Data centre design must now address form AND function13 February 2023

The controversy around data centres

There has been plenty of controversy around the proliferation of data centres in Ireland in recent times, particularly with the rising costs and potential shortages of energy; at a time when data centres are now consuming more metered electricity than all of our rural homes put together.

Ireland’s unique suitability for data centres

The reason so many data centres are located in Ireland is not solely our favourable corporation tax rate; we’re a politically stable country, with an educated workforce, and the only native English speaking population in the Eurozone diverse fibre network. But it is our climate that makes Ireland so suitable - it’s neither too hot nor too cold here, while the country is both geographically and tectonically stable, with no threat of earthquakes, volcanoes or forest fires.

Data Centre design now address form and function

But from an architectural standpoint, there is the opinion that data centres are simply featureless monoliths devoid of any character. While ‘beauty’, in itself, may not be a deliverable in the design of a data centre, local communities and planners are more open to embracing new features that add value to the local aesthetic, rather than detract from it. No matter the client or the nature of the building we are designing on their behalf, we always design for form AND function.

Houses for the cloud

We all understand the concept and the benefit of the “cloud”. What some people don’t fully embrace or understand is that data centres are what keep both the cloud and our digital world afloat. They are essential components of modern life, the backbone of the internet powering many of the devices and systems we rely on every day. These facilities house racks upon racks of servers, masses of networking equipment, and miles of cables, all working together to keep our lives running smoothly. One way to introduce beauty into data centre design is through the use of modern, sleek design elements.

Data centres don't have to be cluttered and chaotic. With clean lines we can create a visually appealing structure that is also highly functional. This can be achieved through the use of high-quality natural materials, which not only look good but are also durable and easy to maintain. When used in conjunction with green walls and well considered screening devices, together with a responsive massing of the forms, this can enable a data centre to bed itself successfully into its environmental context.

Light is needed

Many data centres are housed in windowless warehouses or subterranean basements, uninspiring and even depressing environments in which to work. Natural light has been shown to have numerous benefits, including increased productivity and improved mood. Maximising the use of glazing within the administration areas will create a more welcoming environment for the people who maintain and operate these vital nerve centres and present more human scale expression to the staffed areas of a data centre.

Associating Data Centres to District heating and solar energy

The excess heat produced by data centres can be repurposed to provide sustainable heating to the local community. The potential of these technologies has been assessed by the team at MCA and, if embraced by local authorities, could provide a way for data centres to give back in a meaningful way to the area in which they are located. With so much roof area on a typical data centre, arrays of solar PV (Photovoltaic) panels can be utilised to power administration areas, while rain water harvesting will reduce the impact of the building on the local water infrastructure.

Adding nature into the cloud

Touches of greenery bring a sense of life and vitality to an otherwise sterile space and help to improve air quality, while reducing stress levels. Integrating more natural elements into data centre design will also add appeal. These steps could be as simple as adding potted plants to incorporating living walls of vegetation, or a grander gesture can be the inclusion of large, vertical green walls to act as screening devices. Together with the appropriate use of green roofs, which can help with rainwater attenuation and provide a heat sink, this can help improve the biodiversity of the site.

Maximising the use of soft landscaping surrounding a data centre can reduce the need for on-site attenuation and assist with water run-off. It will also provide a great opportunity to introduce a wide range of planting which will support local biodiversity and our dwindling bee population.

The optimisation of form and function needs an architectural partner that will deliver a project that makes its mark, not just on the landscape, but in the hearts of minds of the community and staff working there. To discuss your data centre design get in touch with the team at MCA.