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20 Aug 2019

The rise of the architect in data centre design

James Orme

Architects are assuming a more prominent role in data centre design. For Will Ringer, project director at Scott Brownrigg architects, the only surprise is that it hasn’t happened sooner

Architects have always been an important stakeholder during the transition from the design phase to the building phase of data centres, where they help translate a client’s brief (including floor plan, security, space planning and maintenance access for cooling and power requirements) into detailed design documents.

However, they have seldom been asked for their opinions on the requirements themselves. But as data centres become ever more complex and the pressure to cut costs mounts, the creative mind of the architect is increasingly being called upon.

Data Centre World Singapore speaker and mission critical architect Will Ringer attests to the importance of an architect’s eye to data centre design. Will has experience with large US hyperscale clients, serving as project architect for three years on a hyperscale project in Holland, and with some of the largest engineering firms. He has helped design and deliver around fifteen other mission critical projects, ranging from two to 96MW in size, totalling over 1.5 million square feet of critical environment.

What value do architects offer to facility design? Will claims it is to do with their distinct mindset. While an engineer might simply tell a client if their requirements are achievable and challenge the engineering approach, an architect asks questions that make clients revisit requirements — identifying ways to save money, save time or make money by squeezing in more capacity.

A case in point is how Will challenges widely-followed industry standards, including the 5.5-metre floor-to-floor height. When working on multi-storey projects (an increasingly common kind of facility due to land value) or even single-level campuses, Will puts it to the client that shaving centimetres off every floor can generate capex savings, and that shaving centimetres off every storey can make room for an extra floor (in some locations).

“If the client brief is for a 5.5m floor to floor, ‘The limits of 5.5 metres would then be defined’, the engineer would say, ‘That clearance works for the solution.’ But many will not challenge the brief. Architects need to challenge this mindset. It’s not really an engineering mindset.” Will says.

Mechanical and Electrical (M&E) are typically the lead consultants in complex data centre projects, due to their very MEP nature. But as clients recognise the cost-cutting (and generating) power of the architect’s perspective, their role is changing and responsibility growing.

Nowadays, architects are expected to take the lead on projects and be the lead coordinator for structural & civil engineers and M&E engineers. For instance, a large hyperscale client delivering a 32MW project might typically employ a consultant team of ten to fifteen people with three to four architects full time for six to eight months, and employ two to three full time on-site during delivery.

Data and digital twins

Will himself advises project owners on how to improve facility safety and functionality, expedite construction schedules and challenge cost plans. His recommendations are guided by the principle of “holistic efficiency”, incorporating energy, spatial and user efficiency.

To deliver these goals, Will leverages project design analytics and digital technologies, tools that are also changing the notional understanding of the data centre architect.

Digital twins are a relatively new approach that use building information modelling (BIM) as a delivery method. The industry typically uses Revit to produce an accurate model containing essential information such as safety and performance.

If, say, a wall adjustment or a rack addition is being considered, the change can be reflected and its effects simulated within the software. BIM even goes into such granular detail as individual cable placement, and equipment maintenance requirements, predictive maintenance and lifespans.

Big data-fed digital twins are thus a valuable tool in three respects: At the design stage (to optimise space and coordinate the design), at the operational stage (to help operators clearly visualise — and thus optimise — performance) and for predictive maintenance.

As operators gradually realise the power of digital twins, not only are they increasingly calling upon engineers and architects to forge sophisticated digital designs, but also are more frequently consulting them throughout the lifecycle.

“[The technologies] have not been fully-realised yet, but now the terminology is now starting to make a lot more sense,” Will says. “If BIM software could become an open platform, it might incentivise large technology firms to invest more heavily and increase adoption across other sectors.”

While digital twins have been an essential tool in the energy, gas and power industries for some time, it is only in the past three to four years that hyperscale clients have been harnessing them, as they desperately explore ways to reduce PUE and increase efficiency.

For smaller customers, the cost of hiring an engineering firm or architects to produce a full model can be prohibitive, but Will points out the cost savings available. Another upside is environmental, as they are able to reduce the amount of energy a facility may use.

“Even if you own ten or fifteen small operations in a city or globally, with [a digital twin] you can manage all of those facilities in one place and understand what’s going wrong in one place and what’s going right in another. It starts giving you a very clear picture of the issues, from an operational side, from a building design side, and actually from a building asset side, because you actually understand what you’ve got.”

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