Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) is a whole-project approach, starting with design and working through to assembly. Designing with the detail of assembly in mind, and making sure that M&E engineers work closely with architects and structural engineers, we deliver built assets with performance as part of their DNA. And nowhere is this more relevant than in data centre design.

A data centre is about performance above all – minimising cost per kW, maximising IT yield per square metre, minimising energy and water consumption, maximising the efficiency of M&E building services, and minimising waste.

There are standard ways to address all of these value drivers, and many companies to do that. But to really raise the bar on what can be achieved with data centre design and M&E services, it’s essential to understand the mechanical and electrical systems, the architecture and the structure as being intimately interconnected and fully interdependent. Each of these facets must work in harmony to maximise the potential for optimal data centre design and that is impossible to do when the project is divided up and these areas are treated separately.

It is, however, possible to achieve through an integrated design approach and DfMA.

Cost per kW

Data centres developments have baseline costs like utilities, land, civils and structure... So the more data centre capacity you can fit onto your site, the more IT yield per square metre you will get, and the lower your cost per kW will be.

As data centre designers, we must aim to maximise the site yield. Here’s how we can do this:

It is not uncommon for permitted development on data centre sites to be limited to around 20 metres . A typical hyperscale data centre design, with the racks, then space for cabling and power, then a ceiling void and structure, will have a storey-to-storey height of often of seven or eight metres, and sometimes more. In other words, you can have two floors for data halls in a 20 metre planning envelope.

A fundamental reassessment of the integration of cooling systems and structure, and optimised M&E services zones through close coupling of electrical and mechanical systems will yield geometric reductions that can reduce floor to floor height. Constructing less costs less, but this approach has the potential to yield much more. For example, a reduction in floor to floor height to 6.5m would enable a three-storey data centre on that same site – an instant gain of 50% in site yield and significant reduction in cost per kW.

A similar approach to close integration of design and the arrangement of primary plant and ancillary systems will optimise the data centre facility plan footprint. Again, this maximises yield per m2, with the added benefit of a reduction in costly M&E distribution paths.

Deferring CapEx, delivering predictability

Data centres are expensive. Being able to compress the time from project inception to occupancy, as well as having reliable procurement and supply chain, and a predictable construction programme, is hugely valuable in being able to defer CapEx and cost of finance.

One of the core principles of DfMA is the standardisation of parts and construction/assembly processes. It enables the ‘industrialisation’ of data centre design and construction. This allows us to work with clients to standardise procurement, through a prearranged supply chain with stockholding, if necessary, of pre-agreed capital plant and equipment. It enables speed of installation through on-site assembly of prefabricated and pre-assembled parts in a safe and controlled manner. And given the nature of data centres, they lend themselves particularly well to this approach, where standardisation of the end-user product is paramount.

DfMA brings precisely the reliability, predictability and speed to market that our data centre clients want and benefit from.

Creating sustainable data centres

The biggest environmental impact of data centres is in their use of power and water for cooling, but they are also heavy in terms of embedded carbon. Carbon is embedded in the structure of buildings as everyone knows, but in data centres significantly more so in the M&E equipment within them. As we optimise the geometry and layout of the structure, plant and systems we can have a positive effect on the amount of embodied carbon in the building, structure and systems.

Our more sustainable approach to close coupling and integration increases efficiency in cooling and distribution losses and also lessens the carbon intensive materials used in these systems.

Our industrialisation and digital design approach allows us to quantify this carbon content during design, and minimise the content through optimisation and materials selection. It means our clients can make arrangements for carbon offsetting prior to the data centre facility being handed over.

We continue to investigate and take opportunities to make use of the heat that is generated by the cooling of data centres. with provision for heat export suitable for connection to district heating or industrial processes where viable.

We are also working with data centre clients on alternative sources of clean energy; an area where we see significant potential for data centres to become autonomous, and to promote the use of cleaner standby power systems.

A positive future for data centre design

As society’s requirement for data processing grows, so the market for data centres will continue to grow – and at a frantic pace. The potential impact of our integrated approach, therefore, driving efficiency and improving performance, will only be more important for our clients and their customers.

It is not sustainable, or desirable, to continue building more and more traditional data centres. By ensuring that every element of these crucial facilities is viewed as an integral part of the whole, and by optimising all of them together, we will continue to work with our clients to ensure that the future of this market is a positive one.