Now is the time for a modular approach to building services
Dave Archer, National M&E Manager at Mitsubishi Electric
The term ‘modular’ is increasingly heard in the construction sector, and a growing number of contractors and housebuilders are adopting a modular approach for faster and more efficient project delivery. Outside of construction, it’s also becoming more common to hear the term applied to building services too.
A modular approach to building services isn’t a brand-new idea – it has already been used in the UK for decades. For example, variable refrigerant flow (VRF) air conditioning systems use a modular set up. VRF air conditioning is popular due in part due to its energy efficiency, which is around 40 to 50% more efficient than a packaged rooftop unit (RTU), but it’s modular set up is also a benefit because of the design flexibility it brings to projects – and once installed, if one VRF unit needs servicing or develops a fault, it affects only a small area of the occupied space, not the whole building.
Following the pandemic, building managers are looking closely at how commercial spaces are managed, and the HVAC systems that are required to keep spaces comfortable and safe. One part of this is looking at more modular solutions. Across ventilation, air conditioning and chillers, adopting a modular approach to building services can offer an easy, cost-effective and energy efficient solution to HVAC requirements.
Greater connectivity, scalability
One benefit of modular systems is that they can be connected to one another, and their operation scaled up and down to meet the need of any given area – or a space where requirements change over time. For example, modular chillers offer the same approach as a VRF systems. Rather than using a large, single chiller, several smaller modules are connected to provide the end-user with the same level of output. This makes it easy to specify the exact chiller size required for a project, but with the reassurance that the modular units can be scaled up to meet social changing future building requirements.
Modular chillers are also extremely reliable, for situations where constant cooling is critical. They are designed with multiple compressor circuits, which means they can provide uptime when one unit needs servicing – so the system can continue operating if one component temporarily shuts down.
Time and money
Time and money are both key considerations in today’s construction industry, so the ability to get modular products on-site and installed quickly is a significant advantage.
Modular chillers, for example, are smaller and more lightweight, so they can be lifted onto rooftops far more easily than conventional chillers, making them ideal for faster and more efficient project delivery. A typical modular chiller design also has a 35% space saving compared to a traditional chiller, and can be positioned at 90 degrees to each other, allowing them to be fitted conveniently into rooftop corners.
A modular approach to ventilation systems can offer similar benefits. Mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) systems can be installed in single rooms or as a system across a whole building, making them ideal for refurbishment projects where additional ventilation is required to improve occupant comfort.
Speaking more broadly, storing modules offsite and only fully assembling the parts when required can significantly reduce overall construction times, often by as much as 50%.
Encouraging modern methods of construction
More and more construction companies are adopting modern methods of construction (MMC), like building modular buildings, and many of the largest construction projects in the UK use at least some element of MMC. The government is helping to drive this change, by implementing new requirements for MMC on public sector projects. For example, the Department of Education recently launched a new £3 billion framework to build secondary and primary schools using offsite construction methods.
A shrinking pool of skilled on-site labour is also propelling the modular approach forward, with demand now at a 20 year high. Moreover, the potential cost savings are also an attractive incentive for an industry looking to improve its financial performance after a difficult two years, and the energy efficiency credentials of modular HVAC systems make them an appealing choice for future-proofing buildings against increasingly stringent regulation.
Modular air conditioning, ventilation and chillers are an ideal option in the face of these challenges and requirements. They are easier to install, and are brought to site better prepared to run efficiently over the long term than traditional systems – which can in turn help with cost savings too.
As building regulations become stricter and the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the importance of things like ventilation within buildings to the fore, the industry must continue to embrace new ways of building and equipping spaces. As a convenient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution, adopting a modular approach towards building services will prove valuable over the next few years and beyond.
About Mitsubishi Electric
Originally founded in 1921, the company known today as Mitsubishi Electric has almost 100 years of experience in providing reliable, high quality products and support to installers, specifiers, corporate clients and general consumers all over the world.