Quick Q&A: Stuart Duncan, Apartrooms

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Stuart Duncan, founder of SmartLock Europe, tells SAN about his move in to apartment development and operation with the first Apartrooms property in Aberdeen.

• Tell us a bit about your background and how you ended up working in the serviced apartment sector
"I have been involved in the property rental business for over 30 years. When I left school I worked for my parents, who operated mobile home parks in Aberdeen. A big part of that was providing short-term, rental homes to the fast growing oil industry. Then, back in 1999, I moved from Aberdeen to the Midlands and co-founded an internet startup focused on parcel delivery and logistics. I then moved to London and was involved in property refurbishment. I have always had an interest in energy conservation and how I could apply this to the mobile home or modular building industry. In 2010 I was introduced to Dick Shone, who had just built an eco park home and was keen to start a modular company. I worked with him for a few years and together we established Boutique Modern in Newhaven. With that experience, I decided to start my own modular building company, Build Different, which specialises in off-site modular construction but including Passivhaus design and build principals. The first project was for a small office building, followed by a four-bedroom detached house, both built in Sussex and delivered to Aberdeen."

"In 2015, I found a site in Aberdeen that was perfect for a new serviced apartment concept - modular, low energy and utilising smart home technology. During the conceptual phase, I found various technologies that would be essential for our business model which included wi-fi connected door locks. As a result I started a company called SmartLock Europe, which provides Remotelock internet connected access solutions to the serviced apartment sector. Fast forward four years and we now have completed our first Apartrooms building and are enjoying being an operator."

• What made you go for off-site construction and Passivhaus standards when building the Apartrooms scheme?
"My background is in off-site modular construction so there was no real question as to whether to build traditionally. Each 10 x 4 metre self-contained ‘pod’ is perfectly suited for factory construction and transport by road. Each Apartroom is constructed as a self-contained unit and delivered to site 95 per cent complete. This saves time and money, and ultimately we have a higher quality product. Also, as we were going to be the serviced apartment operator, the running costs of the building are an important consideration so it made sense to apply Passivhaus principles at the design stage. This resulted in a unique building - a super-insulated structure, orientated to the south with large floor-to-ceiling windows, which capture solar gain. Triple glazing and mechanical heat ventilation heat recovery, all helping to reduce energy consumption. There are 9kw of solar panels on the roof. Instead of exporting to the grid, we use all the electricity to power the building with the remaining surplus heating our water. Our website displays our solar production in real time."

• Do you think setting high environmental standards is becoming more important to your customers?
"We are finding that the larger companies already have sustainable travel policies and, although this is mainly aimed at air travel, it is beginning to include accommodation and hotels. As awareness grows of the current climate emergency, I think we will see this filter down to smaller companies and individuals. Eventually I hope to see the booking websites allow customers to choose sustainable features within their search criteria. Some are now including electric car charging points."

• Compared with other areas of real estate and hospitality, the serviced apartment sector seems to be lagging when it comes to sustainability - why do you think this is, and is it changing?
"I think it will be hard for existing hotel and serviced apartment operators to fully provide sustainable accommodation, as the majority of properties were not built with energy efficiency or sustainability in mind. Operators can reduce their footprint by reducing the number of towels used or fully embracing recycling but many can still not even control room temperatures remotely, thus wasting energy. I am not even sure whether the big chains are making their new buildings more energy efficient. We have used smart home tech to manage our building. All the room thermostats, central boilers and ventilation system are connected to the internet and managed via apps. Each room can be put in ‘sense’ mode, which detects occupancy and adjusts the heating accordingly."

• Who is your target guest demographic in Aberdeen and has your customer base since opening included any surprising client types?
"We are mainly aiming for the business traveller, who is working Monday to Friday and goes home at the weekend. They will most likely be employed in the oil industry. Up until now they have been staying in hotels but they get tired of having to eat out every night and the lack of space. Many have never stayed in a serviced apartment, so we want to make sure that the extended stay experience at Apartooms is professional and consistent. So far the feedback has been fantastic and we are getting repeat business. We have had several customers who require accommodation because they are moving house or in one case where their house was flooded."

• What other projects do you have in the pipeline and what are your long-term goals for the Apartrooms brand?
"At the moment we are focused on operating the first 10 Apartrooms and refining the business model. Our objective is to see how, by using technology such as wi-fi smart locks and self check-in, we can operate with as few members of staff as possible. Currently we have no full time members of staff. We have planning consent for a further 34 rooms at this location and most likely we will start construction in Q2 2020. We will also start looking for suitable sites across the UK, where we can partner with land owners or potential operators. The aim is to provide a complete end-to-end solution, where we construct and deliver a fully serviced accommodation business along with the IT infrastructure, technology and software as well as an established brand and marketing."

 

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