Functional facilities: designing sustainable data centres

13 August 2018 (Last Updated August 2nd, 2018 15:19)

Traditional data centres consume huge amounts of energy, but give very little back. With the number of centres growing, Norwegian architecture practice Snøhetta is embarking on a project to transform them into energy-producing resources for local communities. Patrick Kingsland explores how it can be done.

Functional facilities: designing sustainable data centres
Often hidden from view, data centres have become the lifeblood of our modern economy and social lives. Credit: Snohetta

Over the past two decades, data centres have become the lifeblood of our modern economy and social lives, storing and processing unfathomable amounts of information in giant buildings around the world.

But despite their size and ubiquity, the public is rarely aware of their existence. Data centres tend to sit in remote locations, from Facebook’s facility in the Arctic Circle to the US National Security Agency’s centre in the desert.

“The public never sees or experiences them,” says Rune Veslegard, project architect at Snøhetta. “It might seem like a simple thing when you use a mobile phone, but in reality there are millions of kilometres of fibre-optic cables and data centres all over the world powering it.”

For architects and designers, data centres also represent the unknown. Most facilities follow the same basic, bland recipe: rows of servers and industrial cooling systems stored in massive warehouse-type structures that are largely hidden from view. Few, says Veslegard, are designed with any real architectural input.

“The need for data centres is increasing rapidly around the world but most of the centres are enormous buildings with no architecture whatsoever,” he says. “They are just big boxes in the middle of nowhere.”

Designing the data centre of the future

Data centres require an enormous amount of energy to power their servers and cooling systems. A huge amount of waste heat is produced in this process but remote locations and poor design mean the potential for reusing this energy is often missed.

“They are not connected to their surroundings and local contexts and they are never giving anything back to the local community,” says Veslegard. “All they are doing is consuming huge amounts of energy.”

On behalf of real estate developer MIRIS and in partnership with Nokia, Skanska and Asplan Viak, Snøhetta is hoping to change this. The Norwegian practice recently revealed plans for a sustainable, 2MW, 200-rack data centre in the middle of a city.

“We are trying to redefine and expand the definition of a data centre.”

At the heart of the plan is an “energy loop” where excess heat is transferred from the data centre into the city, before being cooled down and sent back into the centre. The practice believes it could end up providing energy to a city of up to 18,000 people and has compared the process to blood travelling through the body. A pilot study in Lyseparken, Norway, will first test the concept’s feasibility on a real site.

“By placing the data centre so close to the end user it is much easier to re-use the excess power,” says Veslegard. “In our project a continuous energy stream of two megawatts will be used to fuel an entire city of people and different functions: hospitals, universities, residential areas. And during its lifespan it will create more energy than it uses. We are trying to redefine and expand the definition of a data centre.”

Building vertically: reducing the environmental footprint of data centres

The practice hopes the centre will become a focal point for the city, where people can congregate and interact. Unlike traditional data centres, Snøhetta’s facility will also be designed vertically to limit the building’s impact on the environment.

“In the middle of the desert you have as much space as you need and data centres are therefore built horizontally,” Veslegard says. “But in an urban situation you need to reduce the footprint of the centre, which is why we have organised it vertically. In our project the servers are stacked on top of each other and can be expanded as much as is needed.”

Snøhetta’s pilot project is currently in an early stage of development, according to Veslegard, with engineers conducting simulations to work out how energy will flow from the centre into the city and what kinds of needs the local municipality has.

“There is a specialist for every single aspect of the project and everything is being calculated and simulated to be sure that it works in real life,” Veslegard says. “But, of course, this has never been done before on this level. So there is a lot of research and development involved in the technicalities of the data centre, from vertical stacking of the servers to the immersive cooling system.”

Snøhetta’s global ambitions

Once the pilot is proven, Veslegard hopes it can be tried on a larger scale in different sites around the world.

“The design is a generic system and can be implemented in different contexts,” he says. “It could be in the middle of Tokyo, in the north of Norway or in Spain. In all these different contexts, the servers will be present in a monolithic sculptural element. It is also a plug-in system which means it can be adapted to different contexts depending on the needs of the local community.”

“The design is a generic system and can be implemented in different contexts.”

Veslegard predicts the issue of data centre design will only become more important as the number of facilities grows.

“The Internet of Things and the advent of autonomous vehicles will require enormous computing power in real-time and the need for more storage,” he says. “There will be so many data centres generating so much excess heat and excess energy. If we are able to turn that into a system where we can re-use this energy we will have a different kind of future.”