An Architecture Teacher’s Lesson in Data Center Design

By: Thea Massouh, AIA, LEED AP

I started working as an architect at Integrated Design Group this past July, and began my teaching career a month later at the Boston Architectural College. Balancing two new jobs in the span of two months was a bit jarring, but I have finally caught my breath enough for another first: my first blog post!

Entering into the data center design world for the first time at Integrated Design Group, my head was spinning with acronyms like PBB, TKD, CRAH, RPP, and PDU. At the same time, I was learning the ups and downs of teaching undergraduate architecture students the concepts of programming and site analysis. My brain was soaking up information during the day, and then transferring it to my students every Wednesday night in studio.

The first project I worked on at ID involved the re-branding of the interior standards for a major data center client. From the selection of tile and wall coverings in the bathrooms, to the creation of new custom patterns incorporating the client’s logo, the project was all about design. Every time we chose a new carpet or discussed how the lobby would be experienced by visitors, our main goal was to create a space that would be recognizable and distinct.

Because the scope of the project involved working within existing buildings as well as buildings that we were designing from the ground up, the interior standards had to work across a broad range of building types, scales and locations. I realized immediately that there was a lot more to data center design than simply creating a generic shell for servers.

I recently read an article in Data Center Knowledge about a FiberPoP data center within a building that resembles a luxury home in residential Minnetonka, Minnesota. The building is meant to blend into a landscape of other high-end homes, and the data center becomes a kind of secret, buried underneath a shell that masquerades as someone’s home.

Data centers hiding in plain sight is not a new concept, but is one that typically entails being buried on an upper floor of a non-descript office tower in an urban setting. Most people are both unaware (I was guilty of this) and hesitant to accept that the digital “paperless” age brings with it a massive amount of servers and technology that run behind the scenes. Perhaps a better way to look at the challenge of housing a room full of servers and all the mechanical and electrical equipment that goes along with them is to highlight instead of hide the technology that many people take for granted.

Each data center client has their own individual needs, both functional and aesthetic. Because Integrated Design Group is an architecture and engineering firm, both the infrastructure and the overall design are held to a high standard–one that starts with the client and continues as a dialogue throughout the project. Each client, like each building, is unique, and the architecture should reflect that.

The trend of creating an invisible architecture for data centers will most likely not last, and as an architect, I embrace the challenge to design an architecture for a program type that permeates the modern world, but is usually asked to stay behind closed doors.

Sounds like a great project for my students…

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