Modular buildings are used for data centers, energy storage systems, hotels, residences, offices and healthcare — almost any occupancy can now be located in a modular building. They are a vital part of a growing trend in the construction and infrastructure development sectors, and that trend is here to stay. In an era where construction costs, speed to completion and sustainability have become necessities for businesses, especially as environmental regulations become more stringent, modular solutions become increasingly attractive.
Constructing building components off-site in a factory before transporting and assembling the building at its final location is cost-effective, prevents on-site weather delays, improves quality control, saves time and reduces the noise and carbon footprint associated with lengthy on-site projects. It makes sense, therefore, that modular construction offers opportunities to help building owners reduce cost and speed time to completion while maintaining high safety and energy efficiency standards.
Big ambitions for Intermountain Electronics
Intermountain Electronics (IE) makes modular data centers, energy storage buildings, pump houses and other occupancy-specific solutions for their clients that can be quickly and easily deployed in diverse locations. These energy-efficient systems can be deployed incrementally, and all power delivery and energy recovery infrastructure can be upgraded on-site. Security, as well as portability, is another important feature. The modular building’s compartmentalized architecture allows for physical and logical separation, and the standardized form factor (a hardware design aspect that defines the physical specifications of components, especially in the electronics sector) allows easy replication of corporate building needs.
As its modular business grew, IE needed to ensure it was meeting the highest standards. Over the past two years, the company experienced significant growth, but with scaling up comes the demand from customers for more scrutiny and accountability.
Mike Halligan, global program manager, UL Solutions, said that modular manufacturing, while conceptually mature, is a “relatively new industry.” It is important for companies that turn to modular manufacturing — such as IE — to find ways to increase value to customers and protect their brand reputation. This is where UL Solutions, a global safety science leader, was able to step in.
Defining the compliance challenges for modular buildings
Bobby Houston, Vice Chairman at IE, outlined the main challenge the company was facing: “We didn’t have a productive solution to allow us to build in high volumes. Traditionally, a high volume for us would be five to 10 units in the same design, and in that one-off scenario, it made sense to go through the usual paths, such as local processes and third-party inspectors.”
However, this approach was not going to be effective or consistent from a scalability perspective, which Houston said led to the challenges of having to re-engineer and rework products on-site.
“The main reason for making contact with UL Solutions was to help us make the most of opportunities to work in higher volume situations where we could do one major review, apply that to a batch of units, up to as many as 5,000, and from that standpoint, we can be very competitive.”
IE’s team discovered that the road to code compliance and certification required extensive support from UL Solutions, as Houston explained: “Once we got into the process and understood the value-add from UL Solutions, we realized that the plan reviews, inspections and after-shipment support they provided is above and beyond anything we had before.”
Above all, product safety is the primary goal, as Houston highlighted: “Our goal is to make sure you can build 1,000 of these things — if you have one out there with a catastrophic failure, that would not only be a massive problem for our customers, but it could also be a massive problem for our business and the livelihood of our employees, so safety is number one on our list.
“It’s a delicate balance — you want to be competitive. You don't want to cut corners, but you can't over-design and over-engineer equipment, so you have to be practical while keeping safety at the top of the list,” Houston continued. “We've had multiple opportunities to learn from UL Solutions why things are important and how they came to be included in the code.”
Designing to meet code requirements and regulations for modular buildings
UL Solutions talks to customers about regulatory compliance and meeting local codes “before the drawings are even started. This is in the conceptual stage of the process,” according to Halligan.
“Once in the design phase, the customer can give us their drawings to review for initial code compliance, and then usually we’ll have some comments,” Halligan continued. “We have a two-stage process for plan review — the initial or conceptual stage and then the final stage plan review.”
At the conceptual stage, UL Solutions conducts an objective review of the design to the requirements of the standard. We identify any elements that do not meet the requirements and answer questions from the customer about scenarios where changes could be made so the design would meet the requirements. At this point, the customer goes back and makes changes before presenting UL Solutions with the final set of drawings for review. During the construction phase, UL Solutions will make further inspections. As the process continues, virtual inspections can take place, which saves the customer money. Halligan said this was the experience with IE.
“Plan review time is shortened. Our customers don’t have to rework their plans as we’re involved with code reviews from the beginning,” said Halligan. “Because we’re reviewing plans as they're going through the design phases, the development of all the construction drawings is shortened.”
Making early inspections from the design stage eliminates IE from having to make changes because a non-compliant product arrived at a customer’s site or construction was completed outside the code requirement.
“This saves time and money. We help mitigate the risk associated with design, construction and delivery schedules — and our reviews are extremely thorough, so the customer can solve problems at the factory rather than at the end location."
Excellent outcomes for IE
Houston said the value UL Solutions brought to IE’s processes went beyond an inspection of the unit that met codes and standards for one or multiple locations: “We recognized the value that UL Solutions has added to our business. They have helped us understand how to maximize the efficiency of the resources available to us and how we could work together to go create more business for each other in a partnership, rather than just checking a box as part of a specification.”
Working with UL Solutions has allowed IE to have a much more holistic vision of our customer’s projects and how the organisation can engage earlier and more often to avoid negative impacts to budgets and schedules. As IE is a custom equipment manufacturer working as part of a team on large scale construction projects, constant changes must be made to meet customer needs, and the guidance offered by UL Solutions helped the company consistently produce compliant, bespoke products.
“When you get consistent reviews from UL Solutions, that shortens the timeline for us, which is a no-brainer,” said Houston. “When questions arise, UL Solutions engages in the process and takes a very thorough and positive approach whether that is with our internal design team or any external inspectors responsible for signing off on our equipment at the construction sites.”
One of the big wins for IE has been a collaboration with a major, up-and-coming data center company, according to Houston: “They've purchased a significant amount of equipment, and we are one of the top suppliers they've worked with since inception. We have stayed there consistently over the span of three to four years as they've grown exponentially. The support from UL has, without a doubt, enabled our ability to adapt to our customer’s needs quickly and effectively, which has allowed us to retain these types of relationships and be a major contributor to their programs.
“The main takeaway is that working with UL Solutions has provided an avenue for one of our overarching company goals which is to transition from a reactive mindset and be more proactive for our customers and employees. This allows us to ensure we are able to eliminate surprises, show up every day and have a significant positive impact on the people we work with,” Houston concluded.