What to Know About Converting Buildings into Modern Data Centers

Remote work, cloud-based computing, and streaming entertainment have helped increase demand for widespread high-speed internet access in the last several years. And with that demand comes a growing market for secure data centers. Research indicates that data center buildings will reach 20.07 million square feet and a construction market size of approximately $25 billion by 2027 in the United States alone.

One way developers, building owners and facility operators are meeting the moment is by working with architects to convert existing buildings into modern data centers. Since 2018, HKS’ Mission Critical design practice has renovated or re-purposed more than 250 buildings ranging from 10,000 square feet to 585,000 square feet. The projects include adapting office space in commercial high-rise buildings in addition to electronic manufacturing, semi-conductor production and warehouse and distribution facilities.

There are many things to consider when purchasing and transforming properties that weren’t purpose-built as data centers. With years of experience converting buildings into these important facilities, we want to highlight lessons learned to help our collaborators and partners avoid costly issues and challenges that may arise when we’re making buildings into something they were not initially designed for.

Getting the Project Going

Repurposing a building as opposed to building from scratch usually provides the opportunity to deliver a space quicker, and cities and counties are increasingly accommodating of data centers. As a conversion project idea develops, these are the first things to evaluate:

Zoning – Many jurisdictions include specific data center requirements in their zoning, but if a jurisdiction is not familiar with the building type, proactive dialogue will limit surprises throughout project. If the site doesn’t allow for data centers, a rezone and a ‘change in use’ will need to be implemented. Approval processes can become quite laborious and lengthy, especially if rezoning or permits are required. Clear and consistent communication about expectations and timelines among all project team members as renovation proceeds will help ease the design and delivery process.

Public Awareness – It’s important to understand that the public may not know what a data center is or how a project will impact a community. If a ‘change in use’ is required for the site, it may trigger a public hearing. In that case, educational outreach can help neighbors understand what a data center is, how it will be different from the existing facility, and what the benefits of the project will be.

Understanding the Site’s Constraints and Opportunities

Dozens of site-related factors can impact a data center’s design as well as how efficiently and cost-effectively a conversion project can be completed. Here are a few:

Power and Connectivity – Data centers require a large amount of power and connectivity to operate effectively. The typical number of watts per square foot for these buildings can be more than 30 times higher than office buildings or 60 times higher than distribution centers. Early conversations with local utility providers are important — upgrading substations or distribution lines, building an on-site substation, or establishing or relocating easements can take several months. Additionally, multiple, high-speed, high-capacity telecommunications carriers are critical to attracting tenants to data center facilities. Getting a handle on this information prior to purchase from real estate brokers or reporting entities is crucial for the project’s viability.

Security – Perimeter security is important to protect a data center from breaches. Most existing sites will not have adequate space to accommodate all secured entrance and setback requirements. That means some of the most challenging security planning aspects will be appropriate access lanes for vehicles and adequate space around the building that reduces vulnerability to vehicle ramming and explosives. By engaging with the client’s security team, project teams can develop viable solutions to this problem.

Flood Mitigation and Water Systems – As with all building types, it’s crucial to evaluate a data center site’s proximity to flood plains and the possibility of disruptions due to weather events. In addition to potentially flooding the data center itself, floods can interrupt fuel delivery, maintenance, and other services around the facility. Also, repurposing a site for use as a data center often requires new or additional equipment yards on semi-pervious or non-pervious ground. Working to understand the current size of the existing stormwater system and completing a stormwater study will lead to appropriate planning.

Major Equipment – Jurisdictions will likely have specific rules and regulations regarding a data center’s on-site equipment. Some may require permits for fuel storage that will take time to get approved and need to be renewed regularly. It’s also important to make sure adequate planning for fuel filling stations and truck access takes place. Another thing to consider during early planning is screening — in many places, data centers must include aesthetically pleasing equipment screens. Sideline studies from the property lines are useful for design teams who need to meet screening requirements.Location-related Impacts – If the site is near railroads, project teams should conduct a vibration study and evaluate any changes to rail service required by the project such as new crossings. On sites with electromagnetic fields surrounding transmission lines, a shielding plan will be required if the forces have potential to interrupt data center operations or pose health problems to employees. Also, most cities and counties have a noise ordinance that limits decibel levels at the property lines and project teams can conduct acoustical studies to help assure the data center’s operating equipment do not exceed them. Outreach and education about when and how often generators will run can proactively mediate public concern about noise.

Making the Most of Structural Planning and Analysis

Not all building types will be structural matches for the requirements of a data center. Commercial offices and distribution and manufacturing facilities are often the best fit, but no matter what type of building is on the table, these are key things project teams should evaluate regarding a structure’s capacity for data center uses:

Exterior Equipment – Many buildings that weren’t purpose-built as data centers will not have the infrastructure to accommodate all the equipment and extensive power and cooling distribution systems required for this building type. Splitting the equipment and loads between the rooftop and a utility yard is a good solution to this problem, but it’s important to pay attention to the existing building’s available structural capacity. In a best-case scenario, you’re investing in a building whose structure is good to go, but if a building requires structural strengthening, the project could require a new internal sub-structure with columns and foundations, which can yield a substantial added cost.

Interior Loads – Once a project team has resolved capacity for the largest systems and equipment, the remaining structural capacity for the interior of the building may be lower than the typical capacity commonly used for structural ceiling grids. To avoid overloading the existing structure or costly work-around interior structural solutions, project teams should take into account interior loads during initial structural planning.

Diving into the Building Design

When a data center conversion project is put into motion, thoughtful evaluation of the existing building’s design will lead to conscientious solutions. These are the most important things to assess that will impact design:

Current Building Conditions – The common phrase “every time we open a wall, we get a surprise,” can certainly ring true on any type of building project, but it may be particularly relevant on repurposed data centers. Most existing buildings won’t come with as-is conditions or an as-built set of drawings. And over the lifetime of a building, chances are remodeling has occurred and documentation of existing conditions isn’t accurate. Since it’s highly unlikely project teams can know all the potential pitfalls prior to full design, selective demolition could be a helpful step to uncover conditions that will need workarounds for layout such as utility locations that require reroutes or structural impediments. A contingency budget approximately 10% above what would be normally carried for other building types will cover these issues.

If a building’s roof and its drainages slope are not up to current code requirements for data centers, some adjustments will need to be made. Rebuilding the roof structure is often out of the question due to cost, so the alternative is to re-roof at the required slope. Sizing of the roof and overflow drains should also be reviewed, as should the need for roof enhancements to meet necessary wind performance ratings.

Floor-to-Floor Heights and Space Efficiency – With all the complex power and IT distribution needs in a data center’s interior, floor-to-floor heights become a very crucial thing to pay attention to — the higher the clear spaces, the better. Trending designs for commercial buildings today usually do not have raised floors for power and IT distribution, which means they have more clear space multi-story and are a good candidate for repurposing. Concrete structures typically net an average of about 11 feet of clear spaces, while steel structures net about 14 feet of clear space. Project teams should create a test-fit for equipment racks to ensure the column spacing can accommodate an efficient layout that maximizes space. Other efforts to maximize space and efficiency — such as new, expanded, or relocated stairs and elevators — may be required and will add costs as well.

Service and Maintenance Accommodations – Since many multistory buildings have water lines in above-ceiling locations, they can present a challenge for data center conversion. Avoiding water-related lines above data halls is best, but relocating lines can be a challenge both physically and financially. If relocation is not physically possible, a prevention system must be installed to protect major equipment. If relocation is possible, that cost needs to be taken into account. The simplest and cost-effective solution is to plan the data halls and support rooms around these routes if possible. Additionally, sufficient docks for truck circulation with trash compactors and dumpsters are required to make sure the facility can operate effectively and smoothly.

Setting the Project Up for Sustainability and Long-term Success

Simply put, the repurposing of an existing building is more sustainable than a new build. However, converting a building for use outside its initial purpose has its own sustainability challenges. Data centers can have a large impact on the electrical grid and if not designed and operated thoughtfully, may have a large carbon footprint. Working with designers and sustainability consultants is the best way to ensure that a building’s conversion and operations as a data center limit impact on the environment.HKS’ Mission Critical practice is founded on collaborative solutions and a commitment to high quality project delivery. If you would like to learn more about these or any other solutions, please contact Dutch Wickes, Mary Hart, Matt Lamont, Bernie Woytek, or Michael Malone.