Modular cleanroom construction offers an alternative to conventional construction for spaces that require flexibility in terms of future needs, a restricted build timeline, or the need to keep using the current facility.
Pre-engineering modular cleanrooms allow for the development of components that collaborate with each other but still work for a range of applications. Pre-engineering systems and components can cut down on design time and can incorporate standard, mass produced parts, such as wall systems as well as window/door/ceiling options.
The prefabricated design allows a modular room to be expanded, relocated, separated into several smaller rooms, or rearranged into a different shape. Modular cleanrooms, since they aren’t an integral part of a larger structure, can even be dissembled and moved to a different facility, unlike fixed wall cleanrooms. The rooms can also be expanded by removing a wall and adding on another module.
The modular cleanrooms industry is challenged by the “way that things have always been done.” Though modular solutions aren’t new, conventional build often comes to mind first in cleanroom construction. However, modular options can provide temporary or permanent accommodations, and costs are oftentimes lower than fixed wall units.
Why go with modular?
Modular cleanrooms are an option for companies who need some flexibility in terms of future plans.
“The conventional stick build requires support from the building structure at some level and it doesn’t allow for the flexibility for upgrading the cleanliness level of the room in the future or expanding the room easily as the room develops and grows,” says Kathie Kalafatis, President and CEO of CleanAir Solutions Inc., Fairfield, Calif. “The modular system allows for a floor-loaded design so that everything is self-supported in the wall structure.”
CleanAir Solutions offers modular cleanrooms that are “pre-designed and built on site; some are pre-designed and pre-fabricated and built on-site,” says Kalafatis. “For the smaller rooms, we have a system that we pre-fabricate ahead of time and those are primarily used in the pharmaceutical compounding industries, like mom and pop places that need a cleanroom on-site.”
An advantage to modular cleanrooms is that they can be constructed without disrupting a business’s day-to-day schedule.
“We can build around the facility to make it process-compliant to USP 797, and not disrupt their process,” says Kalafatis. “We engineer and build them and send one or two guys out there for a couple of days.” This is an advantage over a non-modular cleanroom, she adds. “A conventional build requires permits, and renovating the entire structure.”
Kalafatis gives an example of a recent build that her company did, to illustrate what a customer seeking a modular cleanroom may require.
“We’re a design/build company so we build these rooms for different customers,” she says. “One was recently completed for the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., in support of a NASA project that was utilizing that facility for an upcoming satellite project. They needed to be able to test the satellites before they went into space.” The project required a secure test environment to eliminate faulty data readings, as well as a cleanroom built around large chamber.
While facilities sometimes assemble their own modular cleanroom projects, in this case CleanAir provided the construction because of the sheer magnitude of the space that was required.
“For a project that size we handle the build aspect of it – our guys were out there for six months,” Kalafatis says. For modular cleanrooms in general, though, she adds, “You don’t need to be a carpenter, per se, to assemble them … for the most part they’re pretty easy to put together.”
The Naval Research Laboratory project measured 2,600 ft2 and 26 feet high, and cost about $3 million. From start to finish, the build took about eight months, spanning from February to September 2013.
Other CleanAir builds included an MMS project for the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which spanned 4,500 ft2, and included a mechanical room within the cleanroom that supported all the mechanical equipment for that cleanroom space as well. This project was completed in 2012.
Another project involved a “plug and play” cleanroom for Intel, which was a concept design that had to be able to be in a parking lot and still have all the infrastructure built into that room. “That’s really the way that the modular systems are going,” says Kalafatis. “It has to have the mechanical system to support the room, and [be] completely isolated from the rest of the building.”
Taking the measure of modular
A modular cleanroom might be a fast and flexible alternative to a traditional stick-build model, but it’s not without its own unique requirements.
“The biggest challenge in a modular cleanroom is when we have to span a large distance. The max span on a majority of modular systems is 20 feet, and so if there’s a big piece of equipment you can’t put a post or column in the middle of the room,” says Kalafatis. “If they have something that needs to span more than 20 feet then typically there’s going to need to be a column in the middle of the room. If they have a big piece of process equipment in the middle of the room, then modular isn’t going to be the way for them to go. A big satellite in the middle of the room isn’t going to allow us to put a column there. The Naval Research Laboratory project spanned 36 feet but we have a specially designed truss system that allows us to span that length. And due to the fact that our posts on the wall are load-bearing enough to support the weight.”
Door selection can also present challenges since the type of door required depends on the modular cleanroom’s specific needs—cleanliness class, traffic patterns, the direction of the door’s swing, room pressurization, and more. Windows also can raise the same issues as there is not a one-size-fits-all option.
Energy efficiency and compliance
The specific needs of modern cleanrooms may push ahead the progress and popularity of modular cleanrooms.
“I think that’s the way it is going and I think what’s driving that is the energy efficiency … cleanrooms need to be on at all times. Filters need to have air constantly driven through them. Control systems with nighttime setback features in them,” says Kalafatis. “As we recirculate the room at a higher efficiency we have to introduce less and less makeup air than we used to—you’ve driven down the amount of air that you need to recondition because you’ve recirculated 85 to 90% of the air that you’ve used.”
A facility doesn’t need to bring in an entirely new mechanical system to support it, she adds, if you’re building it with its own mechanical system. “The air has already been conditioned so it’s not coming in from the inside … recirculated air might have only risen to 65-70 degrees.” The temperature is process-driven, and the process dictates the temperature and humidity.
Pharmaceuticals may be the industry that stands to gain the most from modular cleanrooms.
“Pharmaceutical compounding is growing for the modular cleanroom industry—we can build in a lot of their hood requirements so buying a separate laminar flow hood isn’t necessary,” says Kalafatis. “They have a larger work surface to work from and more equipment would recirculate the heat in a room and drive it up, so by eliminating it from the room you’re reducing the cost of the room as well.”
“A lot of these pharmacies are out of compliance because they don’t have the time it takes to get it conventionally. More and more of them are looking to the modular solution as they’re realizing it’s a much faster, easier way to get compliance,” she adds.
Modular cleanrooms could be beneficial for smaller establishments, as well as hospital basements that lack a facility infrastructure. “We can integrate everything they need into that one area and they can basically plug it into the wall and not have to go through all the changes to the building in the hospital, because that could take years,” says Kalafatis.
MaryBeth DiDonna is the Managing Editor of Controlled Environments.
This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Controlled Environments.