How architects are tackling data center design

Submitted by Katherine Flynn on Thu, 06/23/2022 - 17:54
{"version":"0.3.0","atoms":[],"cards":[],"markups":[["a",["href","https:\/\/\/","target","_new"]],["b"]],"sections":[[1,"h2",[[0,[],0,"A new typology in a rapid growth sector offers opportunities for design innovation. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"The United States currently houses the largest number of\ndata centers in the world \u2014 about 2,670. While these structures are physically large,\nspanning roughly the size of four football fields, their purpose is even bigger: making\neverything we do on the internet possible. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"With permanent shifts to remote and hybrid work accelerated\nby the COVID-19 pandemic, the real-world space that houses and enables the\ndigital realm is currently expanding at a more rapid pace than ever before.\nThere has been a 775% increase in cloud computing services over the last two\nyears, and in 2021, Microsoft announced its intention to build 50 to 100 new\ndata centers each year for the foreseeable future. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Chheng Lim, an associate at Chicago-based "],[0,[0],1,"Sheehan Nagle\nHartray Architects"],[0,[],0,", specializes in designing these information storing and\nprocessing hubs. As she pointed out in a presentation at AIA\u2019s Conference on\nArchitecture 2022, this is the first time the organization is addressing this\nemerging building typology. Using Sheehan Nagle Hartray\u2019s design of the Fort\nWorth Data Center Administration Building as a case study\u2014winner of a\nDistinguished Building Award from AIA Chicago in 2020\u2014Lim explained how\narchitects on data center projects are faced with a unique challenge in how\nthey are trained to think: in terms of human-scale design. These data spaces,\nshe explains, may not be made to accommodate humans, but they are \u201chuman by\nproxy\u201d\u2014and they represent an expanded role for architects in our new internet-led\nwave of industrialization. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"The Fort Worth Data Center, stacked vertically, would be of\ncomparable size to skyscrapers like Chicago\u2019s Willis Tower. \u201cA data building\nmay house somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 150 people\u2014but [it also]\nhouses servers that allow millions of people all over the world to connect,\u201d Lim\nsaid. But while iconic skyscrapers like the Willis Tower are meant to interface\nwith the public and draw people in, data centers are what Lim calls \u201cquiet by\ndesign\u201d\u2014built for privacy and security. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[1],1,"\u201cShow\u201d and \u201cstealth\u201d "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"The dual design requirements of data center administration\nareas \u2013 places built for humans, on a human scale \u2013 and data halls where\nservers are stored call for different modes of thinking. For speed of\nconstruction, as well as for reasons of security, the long repetitive modules\nof the data halls can easily be made of pre-cast concrete. \u201c[They want] to be\nincognito in the landscape,\u201d Lim said. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"In contrast, the administration building offers something\nmore visually stimulating for human eyes. The fa\u00e7ade of the Fort Worth Data\nCenter Administration Building was inspired by the IBM punch code \u2014 the\noriginal code from the 1960s that powered the computers that sent astronauts to\nspace. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"\u201cWe felt that it was a conversation,\u201d Lim said of this\ndesign decision. \u201cIt was a nod and reference to both the history and the future\nof digital computing.\u201d Holistic designs for data centers, she says, are a\ncombination of show \u2013 for example, views to the outdoors for human workers \u2013\nand \u201cstealth,\u201d i.e. data halls housing high volumes of servers. For the latter\nareas, concerns such as a climate control and security are key. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[1],1,"Two conversations: energy and closing the digital divide "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"It\u2019s true that data centers do consume a great deal of\nenergy \u2013 as much power, in the case of the Forth Worth center, to light up\n720,000 lightbulbs, or a town roughly the size of Bath, England. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"\u201cThis is usually the part of the conversation where people\nstart to freak out and think that data centers are gobbling up the world\u2019s\nenergy,\u201d Lim said, \u201cbut the conversation gets a little bit more nuanced than\nthat.\u201d If we look at data center energy usage as a percentage of total global\nenergy demand, she says, the amount of energy that data centers consume \u2013\nconsidering how much information they process and relay \u2013 is 1%, according to\nthe International Energy Agency. Their efficiency has kept pace with their\nexponential growth over the last several decades. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Lim says that what often gets left out when the conversation\nstays focused on energy is what she calls the \u201chuman aspect\u201d of the\nconversation \u2013 or the inequities posed by only certain segments of the world\u2019s\npopulation, currently about 60%, having access to the internet. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"\u201cThis is not something we\u2019re going to solve by building\nfewer data centers, watching one less cat video, or going on one less video\nconference call,\u201d she said. \u201cWhat we\u2019re trying to plan for is for 100% of the\nworld population to go online.\u201d The remaining 40% is in the global south, as\nwell as rural and underprivileged communities. What data center designers are\ntrying to solve for is equity and access \u2013 which is something that needs to be\nsolved for to bridge the digital divide. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Lim also highlighted the fact that her firm\u2019s data center\nclients have done \u201ca great deal\u201d of research into renewable energy. The Fort\nWorth project is LEED Gold certified and, Lim says, runs on 100% renewable\nenergy. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[1],1,"Broadening the traditional role of the architect "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"\u201cArchitects, in this manner, are not just designing a\nbuilding \u2013 we are also designing a design process itself,\u201d Lim said. Because of\nthe emerging nature of data center design, the typology is ripe for innovation.\nAnd with so many new facilities in the pipeline, and so much at stake with data\nbeing stored and transferred, it\u2019s important for architects to advocate for\ngood design, especially in areas of resiliency \u2013 keeping water out, making sure\nbackup systems are planned for, and even ensuring sustainable supply chains. "]]]]}
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Data centers are quickly expanding across the U.S. and architects have a role to play.
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Chheng Lim presents at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2022.
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