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What does technical excellence mean and why is it important?

Critical Systems By Andrew Moore, Partner, Building Services – 03 December 2021

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Andrew Moore in front of building with trees and plants in background

Andrew Moore

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We talk a lot about technical excellence. This means different things to different people, depending upon their perspective – so I thought that I would share my views on what it means as one of the sponsors for technical development within Cundall and why I believe that it is important as well as what it adds to projects.

A point that many people consider is the need to simply get the detail and implementation right, so the intended solutions work properly. This is important for all projects and critical for many, requiring close attention to detail along with rigorous checking. However, it is just the starting point for good project delivery.

To deliver truly excellent designs, the process needs to begin with the initial brief – understanding the desired outcomes and challenging the requirements, along with the basis for pre-conceived ideas of solutions so that alternative approaches can be considered at the right stage of the design. This is now essential as we need to achieve net zero carbon on every project, where every design decision matters. Sarah Linnell’s talk at CoP 26 illustrated this perfectly when she referenced a relatively simple façade example with the equivalent impact of 900 people changing to a plant-based diet. This example also shows the scale of impact that our decisions can have.

In the field of data centre design, there is already a drive to reduce environmental impact with many of the major organisations targeting net-zero carbon over the next decade. However, the technical solutions and approaches vary significantly between different client types due to their business area and associated risk profiles.

Some hyperscale operators (often technology firms that own and operate data centres for their own products and services) can allow wider environmental conditions and select locations which help reduce energy consumption, representing a very different set of challenges to those faced by CoLo (data centres where multiple tenants collocate their IT equipment) providers who typically face much stricter service level agreements, placing more constraints on the potential solutions. In all cases though, the starting point for the design will be an understanding of the required outcomes, enabling us to work together to deliver appropriate solutions to these technically challenging projects.

Over the last decade, we have seen a shift from the widespread use of low-temperature chilled water based systems to a range of direct and indirect air-cooling, elevated chilled water systems and increasing development of direct liquid cooling. Each of these has its place and needs to be considered against a backdrop of increasing requirements for efficient use of resources to achieve net-zero carbon. This in turn is also driving wider data centre integration with district heating schemes and consideration of the most appropriate form of power supply resilience, rather than automatically falling back on full diesel standby generation.

The design concepts must then be able to be implemented in a way that can be understood by both the installing contractors and the end users, so that the original intent can be delivered and maintained throughout the building’s life. This means that one of the key features of excellent design is likely to be apparent simplicity of use, supported by robust detail. We have become increasingly used to this as consumers, with everyday examples including the increasingly sophisticated phones and cars that we all use, both of which demand relatively simple operation and interfaces with the user. We need to continue extending this into the built environment.

In conclusion, to achieve the best solutions it is essential to have a collaborative approach throughout a project, listening to ideas and concerns from all areas and parties involved, including designers across disciplines, maintenance teams, customers and those implementing or building the design to challenge the team. For large multi-disciplinary projects, the use of effective design management supports this by underpinning design delivery, facilitating information flow and collaboration, giving space for the necessary challenges to delivering excellent designs. Following this approach will help us deliver well-engineered technically excellent and apparently simple solutions to our clients’ requirements in all sectors.

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