Design for Manufacturing 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 MEP engineers work closely with architects and structural engineers, we deliver built assets with performance as part of their DNA. Nowhere is this more relevant than in data center design.

A data center is about performance above all — minimizing cost per kW, maximizing IT yield per square meter, minimizing energy and water consumption, maximizing the efficiency of MEP building services, and minimizing 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 center design and MEP 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 maximize the potential for optimal data center 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 center developments have baseline costs like utilities, land, civils and structure ... The more data center capacity you can fit onto your site, the more IT yield per square meter you will get, and the lower your cost per kW will be.

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

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

Close coupling of electrical and mechanical systems in the zones for MEP services 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 center 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 optimize the data center facility plan footprint. Again, this maximizes yield per m2, with the added benefit of a reduction in costly MEP distribution paths.

Deferring Capex, Delivering Predictability

Data centers 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 program, is hugely valuable in being able to defer CapEx and cost of finance.

One of the core principles of DfMA is the standardization of parts and construction/assembly processes. It enables the industrialization of data center design and construction. This allows us to work with clients to standardize 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 centers, they lend themselves particularly well to this approach, where standardization of the end-user product is paramount.

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

Creating Sustainable Data Centers

The biggest environmental impact of data centers 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 centers significantly more so in the MEP equipment within them. As we optimize 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 industrialization and digital design approach allows us to quantify this carbon content during design, and minimize the content through optimization and material selection. It means our clients can make arrangements for carbon offsetting prior to the data center 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 centers, with provision for heat export suitable for connection to district heating or industrial processes where viable.

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

A Positive Future for Data Center Design

As society’s requirement for data processing grows, the market for data centers 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 centers. By ensuring that every element of these crucial facilities is viewed as an integral part of the whole, and by optimizing all of them together, we will continue to work with our clients to ensure that the future of this market is a positive one.