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COVID-19 is a Catalyst for Digital Innovation in Data Center Design, Construction and Commissioning

COVID-19 has created challenges in all industries and particularly in the construction industry where owners, builders and operators have traditionally met and worked on-site to design, build and operate a facility. This also extends to the data center construction market where demand for data centers continues to be strong. As a result of the pandemic, some new data center construction projects have been delayed or put on hold, further limiting supply in a market of growing demand.

Some companies have responded with a variety of innovations. For example, Compass Datacenters has successfully performed a “virtual commissioning” of one of their newest new data centers. Compass employed a set of live-streaming cameras, wireless sensors, and a very small group of on-site people separated by safe distances. All the data and human observations were then relayed to off-site personnel. According to Nancy Novak, Chief Innovation Officer of Compass Datacenters, the process ended up providing them far more data than they would have had with the traditional process. “I can tell you more about this facility than any other one I have been a part of.” Novak further reported that the “same information will be invaluable for future training of every professional that will work at this data center”.

Another highly innovative company is Ehvert Mission Critical, a Toronto-based design and construction company that has considerable expertise in the design, construction and renovation of data centers. They have been perfecting processes for construction that leverages technology to disrupt how critical facility projects are delivered. Using laser scanners and highly advanced modelling software, Ehvert creates a true digital twin of the facility. A digital twin is a virtual computer representation of a building. This technology has been used in manufacturing for years. It has also been used in the design of information technology systems.

Digital twins are far more detailed than current Building Information Modelling (BIM) models typically used in construction and can be used for advanced engineering such as Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) that could not be done before. CFD is used to precisely model airflow and can ensure that equipment is not oversized as a result of design safety factors for unknown conditions. Firms like Ehvert are also leveraging their CFD modelling abilities to look at COVID-19 particle movement and how existing facilities might be retrofitted to reduce transmission risk.

Fabricators can also create assemblies directly from the digital twin which allows for a drastic reduction in materials and an optimization of labour. Construction simulations can also be performed during design by industrial construction engineers who are also responsible for managing fabrication and site assembly just like they are in manufacturing.

Design, construction and operations simulations can be accessed by all stakeholders and the digital twins are based on precise geometry and parametric data needed to support the design, procurement, fabrication, and construction activities required to complete the project. After completion, these models can be used for operations, education and maintenance purposes.

According to Ehvert’s President Vello Ehvert, “our perspective needs to be that we manufacture buildings rather than construct them”.

Augmented reality models can also be used to visualize what future construction will look like in existing facilities. Virtual site tours generated from laser scans allow the site to be navigated remotely and 3D models allow for any comments by all stakeholders to be addressed before construction begins.

This can address the recurring problem of clashes, where some design features are not seen as problems until construction is underway. On typical consultant drawings for a large commercial project, there are usually around 10,000 clashes between systems. The American Institute of Architects and Association of General Contractors estimates that each clash has an average cost of $1,500 per instance. If even 10% of these issues have a cost impact on the project, resolving them with virtual construction would save approximately $1,500,000 and eliminate schedule overruns. All of this advanced coordination also allows more systems to be prefabricated off site, reducing site labour and identifying any potentially hazardous working conditions to site staff.

Digital construction is proving to be beneficial to keeping projects moving during COVID-19. To reduce the transmission of COVID-19 particles, the construction industry must completely rethink how projects are delivered given that it is currently not feasible to employ a large number of workers on site. At the same time, rethinking the construction process has been long overdue. The construction industry has been criticized for being inefficient and one of the least digitized sectors. Using traditional building methods, projects typically take 20 percent longer to finish than scheduled and can be up to 80 percent over budget. Digital construction should not be viewed as a temporary solution as life starts to get back to normal. The industry should embrace and introduce innovative technology if it is to keep up with demand.

For more information on Cushman & Wakefield’s Global Data Center Advisory Group, contact us.

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