a hotel. For example, if an elevator hasn't been modernized and customers are becoming trapped in it, Gaines will obviously move that renovation project to the top of the priority list.

After that, priority is given to equipment that is expired or aging. Many components in the hotels' mechanical systems are approaching, or have surpassed, 20 years, which means it's time they are replaced. Gaines may also cycle out a component if he can gain efficiency in dollars - basically, if that replacement will have a positive return on investment.

The most important criterion in determining the priority list, however, is the life/safety component. "The life/safety aspect is definitely the first priority," said Gaines. "We do not want to put the customer in harm's way, so fire alarms and generators are very important."

To that end, Host Marriott is taking a long, hard look at the life/safety systems in each of its hotels with the help of renowned fire protection and security firm, Rolf Jensen & Associates (RJA) of Fairfax, VA.


RJA has been working with Host Marriott for about five years. Coordinating their life/safety systems renovations is Byron L. Briese, P.E., vice president of RJA, whose goal has been to move away from emergency projects and work more proactively within the hotels.

"When we started, we were focused more on the life/safety systems that were worn out, wearing out, or causing false alarms. Or perhaps the authorities having jurisdiction had concerns," said Briese. "Now we're a lot more predictive and, exclusive of the Starwood hotels, we can say with a 90-percent-plus certainty of within a year or so when a fire alarm system is going to need replacement. We've also reached a point where we are preparing for replacements that will take place in 2007 and 2008."

Many of the hotels involved in the current renovations date back to the 1980s, so bringing them into full compliance can be challenging. Codes have changed significantly since those structures were built, primarily as a result of several large hotel fires in the 1980s.

Hotels now require more sophisticated fire alarm systems, and there are many more requirements for sprinklers. "We now have addressable fire alarm systems, which state when a very specific smoke detector or heat detector or water flow switch is in alarm or in trouble," said Briese. "The fire alarm system is essentially a computer system, and when you reach the useful life of the computer component, that's going to drive the need to replace the system."

When replacing a life/safety system, longevity and sustainability are the top priorities for Host Marriott. "We also look at the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) component, which is big for us," said Gaines. "Whenever we replace a life/safety system, we're going to bring the full hotel into compliance with ADA."

The ADA was passed in 1990, and there are very specific requirements regarding the types of alarm devices that can be used, the power that is used for the devices, as well as the function and location of the devices.

Many of Host Marriott's hotels are high-rise properties, and a large number were not originally designed or built with ADA-compliant voice systems in the guest rooms. A significant challenge is to figure out how to install fire alarm speakers in each guest room. In addition, 45% to 50% of the rooms need to be retrofitted for notification of hearing impaired individuals.

"We need to run wires to each of those alarms, and that's one of the biggest challenges of the job: figuring out how we get in there and get it installed without tearing down walls and ceilings," said Briese.

Hotels now require more sophisticated fire alarms as well as sprinkler systems. These requirements include the types of alarm devices that can be used, the power that is used for the devices, and the function and location of the devices.


RJA has developed a standard DB specification for Host Marriott fire alarm upgrade projects, which is tailored to the requirements of each project. While the specification creates requirements for a specific project and its jurisdiction, the approach permits the fire alarm designer some latitude in the application of a specific vendor's equipment.

Based on Host Marriott's requirements, projects are typically directed to the major national-based fire alarm suppliers. "We rely on the fire alarm manufacturers to develop the best design based on their knowledge of their equipment capability," said Briese. He noted that a regular flow of projects has permitted each of the vendors to develop expertise in managing the challenges of the lodging industry and Host Marriott's unique requirements.

Since the hotels are scattered around the country, the codes change from place to place, which can make Briese's job more complicated. "The base code regarding life/safety systems is generally the same, and that is the NFPA fire alarm code. However, we need to be aware of what variation of the code is being used and whether or not the local jurisdiction has amended it," said Briese.

In fact, working with authorities in various jurisdictions can sometimes be the most challenging part of a renovation, noted Briese. "It can run from being very easy to very difficult. After all, we are typically dealing with buildings that were constructed 20 to 25 years ago. That can be a huge challenge."

Aesthetics are also very important, so components that could potentially be re-used are looked at with a critical eye. As Gaines noted, "We're putting a lot of money into our rooms and our corridors, and we're looking at the aesthetics of the devices. We want them to be pleasing to the eye."

In addition to being attractive, the fire alarm systems need to be reliable. False alarms give guests a lack of confidence in the system, and people don't react well if there are too many of them. As Briese stated, "We want to instill confidence in the systems. That's a very important consideration."

That means if a hotel's existing speakers are going to be re-used, for example, it is important that they be compatible with whatever the manufacturer is designing for the retrofit. If the manufacturer can warrant the existing speakers as new, then RJA is comfortable with letting them re-use the devices. Otherwise they need to be replaced.


It seems a daunting task to keep track of so many different systems in so many different hotels. In order to keep close tabs on what renovations are taking place or what is scheduled for the future, Gaines and his consultants have created various websites. "This allows us to be proactive instead of reactive," said Gaines. "The websites let us know, for example, if a fire alarm system component is obsolete or if an elevator generator needs to be upgraded."

Gaines also keeps close track of the energy bills. Host Marriott pays about $110 million in energy each year, so he is spearheading several initiatives to lower their costs. This includes looking at energy efficiency when replacing heating and cooling equipment. Such was the case when the company recently upgraded its chiller plant at the Atlanta Marquis Marriott. A higher efficiency chiller was specified, because it would save money over time.

"We understand that if we pay a little more, our kW output will be better," said Gaines. "We're definitely looking at the longevity. My job is to forward-think for the owner and say, ‘You know what? Let's spend an extra couple hundred dollars and get a brand that we can get a little more longevity out of, because in the long run, our life-cycle costs will be better.'"

Many times, VFDs and digital controllers are also added during a retrofit in order to maximize energy efficiency. Gaines prefers a full upgrade in most cases, as opposed to replacing bits and pieces. "Years ago, people would just replace a chiller and not upgrade the controls, which doesn't maximize the efficiency. We might spend a little more money on a project, but it's going to be done right."

Getting the job done right also means learning what to buy and what not to buy from certain manufacturers. Gaines noted that some manufacturers state their systems will have a life cycle of 22-plus years, but parts become obsolete within 15 to 18 years. Since it doesn't cost that much more to specify a system from a manufacturer that is known to actually live up to its life-cycle promises, Gaines prefers using equipment from those companies.

Mechanical systems are also chosen based on a few fundamental goals: The systems need to deliver a comfortable temperature in the corridors, and they need to deliver hot water to the guest rooms. As Gaines noted, "I learned a long time ago, that whether you're working in a 250-room hotel or a 2,000-room hotel, the basic fundamentals apply."

By focusing on the fundamentals - whether those are life/safety issues or comfort issues - Host Marriott hopes their extensive renovations will result in a comfortable and secure environment for all its guests.