Mission Critical: The Coolest Architecture Career Path You Never Considered
If the term “Mission Critical Architecture” sounds somewhat technological and related to covert action, there’s good reason for it. The term originated at NASA, where it described spacecraft components that supported the lives of astronauts. Today, it’s a term common to real estate and design professions that describes the architecture of buildings that simply cannot fail—think of data centers holding your health care information, online financial transactions, or even the videos you enjoy across TikTok. All of these things are made possible by the super computers located in Mission Critical facilities, and their architecture is indeed a highly technical segment of the design profession.
It is the coolest architecture career you’ve probably never heard of.
To unpack this niche career path, we spoke to a cross-section of HKS’ Mission Critical team. Here’s what they have to say about why their careers are uniquely fulfilling, and why you might want to consider the career path yourself.
How did you begin your career in Mission Critical architecture?
Mary Hart, AIA, Mission Critical Practice Leader: I have always been interested in technical infrastructure, especially from an overall site perspective. When I returned from deployment in Iraq, my background in communications systems leant itself to mission critical design.
Jeremy Arena, Design professional: I met Matthew Hake, a Senior Project Architect at HKS Phoenix, during a class my senior year at ASU. He invited me to tour the HKS Phoenix office. When I did, Matt spent several hours with me and another student, answering questions about architecture and mission critical, which I knew nothing about. At first, data centers didn’t sound like a flashy or artsy endeavor, but his explanation helped me see that the scale and technical sophistication of the projects piqued my interest.
Dutch Wickes, AIA, Global Practice Director, Mission Critical: My career spans the growth of critical facilities. I began working on an on-call contract for IBM, and eventually worked on one of the first data centers to support bank kiosks (EFT’s, for those in the know). From there, I’ve been able to work on the teams that design projects ranging from Hilton Reservations call centers and even the International Space Station Control Center for NASA.
Amy V. Anderson, AIA, LEED Green Associate: I have to admit that I fell into Mission Critical rather than choosing it. I had just moved from New York to Chicago and began working with Bernie Woytek. While I’ve worked across many kinds of architectural projects, including health care, sports architecture, government and institutional work– I didn’t really find my niche until I started working with Bernie. Now I see that I was meant to be a mission critical facilities architect, working alongside the amazing global HKS team.
Prince Ambooken, LEED AP BD+C, CDT, Senior Project Architect: It was a coincidence, like many others I did not have any ideas about what the Mission Critical building typology entailed or what I should expect. Having worked on hospitality, education, commercial and single-family residential for years, I was given the opportunity to work on my first data center eight years ago. The simplicity of the buildings and complexity in engineering was a contrast from anything else I had worked on before in my career. It compelled me to work on my second data center and eight years on I continue to enjoy working on them for our amazing clients.
What makes a career in Mission Critical architecture & design unique?
Hart: It is a different thought process. As architects, we create a user experience. Our goal for a mission-critical facility is to provide a design that supports 24/7 operations while eliminating headaches for those who manage the building. The design team must not only think about the human occupants but also the equipment. A loss of data could cost a company millions of dollars, or worse, impede care for a health institution. The design must provide redundancy and resiliency, so the servers and infrastructure supporting them remain operational.
Anderson: Mission Critical projects can be deceiving. We design healthy and sustainable work environments to people who work in buildings often thought of as a warehouse for machines. Even in buildings where there are few occupants, the team creates special moments within the design that tell a story about why these building matter, whether they are design-forward workspaces within a data center, prototype designs, or one-of-a-kind laboratories and support spaces for the Department of Energy.
Ambooken: Mission Critical Architecture connects the world and connects us with each other, through technology. Mission Critical Facilities are a key building typology for the future. Our teams do a lot of work for the National Labs, Command Centers and even critical facilities at sports venues like SoFi Stadium, U.S. Bank Stadium and AT&T Stadium. As our clients’ worlds become more digital, they need more data centers to support that growth.
Mission Critical facilities have played a critical role as the world has maintained operations through COVID-19. How did that play out and how did it impact clients?
Wickes: Here at HKS, it was interesting to see that that when our firm declared that everyone had to work from home, our team didn’t miss a beat. With our hyperscale clients we were already meeting virtually, regularly connecting 50-60 people from all parts of the world. It made our clients expand their real estate footprint and gave the emerging colocation facilities more market share.
Anderson: When the world started to work from home curing the pandemic, our team felt the ever-growing demand for more. Our clients needed more space and more power. It felt like we could not design and build data centers fast enough… and the statistics I’ve read support this! The demand still hasn’t let up.
Ambooken: We saw accelerated growth in our mission critical practice at the start of COVID-19. Our non-data center clients were forced to move their work to the cloud due to the pandemic. The race to move data online for location-agnostic access meant creating more space to store information and enabled clients to experiment with new technology to create faster and smoother connections for everyday interface. At HKS we were prepared for the change, so we were able to guide our clients through the transition.
What do you think would surprise people most about a career in designing Mission Critical facilities?
Arena: One aspect of mission critical work that surprised me is how often its infrastructure is intermixed with other forms of architecture. Data centers are often needed within the master plan of major complexes such as universities and need creative solutions to properly integrate them into the contextual fabric. With mission critical work, there is always a variety of locations and types of architecture you will be interacting with, keeping the work fresh and relevant.
Another surprising part of mission critical architecture is the amount of programmatic change it will likely see as systems become more sustainable.
I believe most people would be surprised at the amount of coordination needed within a mission critical project between the architects and the engineers. The amount or large equipment inside a data hall and often surrounding the exterior, results in a constant dance between the needs of the computing systems and the shell that is housing them. It is a unique architectural challenge to address the spatial and emotional needs of those that run the facility and its surrounding context, which can be easily forgotten with such a systems focused program.
Wickes: I think the size and complexity of the facilities would surprise people. Most buildings average 15-20 watts per square foot—including hospitals. But mission critical facilities are designed to provide 250-300 watts per square foot and 60 megawatts of power to a single building. For scale, consider this: one mission critical facility requires the same amount of power as 10,000 homes. Most architects have never seen 60 3MW generators the size of a boxcar in one place, not to mention designed a facility to accommodate the footprint, security, hardening against natural disasters, and the airflow dynamics required for the mechanical and electrical equipment.
Anderson: Mission Critical projects sit right at the confluence of art and science. Don’t judge this book by its cover – 14-years into my career and my 6-years in Mission Critical have been the most surprising and wild projects I could have literally never imagined – it certainly keeps me on my toes!
Are these projects as flashy the time I worked on the Barclays Center construction site as a Junior Architect / Construction Administrator? Nope. Are these projects as prominent as my time being a team member on parts of the World Trade Center projects in Lower Manhattan? Nope. But if you are open-minded enough to immerse yourself into the project type and the various types of projects that land in our purview, you’ll be happily surprised. I know I certainly have been!
Ambooken: The key aspect of Mission Critical projects that still surprises me is that although these facilities have a large carbon footprint, the mechanical and electrical systems associated with these buildings are the most efficient. Data Center and National Lab Clients take particular care in making sure that the systems use every bit of energy, and nothing is wasted throughout the life of its existence. This is where we will discover innovations that will have a ripple effect through the architecture profession. Although Mission Critical facilities may not be perceived as “green buildings,” our clients work hard to reduce their carbon footprint.
What do you want people considering a career in Mission Critical architecture & design to know?
Hart: We all rely on data to support our daily lives. Every transaction from buying groceries, checking email, and adjusting your thermostat relies on data access to a data center. We work with clients across the full spectrum of data centers, from the giant hyperscalers to the small tenant finish-outs. We work with every institution imaginable; technology, health care, education, and finance. The opportunities for professional growth are exponential in this ever-changing and rapidly growing market.
Wickes: If you are an average student in the design studio but an excellent student in building sciences or technical classes, you can have a successful career in Mission Critical architecture. Architecture is a rich, diverse field. You could work for a firm like HKS, or in a related field such as a career in real estate, development or in corporate real estate for one of our clients. And you can work in an industry that is changing the world!
Anderson: For those who love to learn new things and really work on puzzles, Mission Critical will not disappoint – you are constantly designing, planning, and coordinating with our design team consultants and counterparts. The way that HKS’ Mission Critical practice structures our project teams, you are an important team member right from the start, regardless of your level of experience. Our teams are often small and you get to touch all parts of the project and learn something new every single day. Looking back to my first few years in the field where I often felt stuck on project teams getting grunt work, I am one-part jealous and three-parts excited for our junior team members and the amazing designers and technical experts they will become with this kind of experience so early on!
Mission Critical projects also allow you to become a well-rounded architect – every project is a little bit different – which means that even the initial code, site and zoning analyses are important! The power and cutting-edge technology within each Mission Critical facility is unrivaled in comparison to most other types of buildings. Because saving money on long-term operating costs on energy has a big financial return on our clients’ investment, we are able to innovate on building performance by pushing boundaries on sustainable building strategies, techniques and material selections. To do what we do really well, we are always cross-collaborating.
Ambooken: Mission Critical architecture encompasses different kinds of data centers including Hyperscale, Enterprise, and Edge Computing facilities. We also work on a variety of other buildings such as research facilities (think university super computers), command centers (like air traffic control or broadcast centers), mixed-use buildings (like SoFi Stadium and YouTube Theater). Each critical facility has an impact on its specific site and its community at large. Clients look for research and innovation from HKS on each of these building designs providing immense opportunities for teams working on these projects.