When they first appeared in Japan in 1981 the public responded by dubbing them “coffin hotels.” But the pejorative name did not reflect the Japanese people’s genuinely favorable reaction to the latest form of highdensity housing which, instead of normal rooms, contained tiny sleeping
tubes barely large enough for a single bed. Now Japan has 17 coffin hotels, with an average 96-per-cent occupancy rate, and a Texas entrepreneur has invested $500,000 in the hope that thousands of tired travellers held over at airports will soon be napping in the domestically made sleeping tubes which
he is currently introducing to the North American market. He is not offering a room with a view, but Charles McLaren, president of Houston-based Intermar Inc., says he is convinced that although North Americans traditionally love space, they will rent his rooms. Said McLaren: “There is a need for these babies. And I’ll tell you what, they are a lot better than a hard-backed chair and yesterday’s newspaper.”
McLaren, 40, frankly describes his new product as “a bunk bed with walls on it.” But really it is a long, narrow, airconditioned tube made of plastic and covered with fire-resistant foam. It measures eight feet long by four feet wide and four feet high and is equipped with either a stiff fabric curtain or a door with a lock. A foam mattress occupies the whole floor, and its walls contain a telephone, TV set, intercom, radio and alarm clock—but no windows.
McLaren is aiming his coffins initially at North American airports, where they will be built into motel-type complexes with separate showers, toilets and saunas. He said that travellers will pay about $12 for a four-hour rest in a coffin hotel while awaiting flights. After spending $500,000 developing the idea, Intermar is now manufacturing the tubes and has entered discussions with Los Angeles International Airport. Over the next five years his company plans to produce 6,000 tubes which he expects to sell for $198 million.
But interest in the tubes is not restricted to airports. Intermar is negotiating with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which might use the tubes to house illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. And last month McLaren displayed his tubes in Washington at the request of the Pentagon, which is considering them to house Pershing II missile crews in Europe while they are on duty. He says he is also negotiating with the government of Kuwait, which wants the tubes to house expatriate workers. But McLaren says that by far the most unusual plan for the tubes is that of Saudi Arabia: its government needs accommodation for pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca.
Despite the fact that Japanese people are on average smaller and more used to crowded conditions than most North Americans, McLaren is confident that his tubes will catch on here. Said McLaren: “Some folks might be frightened of claustrophobia, but they need not worry. There are so many lights, bells and whistles on the walls of this thing that you don’t get any feeling of being trapped inside. It’s getting them through the front door that is the problem.” But at six feet and 230 lb., the burly entrepreneur is living evidence that it can be done.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.