So how easy is it to convert an office building into a data center? Given that the demands from both a structural and servicing point of view are very different, it’s definitely not just a case of swapping out desks for server racks.
Due to the need for a guaranteed UPS (uninterrupted power supply), data centers require massive battery capacity that can take over in a microsecond should the grid supply fail. This is typically installed on the ground floor. “Even though they only need to supply power for a few minutes — the time it could take before emergency generators are fired up — that’s still a lot of power and a lot of heavy batteries,” says Rich Donaldson, principal engineer with WSP firm, kW Mission Critical Engineering in Atlanta, Georgia. The generators are also substantial and heavy, he adds. “Even the racks create much more loading than you would need for an office. So, it’s structurally easier for them also to be ground floor. Data centers are usually single storey to lower the construction cost, although they can be multistorey when site acreage is constrained.”
The weight of equipment is not the only difference: there’s also floor-to-ceiling height. Floor heights in a data center are around 1.5 times those of office buildings, so it would require two office floors to provide one for a data center. “Data centers generally require 14ft with another 4 or 5ft clear above to take all of the cooling and extra services infrastructure they need,” says Donaldson. The existing power supply will need to be significantly increased, and the utility company might not be able to route more power or have space to install a substation. Finally, there’s the back-up infrastructure: storing and distributing fuel oil is more difficult in city center locations, for example.
Despite the technical challenges, there are a growing number of successful conversions. “There’s one in an old print works in London which, given the connection with information distribution, seems quite symbolic,” Imboden says. This worked because there was already an industrial power supply to run the presses, there was a large floor-to-ceiling clearance, and the structure was strong because the print machinery was heavy. Similarly, he points to a recent shopping mall conversion, which had sufficient ceiling heights for extra data center services. As for converting office blocks, he says there is potential: “I see maybe a small facility next to a 5G phone antenna, or at the top of a building to connect the users below.”