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HVAC’s Place in the Rise of Modular Construction

HVAC’s Place in the Rise of Modular Construction

Modular construction has emerged as a time-, cost- and resource-efficient way to build everything from homes to high-rises. A 2018 New York Post article highlighted the merits of modular building and its potential to change the New York City building scene. Now, in 2020, we’re seeing that potential come to fruition, as more and more of NYC’s skyline is made up of hotels and office buildings that were built not onsite, but in factories.

In fact, NYC is home to the United States’ current tallest modular hotel. Completed in September 2018, the 21-story hotel was built using 210 modular units, all of which were assembled in Poland. Once unloaded, crews were able to assemble the hotel in about six months, at an average rate of one story per week.

By comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 Survey of Construction found that the average single-family home took seven and a half months to build using traditional construction methods. Let’s let that sink in: a 21-story building was assembled in less time than it takes to build an average home.

A Changed Perception

As building industry professionals, you’ve likely seen first-hand a shifted perception of modular construction. Now that it’s been proven to work (and work well), it’s made conventional construction methods seem outdated and inefficient.

The beauty of modular construction is that everything is prefabricated. In another NYC modular hotel that will be assembled in late 2020 (and will set the new record for tallest modular hotel), the rooms will arrive at the construction site fully outfitted, meaning with beds made and toiletries ready to use. But where do mechanical systems fit into the prefabricated formula?

How HVAC Fits In

The goals of modular construction are to simplify and streamline the building process. The large duct runs and amounts of plenum space required for traditional methods of HVAC don’t fit well into modular building. But, split-ductless systems do.

In modular construction, whether a home or a high-rise hotel, HVAC units are typically installed after the modules are assembled. This means that placement of and connections for split-ductless systems have to be considered as the modules are being constructed. But it’s been done easily and successfully so many times now, split-ductless systems have become a go-to for modular builders. While the modules are still in the factory, builders can also facilitate the installation process by drilling any necessary holes and installing materials for mounting the units.

Modular buildings aren’t limited to just single-zone systems. Mitsubishi Electric Zoned Comfort Solutions® and variable refrigerant flow systems, for instance, can be multi-zone and can be used in modular construction. Use of a multi-zone system even further enhances energy efficiency by allowing units in infrequently used spaces to adjust to set back mode while other units continue to operate normally.

Modular construction has yet to overtake traditional construction, but as more industry professionals recognize the benefits, we may be heading in that direction. The timeline and cost benefits of modular construction speak for themselves, but with the ability to also meet green building efficiency goals, we have a feeling both builders and HVAC suppliers will be taking on an increasing number of modular building projects.

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