Why You Need an Architect in Data Center Design

(By: Mark Meche, AIA)

BIM Coordinated Data Center in Australia completed by Winter Street Architects and Sun Microsystems

I will be the first to admit, when thinking about great architecture, not one single data center comes to mind. The truth is data centers, for good reason, tend to be stealthy affairs that avoid attracting attention and their buildings follow suit. Despite typically splashy web portals, the whole industry has a covert side. Of all the industries we touch as architects, our IT clients tend to be the most secretive.

We have become accustomed to signing air tight non-disclosure agreements and rigorous IP clauses. As one Journalist noted, it’s like the Fight Club rule – You DO NOT talk about the data center. We even have one client, a household name in the industry, who won’t let us disclose that they are a client.

For the most part, when one thinks data center designer, one thinks engineer. A few years back our data center team was invited to be keynote presenters at the Uptime Institute’s annual symposium. Institute founder Ken Brill was interviewing our team in preparation for a panel discussion and his first question was, “what is an architect doing in the data center.” It’s a fair question to be sure, but one that is hard to answer concisely.  The data center design community has grown accustomed to expecting very little input from the architect. One engineer friend jokes, “give us the base plans and we will call you when it’s time to pick accent lights and paint colors.”

The data center design community has grown accustomed to expecting very little input from the architect. One engineer friend jokes, ‘give us the base plans and we will call you when it’s time to pick accent lights and paint colors.’

Data centers do have more in common with industrial buildings than they have with museums or court houses. Their design is understandably dominated by engineers and engineering considerations; however, my experience over the last few years has convinced me (and a few of my clients) that having an architect in the mix from the beginning leads to better design and better outcomes.

Up until just a few years ago, data center design changed very little since it first adopted the raised floor white space so familiar to most operators. DC Design innovation tended to be evolutionary, gradually producing better reliability and better efficiency. Then something happened that precipitated the current period of revolution. Servers got smaller, hotter and faster in a relatively short period of time. IT departments ordered the new gear but at some point found they were unable to install it, not because they ran out of space but because they ran out of power and cooling. Even Dilbert Knows:

The next thing that happened was that the accounting office noticed how much money was being spent on power. A spike in both demand and cost led corporate board rooms around the globe to start thinking “double green” (dollars/sustainability) and “double eco” (economy/ecology).  Industry suppliers have responded by providing new IT and infrastructure technologies that deliver more computing with less energy, but not without causing us to rethink the way data centers are put together.

A spike in both demand and cost led corporate board rooms around the globe to start thinking “double green” (dollars/sustainability) and “double eco” (economy/ecology).  Industry suppliers have responded by providing new IT and infrastructure technologies that deliver more computing with less energy, but not without causing us to rethink the way data centers are put together.

Getting back to Ken’s question, an architect belongs in the data center because we bring a variety of skill sets that are essential during this rapidly changing innovation period.

Our value serves our clients and their projects best when we take on the following roles:

1. The Generalistour friends, the engineers tend to be specialist, focused on a single discipline. By contrast, architects are generalists tasked with, among other things, planning and integrating the specialties into the whole, and having a global view point. Not having a preference or passion for any particular engineering discipline, we are better positioned to advocate for balanced consideration and decision making.

My favorite analogy is the orchestra and its conductor; engineers make the music, the architect coordinates the efforts. Our skill set includes an ability to move forward with precious little or often ambiguous information. We have developed techniques for extracting information and precipitating meaningful decisions, and we have an ability to paint a picture from the simplest terms that can sharpen its focus over time.

2. The Diplomat data center management is routinely optimized for operations, not for the relatively infrequent design exercise. More often than not, two distinct constituencies arise, facilities and IT being the most typical configuration. In some organizations these two departments only meet at the loading dock when the new equipment arrives but cannot be installed.  If energy economy is a top line goal, then the best results can only be realized when the IT stack and network topology is being conceptually coordinated.  We are sometimes called upon to craft an effective link between the different departmental cultures and translate the set of ideas into terms that are beneficial for each.

3. Disruptive Innovator – few clients assume that the architect has a deep understanding of engineering considerations, and as a result, they are less flabbergasted when we ask seemingly naïve but provocative questions. I routinely warn prospective clients that we will probably “second guess” their assumptions during the course of design. Nearly every project I have been involved with includes requirements that rise from industry or corporate standards that are no longer relevant. The worst examples add cost and complexity without providing a benefit, and they are unwittingly perpetuated in many otherwise well managed organizations and projects.

4. Modeler – modeling is the 3dimensional approach to design we use today. We no longer draw plans, rather, we build models. The plans are now simply a horizontal cut away view of the model. We always model and we model everything.

At the risk of oversimplifying; engineering design involves calculation, while architects design by drawing and now modeling. Engineering one-lines are a vital way to develop and communicate engineering design, but they provide little information about how things are shaped or organized in space. At some point in every design, there is an interval of “coordination”.

One antiquated notion of engineering coordination involves allocating zones of space for each discipline, letting the designs unfold, and then looking for collisions; another round of looking for collisions ensues during the construction phase. Another version is the tennis match; the architect serves up the design, the engineering team adds some equipment and sends it back over the net, we keep hitting it back and forth until we are all tired and someone’s point of view prevails. If not well managed, coordination can mean excessive compromise and excess conservatism.

BIM Model of Interior Configuration of Adaptive Reuse CLUMEQ Data Center

Completed Interior Configuration of CLUMEQ Data Center

The preferred path is what we refer to as “real time” coordination. In real time coordination, building components are modeled as soon as they are contemplated. Modeling facilitates with live coordination goes a long way to avoid conflicts and dramatically reduces the need to resolve them; it also reduces the need for compromise, conservatism and iteration.

At Winter Street, our preferred platform is Autodesk Revit and we have been using it for many years. However, only relatively recently have we found engineering partners who are enthusiastic adopters.

5. Eco-advocatesure, practically everyone has climbed onboard but we started our eco-training in design school (my own version dating back some 35 years), and we know a fair bit about making no cost/low cost sustainability decisions that will help save energy (the most important rule in “green” data centers).

6. Eureka Effecterpreconceived solutions can be the quickest path but it generally leads to a place you have been to before. We never lose what we learned on those past projects but when pursuing new performance goals with new solution sets, it is important to avoid the constraints of “canned” data center design.

Architects are trained to resist preconceived solutions and most architects are pretty good at it. One project we are currently engaged in dramatically changed direction, even before our formal involvement, after a quick look at the requirements and a response that started with a “did you consider….” Naturally, the contents of that quote are covered by an NDA so I cannot really tell you about it.  But the point remains.

Today’s advanced data center designs are not much like the state-of-the-art DCs of just a handful of years ago. Any given DC can deploy an array of solutions that respond to the challenges associated with complex and evolving requirements. Standard solutions no longer apply and despite their generally inconspicuous nature, they are important buildings deserving of some architectural consideration.

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