Is it time to look at a new build strategy?

Is it time to look at a new build strategy?

Data centre build requirements are driven by a number of factors – a major one being sustainability capabilities. Angela Vico Correas, Director, studioNWA, considers the pillars of an effective build strategy to ensure modern data centres continue to evolve.

In an era dominated by digitisation, data centres have emerged as the essential backbone of the modern business landscape. These facilities have become pivotal in handling the rapid growth of data, as well as the ever-increasing demands for processing and storage. Data centre design is reshaping with a large focus currently on sustainability, life cycle and social responsibility.

In a world acutely conscious of environmental impacts and net zero targets, data centres are under great scrutiny. Of course, the push towards green initiatives is fuelled by the need to reduce energy consumption and environmental footprints. Not only is there the Paris Agreement where EU countries agreed to reach net zero by 2050 but the industry itself has committed to significant green targets by 2030 under the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact.

With growing concerns about the environmental impact of data centres, new data centre design has an emphasis on energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and green technology. Data centres are intrinsically power hungry and despite the temptation to think that ‘there is nothing we can do about it’, there’s a lot that the data centre industry can and is implementing to reduce its environmental impact.

Looking at energy usage, one of the recent projects we worked on at studioNWA recycles 100,000MWh of energy per year. This excess energy, which would otherwise be wasted, is now recovered from servers and then, through a local district heating system, is transformed into residential heating. This is highly beneficial to the local community and residential areas as homes throughout the neighbourhood are heated.

Data centres are now being designed with materials specified with low environmental impact over their whole life cycle, therefore prioritising the concept of circularity. With new build data centre projects, the aim is to have demolition and construction waste targets as high as a 95% rate for reuse, recycling and material recovery. Structures are now being designed utilising recyclable or even recycled steel frames. At studioNWA, we are collaborating on projects that implement renewable energy sources such as solar panels, as well as the implementation of new generation technologies – from replacing traditional diesel fuel standby generators to introducing Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil generators. These measures can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 95% concerning standard technologies.

As far as data centre cooling systems go, several methods can be employed to ensure the efficient and reliable management of temperature within these facilities. Calibrated Vectored Cooling (CVC) is an innovation tailored for high-density servers, optimising airflow to enhance heat management and energy efficiency. Meanwhile, the chilled water system is widely used in mid-to-large data centres, efficiently cooling air with heated water from a chiller plant, as well as cold aisle/hot aisle containment. Other systems such as direct air cooling, however, although currently limited due to their large space requirements, propose a promising future – they operate by recirculating external air at very high velocities to cool down equipment. They use very limited water and this does not need to be potable water but can be harvested rainwater. These methods represent the cutting edge of data centre cooling technology, addressing heat management and energy efficiency challenges in high-performance data centres.

At studioNWA, we use a ‘fabric first’ approach to optimise the thermal performance of the building envelope to reduce energy use demands from the outset of the design process. In data centre typologies, this methodology is particularly effective for the design of administration blocks, as access to daylight and views are an inherent requirement for office areas with permanent workstations, meeting rooms and amenity spaces. Glazed areas to office areas are sized according to solar orientation and shading devices are introduced to prevent overheating in summer.  

Whilst there is a heavy focus on sustainability, it is crucial and important not to forget that data centres built today must ensure they are socially responsible too. This refers to facilities that not only prioritise efficient data management and storage but also actively integrate ethical and socially responsible practices into their operations. These data centres consider their impact on the local and global community. One such impact is the way the data centre building itself integrates into the urban fabric.

Location is an interesting factor to consider especially as we will increasingly see vast facilities nestled within the most granular parts of our cities. Long gone are the days when data centre operators could locate the dullest-looking shed where it best suits them and uses the need for critical infrastructure to justify the lack of attention to aesthetics and appropriateness to its surroundings. Nowadays, planners have learned a fair amount and the general public has also taken an interest in what they want (or don’t) in terms of the look and feel of a data centre.

Both local authorities and local populations have firm ideas about what they would find acceptable in their respective boroughs, and these will generally be well-informed opinions that are difficult to change. But the positive news is that data centre operators are largely willing to take on the challenge of continual improvement. They want to be a socially responsible part of the communities in which they operate. These days data centre operators are generally willing to invest in carefully designed solutions that also deliver in terms of working harmoniously with their urban surroundings.

Incorporating elements of greening has become more prevalent as a planning requirement in urban settings too. This can be in the form of green roofs, green walls or planting in amenity areas. For our part, studioNWA engages with local planning authorities and other specialists to identify the best solution for a given project site to effects of heat, air pollution and rainwater management, which can all contribute to on-site carbon capture as well as meeting relevant policy targets.

In terms of scalability, the statistics speak for themselves. A decade ago, a substantial new build data centre brief would be for 15MW, a staggering 300% more capability than a brief from 20 years ago. Fast forward to 2023 and 100-200MW is more of an everyday occurrence in one single data centre. The landscape of data centres has changed too with the evolution of Edge, enterprise and cloud facilities. Sometimes data centre needs change within the process of design, construction and handover with design teams having to adapt quickly to add density to a data hall, which completed Stage 3 and now needs to pass Stage 4 design. This means that now more than ever, our designs need to be adaptable, scalable and flexible to allow for these near-overnight changes to the brief. Our work needs to be able to deliver in terms of reuse too because no one can truly anticipate what these buildings will be used for in 10-20 years when tenancy agreements might come to an end. These premises might be required to upgrade or perhaps move elsewhere: we need to build in an element of future-proofing to anticipate these possible scenarios. There is so much to factor in, from the changing demands of tenants to the evolution of hardware and software to advancements in AI.

The landscape of data centre design is ever-evolving, driven by the demands of a digital world that never sleeps. To stay ahead in this industry is to embrace innovation and adapt to change. Sustainability, lifecycle and socially responsible practices are the pillars upon which modern data centres should continue to be built.

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