A collaborative insight into data centres

A collaborative insight into data centres

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We are all aware of the increasing reliance on data in all aspects of our lives; but how has the real estate sector dealt with providing adequately sized and equipped storage and critical infrastructure for this ever-expanding sector:

In this article, Paragon’s Environmental, Sustainability, and Project Management experts discuss current topics they have to consider when dealing with this particular sector, alongside the specific nuances associated with such developments.   

Environmental

An obvious point is that Data Centres usually require a lot of space! Sites often require full or part demolition of existing buildings/services and subsequent redevelopment. Paragon’s Charlie Bruinvels of the environmental team believes the associated ground risks for such large sites are significant, especially given the varying nature of previous uses; from old industrial units, MoD land, hospitals, and old gas works. “Brownfield land (sites with a previous industrial use) are becoming more and more popular in the data centre development sector where there is continual competition for land”.

“We often find that the ground risk is central to whether the deal takes place, especially if the data centre complex requires extensive earthworks as developers and occupiers look to maximise the space of the building and data storage” 

Ground risk assessment is obviously a normal path for any large development not just for data centres or other critical infrastructure. “Through desk studies and ground investigations, Paragon can understand the risk associated with the site.” By working in tandem with the project team it helps manage and offer strategies to reduce the burden on any significant findings. Various techniques are available to explore which can often turn a non-investable project into an investable project. 


Sustainability

The continued demand for web services due to sustainability targets, Covid, AI, Supercomputers, and the use of 5G has driven the “gold rush” for Data Centres across the globe.  Data Centres have historically been an extreme draw on the consumption of energy and water, which has been highlighted in various reports and media outlets, including green peace who have been documenting the global energy footprint of the sector.

However, as Paragon’s Director of Sustainability Adam Alexander points out, “The industry is changing and will change a lot quicker with the recent Cop-26 carbon commitments” “Many companies such as Google, Microsoft, and AWS Amazon are bringing forward carbon neutral or 100% sustainable targets into RIBA 2030 building targets in conjunction with the overall National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This will offer up clearly defined operational energy and embodied carbon levels together with consumption rates within this specific sector.” 


Dealing with the high consumption of energy and water within the data centre sector has been the focus for many local authorities and end-users in recent months. “This has not only resulted in the many planning conditions on energy, water, and contribution to heat networks, but also numerous innovation commitments by developers and operators alike as they commit to reducing these loads.”

As you would expect, such innovations vary amongst developers and customers, resulting in the makeup of individual data centres varying across the overall sector. “However all include a commitment to procuring green energy, efficient forms of cooling and pushing operational standards”.


One major hurdle the sector has had to deal with has been the fact that most backup generators have typically been diesel-fuelled. “Finding a solution to this has focused the minds of both data centre operators and customers. Various innovations are currently being trialled or implemented across the sector including batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and alternative fuel options including vegetable oils."   The soon-to-change Building Regulations Part L in 2021/22 will bring this reliance on fossil fuels and the subsequent need for a solution even more to the fore, which will hopefully drive through change at an even greater pace.

“There is a real opportunity for data centres to utilise the backup generators as part of the supporting infrastructure to offset peak energy demands, thus reducing the requirement for larger less efficient gas power plants. “

The atmosphere within a data centre is critical and needs to be maintained on an ongoing basis. With technological advances and innovations, it is crucial that when data centres set and meet their sustainability goals, they continue to meet these on an ongoing basis. Hence the importance of including sustainable mechanisms for energy monitoring, concise commissioning, aftercare, and detailed handover.

Given the innovative approach generally found within this sector, Paragon believes this sector could be an important player in reaching the wider global sustainability targets. It will also impact on how other sectors approach developments.

Project Management

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has exacerbated the demand for data centres given the increased demand for digital services.  In turn, this has seen a significant level of investment interest and a number of pipeline developments brought forward. However, this demand has led to a number of significant challenges in the development process. 

As mentioned earlier, Data centres require a large amount of space, power, and connectivity. However, given the lack of available sites with all three components in situ, Paragon is finding that due to the increased demand, some developments are being brought to the table without one or more of these key requirements. As a result, in many cases, there is significant investment required in either regenerating the land or alternatively bringing in offsite utilities. In some areas, this has resulted in a “race” to obtain the limited local resources, especially the remaining power.

Likewise, local authorities or governments have recognised the demand and are now doing their own investigations into the impact of data centres on the local communities. There is an increased understanding and a real focus on sustainability which is being managed through the planning process. Nick Marlow of Paragon’s Project management team states “we have seen UK local authorities drafting planning conditions for energy and water consumption as well as contributions to local heat networks. Planning has also become more complex with increased variation in customer requirements, much of which is being driven through ongoing customer experience and innovation” In many areas, this has led to “a two stage planning approach in the UK – with outline planning being followed by reserved matters applications”

The design and construction of each data centre varies considerably given the differing requirements of each customer and the developing technologies across the sector. This affects the early design and can often lead to conservative spacing and over allowance in the flexibility provided in specification. For example, allowing for multiple solutions to achieve the correct data hall atmosphere can lead to conservative design, requiring later changes to improve efficiencies. Paragon acknowledges the importance of a strong change control process throughout the development lifecycle to contain cost and programme impacts. This is a key requirement in a sector that is continuingly innovating. 

Finally, the speed in which data centres are being constructed and the changing technological environment often applies pressure on the commissioning, as the last activity before key operational milestones. As Nick points out, “innovation by nature promotes change and often adds time pressure in finding a suitable solution – therefore preparing and allowing enough time to commission is critical to ensuring the delivery of critical milestones. Bringing in the commissioning team and operational staff early, combined with early trials, certainly helps with this process.”

Paragon believes delivering large data centre infrastructure, although challenging and complex, can be extremely rewarding. With the right planning, processes, and controls in place, the experience should not be cumbersome or negative. It also believes the sector can drive real change globally, which is an exciting prospect.

As a company, Paragon is excited about the growth of the data centre industry and the challenges and innovations that the sector is bringing globally. Its combined expertise can offer end-to-end services across the lifecycle of development and has delivered a variety of these services across the UK and in Europe. These include pre-acquisition surveys; early development and planning guidance, pre-construction and construction advice alongside our operational assistance.

For further information on how any of our teams can help within this sector please contact adamalexander@paragonbc.co.uk or nickmarlow@paragonbc.co.uk

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