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The importance of wireless connectivity in modular buildings

(Image credit: Image Credit: Nathan John)

Faced with a complex project? Break it down into manageable pieces, the advice often goes. When it comes to building projects, this ethos, in combination with an era of concrete and steel, has ushered in an age of modular construction.

The theory is simple. Whilst the concrete core of the building in question is built onsite, almost everything else is prefabricated offsite in a factory setting, and transported to the building site for final assembly. There are various forms of such construction, depending on how close the modular components are to the finished article.

Pod construction, for example, is most similar to traditional onsite building. Used most frequently for bathrooms across a range of hospitality and residential projects, the bathrooms are fabricated in a factory setting, transport to the site and dropped into position.

Then there are ‘flat pack’ type modular constructions, where panelised pieces of timber, concrete or other materials are delivered on the back of lorries to be assembled around a concrete core onsite.

Finally there is ‘volumetric construction’ whereby the pieces constructed offsite include the internal finishes. For bulk developments such as student housing or hospitality projects, this can be particularly effective.

Why modular buildings matter

Ultimately, modular construction allows buildings to be put together component by component in a logical and highly efficient fashion. In turn, this means accelerated build processes and a higher degree of consistency and quality control across the repeated components within a building.

This is particularly salient in light of the rise in ‘build to rent’ projects, whereby a single management company operates as the landlord for an entire building or portfolio of buildings. It is crucial for such operators’ brands that they offer consistent quality across not just the individual flats within a building, but also, potentially, between different buildings.

However, all of these advantages can be undone if the wireless connectivity within such modular buildings is unreliable or overcomplicated.

Connectivity: a core requirement

Whether a modular building is an apartment block, a hotel, student halls of residence or even an office building, wireless connectivity is going to be a crucial requirement.

This is most apparent when it comes to WiFi for the residents or tenants. Robust, reliable and high-speed internet access is, after all, no longer an optional extra – it is a critical part of building infrastructure. Increasingly, residents expect to be able to access their home WiFi seamlessly no matter where they are in their building – and if their building is part of a branded group, they expect to be able to access the internet in other buildings too. Wireless connectivity needs to remain high-performance even when hundreds or thousands of individuals within the building are accessing it at the same time, potentially using high-bandwidth applications like gaming or high-definition television on demand.

Then there are other systems which rely on network infrastructure in order to operate. CCTV systems. Building alarms and other elements of security. Door entry systems. Building management systems (BSMs) like fire safety solutions. All these require networks of some shape or form.

But how best can the managers of modular construction projects ensure the delivery of this high-performance connectivity?

Start early, think logical

It can be tempting for modular construction managers to wait until all of the building components are in place and then tackle connectivity at the very end. This brings the advantage of clarity and a holistic approach – but it also adds a potentially complex build and installation retrofitting task at the end of what was intended to be a clean, logical and accelerated construction project.

Even if networking is considered earlier on in the project, it is still common to go out to a mechanical and electrical (M&E) contractor, who then brings in separate specialists for the different systems required – CCTV, building alarms, resident WiFi and so on. The problem here is that there is a great deal of unnecessary duplication, with each specialist pitching a full network with their own system running off it.

The best approach is to treat the network infrastructure for a modular building like the overall construction project – as a single whole made up of multiple smaller components. In other words, to install a single converged network of fibre or copper, and then divide this up into multiple smaller virtualised LANs.

This requires an IT networking specialist, brought in early on in the modular construction project. Such a provider can examine all of the separate networking requirements for a modular building, and develop a single solution from which they can all run.

The advantages of this approach are enormous. For a start, it is clean, simple, logical and efficient – in line with the goals of the overall modular construction approach. It avoids unnecessary duplication and the associated wasted resource, and it avoids costly and complex retrofitting once the modular components of the building have been installed.

It also provides a powerful foundation for offering residents a consistent and high-quality experience throughout an entire building, and even between different buildings in an operator’s portfolio. For example, Personal Area Networks can be set up which allow residents to access their home WiFi system from the ground-floor lobby, or to take their WiFi with them when they move to a different building. When many modular constructions are being used for build to rent models, this can be a powerful brand differentiator.

Ultimately, modular constructors should look to involve IT networking specialists as early as possible in their projects, working with both the operations and the brand or marketing team to develop a wireless connectivity strategy which is as efficient and logical as the building itself.

Simon O'Hare, CEO, Curve IT (opens in new tab)

Simon runs Curve IT, who are a Brighton/London based networking and connectivity specialist, who bring WiFi to numerous structures and events including the British Airways i360 Tower and Brighton Fringe.