The man that got us eating raw fish off a conveyor belt is trying to sell us a night in a prefab sardine tin. But how will Europeans cope with Japanese-style capsule hotels?

Simon Woodroffe, the entrepreneur who gave us Yo! Sushi restaurants and the Yo! Below bar chain is turning his hand to the hotel business. A man who can dream up the concept of Yo! Below – a bar where customers can serve their own beer from a table-top tap or get it from a singing waiter, drink it in a giant bed then enjoy a free massage – clearly has much to offer the world. And indeed, his Yotel concept looks likely to offer a bit more excitement than the traditional British hotel staples of individually wrapped custard creams and underpowered hairdryers.

In fact, the former rock-and-roll roadie believes that the Yotel will give us back some of the existential kick of childhood. “I want it to be exciting when you go into the room,” he says. “It’s like when you are a child and you go somewhere new, you immediately want to see what’s in the room and in the drawers. That’s what I want Yotel to be like.”

Woodroffe’s inspiration for Yotel is the Japanese capsule hotel, where guests spend the night in what claustrophobic Westerners see as souped-up coffins. He had been grappling with the problem of how to reconfigure the idea when he had a “eureka!” moment.

“I was flying from Kuwait to London on BA and was lucky enough to be upgraded to first class,” he says. “What impressed me was the standard of finish and the levels of invention and innovation in the cabin. They get a lot into a very small space – you have a seat with a small guest seat in front, and a table that folds down for the drinks. When you go to sleep, the seat turns into a bed and the guest seat is the place for your feet. I realised this was it, a hotel that borrowed the design language of aircraft. I got off and found the people who designed the first-class seat.”

That person was Russell Mulchansingh, now creative director of product designers Opius. Two years ago, Woodroffe signed the company up to design the capsule interiors.

The first move was to make the capsules much larger than the Japanese version. “Once we started, we realised this was not a concept acceptable to the north European market,” says Mulchansingh. So, each capsule will be 2.7 m wide and 3.8 m long, including an en-suite shower room. A “premium” version will be slightly larger. The principal selling point is a good night’s sleep. “It’s a place to sleep and work, not a place to have people around for drinks,” says Woodroffe. “There will be extremely comfortable beds to sleep in, comfortable mattresses and pillows and the rooms will be exactly the right temperature.” The acoustic separation between capsules will be to five star hotel standards.

However, he still needed an architect to design a building to put the capsules in. He has turned to modular construction specialists Cartwright Pickard Architects, designers of Peabody Trust’s Murray Grove, in the hope that the Yotel concept will take off with sufficient momentum to justify massproducing capsules. Cartwright Pickard’s task is to work out how to make the capsules and ensure they conform to building regulations, and to design a prototype building to house them.

One night in a central London Yotel will cost £75. “Although we won’t find our target market until we open, we are certainly looking at the £150-a-night business market,” says Woodroffe. “If we can offer a room at half price, that will be very attractive. We are also looking at people upgrading from Holiday Inns and Travelodges further out so they can be in the centre of town.” Prices will be kept down because the tiny rooms will be stacked into a building row-on-row. “There’s no natural light in the rooms, that’s the trick of it,” says Woodroffe. Staff numbers will be minimal to save money: for example, guests will have access to an airport-style business-class lounge with an “honesty” bar.

Sophisticated lighting is the key to making the capsules comfortable and welcoming. A panel above the bed, also visible from the shower room, is fitted with light emitting diodes replicating changing levels of daylight throughout the day. The panel can also be switched to produce any colour the guest wants. “If you had a really rough day just hit blue and chill out,” says Mulchansingh. Reading lamps have super powerful LEDs, and a recess under the bed is lined with electro-luminescent “paper” – a thin, flexible plastic that lights up with a space-age glow and reproduces the thrill of the top bunk bed for adult guests.

The room incorporates other gadgets for an added “wow” factor. There is a flat screen at the end of bed for TV, video on demand and internet access. Style references to aircraft can be seen in a built-in luggage locker at the foot of the bed and a pull-out table with connections for a computer. Even the beds’ headrests look like they were purloined from a jumbo, a suspicion confirmed by Mulchansingh. “The headrests are straight out of aircraft technology; it gives a feel of being in a car or aeroplane. You don’t really need them, but it’s part of the language.”

But creating a playful techno-zone for jaded business travellers has required some serious decision-making. Cartwright Pickard Architects has had to make the whole concept financially viable.

“The challenge is to produce a high-quality aircraft interior feel, but at a Holiday Inn-type price,” says Simon Pickard, partner at the firm. He says Opius’ original ideas (which forms the backdrop to this page) had to be watered down because of cost constraints. “We looked at the Opius images and said, you can’t afford that.”

The firm has found a company specialising in trains, boat interiors and bathroom pods to make the capsules. They will be made from glass-reinforced plastic, with two curved sides, in keeping with the aircraft theme, and two flat sides to keep costs down.

After being fully fitted out, three capsules will be inserted into a modular steel frame, “like peas in a pod”, according to Pickard. The steel modules are 13 m long and 2.7 m wide and will be stacked on top of each other to form the building. The architect has designed the prototype structure with a transparent facade so that passers-by can see the capsules behind the cladding. Alternatively, capsules could be slotted straight into an existing building without the steel frames.

The services strategy, conceived by engineer Rybka, involves centralised heating and air conditioning. The capsules will simply plug into hot and cold water supplies for temperature control and the shower room. Each pod also has its own small heating and cooling coil so that occupants can fine-tune the room’s temperature.

By the end of this summer, a fully-fitted prototype will be ready. This is intended to demonstrate the concept, and could be displayed in public places such as Selfridge’s shop window, at Victoria Station and, appropriately, at Heathrow Airport. The next stage is a working prototype to ensure the services and acoustic properties are up to scratch.

Then, if all goes well, the live project will follow. The company has financial backing in place and is currently looking for a suitable site for the first Yotel, which Woodroffe is hoping will be open by the end of next year. Possibilities include a new-build project in Camden and a conversion in King’s Cross. If these prove successful, it’s likely that Yotels will be springing up in all kinds of places. After all, if Woodroffe managed to sway thousands of Britons into loving raw fish, then selling the pod hotel should be a no-brainer.

On a budget, Sir?

The Easy Group, which operates businesses from airlines to cinemas, is also applying its back-to-basics philosophy to hotels with a new company called easyDorm. It is pitching at a very different end of the market from Yotel: rooms will cost from £5 a night and guests will be expected to bring their own sheets and toiletries. Guests will also have the choice of paying £20 to have the room cleaned, or doing it themselves. Like the company’s easyCar hire operation, prices will fluctuate according to demand, with the cheapest prices available to people booking in advance over the internet. The company believes the potential market is huge, and includes backpackers, families and people on business from small companies. They are also hoping people who move to cities and sleep on friends’ floors for a while will switch to easyDorm. The easyDorm capsules were designed by American architect Joel Sanders. Guests will have a choice of single or double rooms with or without a shower, and will sleep on tatami, a thick Japanese mattresses laid directly on the floor. Like Yotel, the prefabricated part of the capsules will be made from glass-reinforced plastic – in corporate-trademark orange. But only one side of each capsule is factory-made. This is a service wall containing the shower, sink, bed and moulded shelves and hangers for clothing. Each service component is contained within a single wall segment. According to the room’s specification, different segments are slotted together to form one side of the room. The remaining three walls and ceiling are built on site using standard drylining techniques. The rooms are designed to fit into existing buildings, and a transparent panel in the prefabricated capsule wall illuminates the room with borrowed light from the existing facade. Once planning permission has been obtained, the first easyDorm is expected to open next year near Tottenham Court Road in London’s West End, in an Easy Group office building. Initially, just eight rooms will test the concept, to see how durable the capsules are and how the public reacts to them.

Something more traditional, Sir?

Architect Bryden Wood has designed a modular hotel called Zeds, which is similar in concept to Yotel for innovations company Hampstead Securities. Rooms will measure 2.4 × 4 m and incorporate a shower. Two rooms will be prefabricated as a single module, complete with an intermediate corridor. Here the similarities end; Zeds is more akin to a luxury yacht than an aeroplane, with polished hardwood finishes and (gasp) a window. The modules are made as rigid steel stressed-skin boxes so they can be dismantled and relocated on short-term sites.