Because mission-critical facilities don’t have to be glamorous, and because proximity to fiber optic lines and reliable power supply is such a critical consideration, it makes sense to let location and budget guide decisions about where to site these installations. But once a location has been found, the challenge is to make sure that yesteryear’s architecture won’t put 21st-century operations at risk.
The smartest thing to do is to make sure that design is approached in a coordinated way.
Consider redundancy. When team members are making decisions independently, the owner or tenant may get a facility that is needlessly redundant or one in which the level of redundancy is achieved only in theory. Problems with redundancy and emergency backup systems present a diversity of potential sources of trouble, from the overall design of a cooling system to, say, fuel delivery.
What’s more, if there is no overarching concern for how the facility will work as a whole, questions of architectural programming — means of emergency egress, the relation between support spaces and zoning — often get tossed to the wayside. But when such issues aren’t considered, reliability, safety, security and ease of maintenance can be compromised.
The lack of coordination can also cause problems with raised floors. Without meticulous master planning and protocols to ensure that the master plan is followed, underfloor infrastructure spaces can become mazes that make troubleshooting a nightmare. For example, crossing high-voltage wires with low-voltage cables can cause electromagnetic interference that might affect the operation.
Another potential problem that argues for having someone on the team pay attention to the big picture is protection against water damage. The roofs of older facilities offer data centers notoriously inadequate protection against leaks. But all too often, the solutions devised to protect against rainwater damage amount to a kind of overkill, with the construction of a “box-within-a-box” that seals off the entire installation from the structure housing it. That move can be financially wasteful in that only certain portions may require this degree of protection. And in seismic zones, the approach can present structural challenges.
Fire protection is another problem area. State and national life-safety codes generally mandate wet sprinklers, which high-tech tenants often supplement with a dry sprinkler or gas-based fire-suppression system designed to activate before heat from a fire triggers sprinklers. But which combination of systems is best? Too often, the careful risk and cost-benefit analyses needed to determine the right mix of fire-protection systems simply aren’t performed because there’s no one on the team weighing all the variables.
Perhaps the most common problem resulting from the piecemeal approach is that such installations are rarely designed with future expansions or consolidations in mind.
Looking at the project as a whole is necessary from the time an installation is being sited or the details of a lease agreement are being hammered out. Some facilities simply present too many problems to be readily adapted for high-tech purposes. Likewise, in lease negotiations, it’s important that both sides — owner and tenant — understand and are in agreement about the meaning of the terms used in the document. For example, “turnkey,” “as is” and other terms can have a wide variety of interpretations.
Mission-critical installations are generally thought of as engineering driven, and in many respects that’s true. But an architect who is sufficiently well-versed in the kinds of issues encountered in such installations — and who isn’t narrowly focused on solving engineering-related problems — might provide the guidance to ensure the installation as a whole works as well as its individual components.
John Ireland, AIA, is an associate with Fletcher-Thompson Inc., an architecture/engineering/interior design firm located in Shelton and Hartford, Conn.