Simple ways data centre designers can cut carbon emissions

By Lucas Alcedo Barra, Hannah Duncan
Going green is harder than it looks. Lucas Alcedo Barra and Hannah Duncan share a few simple steps to cut carbon emissions...

We hear a lot these days about how the architecture, engineering and construction industry must become green. After all, it accounts for an insane 39% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. 

Often, the solutions presented require mammoth operational and structural shifts: buying carbon credits, creating an industry-wide set of sustainable standards or off-setting with vast reforestation projects. All wonderful ideas, but probably above your pay grade - certainly above ours. 

So, what practical steps can today’s architects, technicians and engineers take to help the world’s 4.66bn internet users reduce their carbon footprint? We’re passionate about finding small ways to make a big difference. Here’s our run-down of how data centre designers can reduce embodied and operational carbon emissions.

Reduce the chance of design failures

Carbon is becoming precious and there is no room for mistakes. That’s where BIM comes in. BIM is an industry-standard design methodology for forward-thinking architects, engineers, and technicians. But we think it should be used much more widely. Landscape architects, manufacturers, quantity surveyors and more can leverage this software to make construction more efficient. 

An independent 2018 study found that, “BIM will considerably improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the design process”. Less failures means less wasted carbon. And when you consider that failures slap an average of 16% extra on top of the original contract price, and an additional 50% more time … applying BIM could save a few wallets as well as the world. 

Get inspired by the building environment

As designers it is our role to work with nature to draw out it’s sustainable benefits. How can we embrace the local climate? What native plants or bee-friendly flowers can effortlessly fill up green walls? How does the shape of the landscape play a role? To reduce carbon, we must integrate and support local ecosystems.

Each location is unique. You don’t need us to tell you that the UK is a bit windy. And while it may not be great for our staycations, this climate supports our data centres’ cooling and energy systems. These currently account for a whopping 43% of their overall carbon emissions, so every effort makes a difference. 

Spain, by contrast, is hot and arid, an ideal location for producing solar energy. Spanish company Merlin has been doing exactly that to build its data centres. They’ve recently announced plans to leverage the unique climate and create carbon-neutral water-free data centres in Madrid and Barcelona. 

But the winner of the most sustainable data centre surely has to be the Nordic DigiPlex who redirect excess energy from data centres to heat 5,000 apartments in Oslo. These designers took advantage of the unique environment to give something back. 

So how can we do the same? Again, we’ve found BIM to be an effective tool for building up information about a site location, but it’s not the only method. Talk to scientists, visit the sites, do your research. Site-by-site, we can create bespoke data centres that truly make the world a better place. 

Plan beyond the handover

When it comes to operational carbon – the emissions the building will continue to pump out throughout its lifecycle – data centres have some serious work to do. They are hot houses of power, using up more than 3.2% of the world’s carbon emissions and consuming vast quantities of water. Today 41% of the population don’t have access to the internet, but tomorrow that will surely change. And given 90% of the world’s data was created in the past two years alone, emissions are about to rocket. 

One way for designers to get ahead of the game is by applying a soft landing strategy for their buildings which focuses on the environment. 

Soft landing strategies are usually used to ensure that the journey from construction to operation is as glitch-free as possible. It’s like a digital dress-rehearsal before the main event. But carbon-conscious designers go one step further. They can set ambitious environmental targets and use soft landing to see how the building will measure up over time. For example, designers could foresee the impact of maintenance or development. Or prepare for huge increases in the amount of data being processed. Soft landing approaches means designers have more time to plan, adapt and future-proof the data centres against longer-term carbon emissions.   

Carbon footprint tracking

We’re not really here to talk about regulations, but it’s no secret that plans to standardise carbon reporting are coming. Firstly, in the EU. As part of the European Green Deal, the European Commission are already trialling a pilot scheme for the construction industry. Then, across the pond, we’d expect to see more regulations in the US. Spurred on by the devastating wildfires which ripped through the state last year, California is introducing strict carbon emission rules for new builds. 

All in all, it’s a good idea for us designers to start tracking the carbon footprint of our buildings now, before it becomes obligatory. Getting ahead of the curve means that we can be proactive and make better strategies. We do have the tools to include these parameters in our projects. Keeping hold of all the updated information on carbon emissions and potential emissions in one place is critical. 

We all have a part to play

Speaking of critical… That’s the architectural sector that data centres fall into. Or Mission Critical (MC) to be precise. Mission Critical facilities like data centres, hospitals, military installations, and utility command centres come under this category because it's essential to get them right. Essential for people, and now… essential for the planet. 

Each of us has a part to play in achieving this, especially the designers. We hope that these simple steps and suggestions help to inspire innovation. Together, bit by bit, (or should we say, byte by byte) we can reduce the impact of the 2.5 quintillion bytes used by humans every day. Together, we can design a greener future.

Lucas Alcedo Barra is a Principal Architectural Technician at Stephen George + Partners who designs and models data centres. Hannah Duncan is Freelance Writer at Hannah Duncan Investment Content Ltd who focuses on the technology and fintech sectors.   


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