Martin Smith from Gardiner & Theobald reviews the lead times for major M&E components on critical systems projects such as data centres

01 — What are critical systems projects?

These are complex, high-technology projects for which M&E systems such as power, cooling, fire protection and security are designed to achieve availability of up to 99.999% (the so-called “five nines”), thus supporting business continuity.

Critical systems provide high levels of resilience and reliability through redundant capacity, fault tolerance and concurrent maintainability in both components and distribution systems to minimise “downtime” – that is, the number of hours a year when an IT system is out of service owing to failure of the M&E services essential to the operation of the IT equipment (loss of power or cooling).

Inherently, these projects are instigated in response to an immediate demand – often caused by technological, political, economic or regulatory changes – so the team is under pressure for fast-track delivery and needs to understand how the lead times of key components affect programme.

02 — What is driving demand?

There is currently massive and growing demand for critical systems projects, such as data centres, computer equipment rooms, telecoms installations, work area/disaster recovery facilities, dealer floors and infrastructure upgrades.

This demand is driven by factors such as:

  • An increased dependence on IT that requires high availability of computer systems and networks. Even the smallest business grinds to a halt if the IT system goes down. This means the firm’s server
  • can no longer be housed in the cleaner’s cupboard and plugged into the same socket as the photocopier.
  • An exponential growth in use of computers, servers, wide area and local area networks, the internet and telecommunications.
  • Regulatory requirements imposed by the Financial Services Authority and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in the banking and financial services sectors.·
  • The need to secure businesses and their IT systems against the actual and perceived threats of terrorism and natural disasters.
  • Advances in technology that are pushing up the power and cooling loads of IT equipment
  • The demands of the 24/7 global economy.

03 — Market conditions

The critical systems sector of the construction industry is extremely busy. The consultants, suppliers and contractors with experience and expertise in this area are few in number and therefore in great demand.

Others have recognised the opportunity and are entering the market to service projects that range from £100m new-build data centres to upgrading the client’s existing infrastructure by changing transformers or uninterruptible power supply modules.

The right sites and buildings for data centres and work area/disaster recovery facilities are also in massive demand, with several agents having specialist teams dedicated to this market sector.

The key issue is availability of power (see below), but other factors also dictate if a site is suitable for a “critical systems” facility, such as proximity to the user’s other facilities. They should be far enough away to prevent both being affected by a single event, but not too far to complicate synchronous working across fibre-optic links. They should be a fair distance from airports, rail lines, power lines, areas at risk of flooding and hazardous industrial areas (the 2005 fire at Buncefield oil depot comes to mind). They also need fibre-optic links.

Most critical systems projects require new or upgraded powers supplies. The high demand for power (typically 10-20MVA) and the need for duplicate and/or diverse incoming routes, often leaves these projects dependent on the regional electricity company; their lead-in times are typically 18-24 months and there are no guarantees on cost or programme.

All suppliers of major components such as generators, switchgear, transformers, uninterruptible power supplies and chillers have full order books. They are servicing domestic demand for critical systems projects and global demand from emerging economies such as China – and this is reflected in lead times and service. Increases in copper prices have affected the prices for most of these major components.

Because of the diversity of this type of project, it is difficult to generalise on conditions in the contracting market. We have undertaken pre-qualification exercises on a number of data centre projects worth more than £50m.

On such projects, much of the construction market perceives that there is an unacceptable risk profile attached to the traditional single-stage, fixed-price lump-sum procurement approach.

There are relatively few contractors with the experience, expertise and financial backing to take on this type and value of contract. Because order books are relatively full, they can afford to be risk averse, preferring to tender these larger, fast track projects on a two-stage basis or as management contracts.

The market is also hot for key subcontractors with the requisite track record, particularly mechanical services, electrical installations, fire protection, security, BMS and controls.

04 — Lead times

The Mace lead times summary includes data for the main components of a critical systems project. This must be applied with caution, however, because the specification for critical systems projects will exceed that used in the generic model so lead times will be extended.


The scope and complexity of switchgear involved in critical systems projects – including specialist power distribution units and transfer switches serving IT equipment – may extend lead times beyond 16 weeks up to 25 weeks for LV panels, transformers and bus bars.


Plant, including chillers sized up to 1,500kW with free cooling options and specialist acoustic treatment, is on a lead time of 16-20 weeks.


The lead-time on generators with capacity in excess of 1MVA is up to 40 weeks. These include acoustic enclosures, fuel systems, flues and fire suppression.

Raised floors

A typical specification is an 800mm high raised floor with vinyl or laminate finished tiles incorporating stringers and the mechanical fixing of pedestals. Lead times for these floors may extend beyond six weeks to 10-12 weeks, particularly if account is taken of the floor grilles and slave floor tiles.

M&E packages

As stated above, key M&E subcontractors are in demand, so lead times may be as long as 20-23 weeks. The period for production and approval of working drawings tends to be extended because of the systems’ complexity.

Uninterruptible power supplies

Design options include static UPSs, diesel rotary UPSs or hybrid static/rotary UPS. Lead times can be up to 30 weeks.

05 — Managing the risks

The key to the successful implementation of critical systems projects is to identify the risk represented by extended lead times, establish the right procurement strategy and manage the project against a realistic programme. To do so you need the right team with the requisite technical expertise and a hands-on management approach.