Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Planning A Sustainable Data Center

The architectural qualities of data centers is a relevant topic of study because the structures:

  1. Play an important role in many organizations' expansion plans.
  2. Control vast amounts of moving information important to society.
  3. Consume an amazing amount of electricity. (Sometimes as much as a mid-sized municipality.)
We've covered elsewhere that sharp aesthetic design is no longer incompatible with sustainability. However, on the last point above especially, data centers have become an interesting exercise in what happens when a single building function is prioritized above all others. A great effort has been made to optimize the sustainability features of these buildings and therefore there are things we can learn to apply to our own projects. 

The first thing is to build a context around their low rectangular profile. This quality is arrived at by addressing issues of constructibility. In the design of a data center's characteristic rectangular shape, the use of repeating and modular details is maximized to ensure a short build time. The energy saved on a compact design and construction schedule can be considered a sustainability feature in-and-of-itself. If the data centers have offices, they tend to be very standard and unimaginative as the designers have no freedom to affect the structure of the building. Still, interior quality can be quite high when given headquarter's blessing.

Unless one really likes the techno-industrial stylings of data centers, their aesthetic qualities can be poor. Some buildings try to mitigate these concerns with advanced and well-thought out cladding systems (top image), but the fact remains designers are fundamentally limited from ever truly experimenting with form. A nice exception to this is South Korea’s GAK data center (bottom image), but most of the time, it has to be simple and rectangular at the end of the day. What one normally discovers with this constraint is visually very weak corners. They always kind of droop away. (The use of entasis in Greek architecture was to counter this effect.) So if the interior design is detached from the structure and exterior architectural quality poor, why are data centers continuing to be built?

Data centers are severing their primary function well: committing everything to reducing power consumption. This is a reasonable goal since electricity will, by far, be the biggest operating cost of the building. The electrical and mechanical engineering skills on display in these buildings is fascinating and building systems sophisticated. Power savings are normally addressed within the industry one of two ways: Lower powered chips can be used, which the architect has no control over. Or ultra-high performance heating and cooling systems are installed, which strike at the core function of data center and the role of an architect to figure out and coordinate. The electricity consumption is so dense inside these structures it expresses itself on the exterior with rows of cooling units. Backtracking from there, the cooling system is carefully designed to remove heat from the racks as efficiently as possible. Electricity consumption is fanatically tracked. The optimization on display here is emblematic of the high-performance building technology and techniques we should be trying to apply in all modern buildings.

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