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As costs rise, Building Teams turn to novel energy-saving schemes for data centers [2013 Giants 300 Report]

Shrinking IT budgets and rising operational costs have led data center operators and corporate clients to scrutinize project budgets.

August 20, 2013 |
Many AEC firms that specialize in data centers report growth in the retrofit mar

While the once white-hot data center construction market has cooled off in recent years, the outlook for this sector remains quite rosy. Each year, businesses and institutions spend billions on data center construction and retrofit projects to keep up with the nation’s insatiable demand for data storage and processing. 

The data center sector is conservatively estimated at $13-15 billion annually—larger than the hospitality, amusement/recreation, and water supply sectors, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And the emergence of cloud computing and storage, combined with the “never delete anything” mindset of consumers and businesses, will only drive demand for data storage and processing.  

“The data center market should generally follow the growth of Internet traffic, and Internet traffic continues to grow strongly,” says Craig Deering, AIA, LEED AP, National Practice Leader – Critical Facilities with HDR Architecture.

According to a May 2013 report from Cisco Systems, IP traffic volume in North America is expected to grow to 40 exabytes a month by 2017, a 23% cumulative annual growth rate. Cisco predicts global IP traffic will increase threefold over the next five years. Driving this steep growth are the explosion of networked devices, especially wireless gadgets, and the emergence of video as a dominant content type. Cisco predicts that traffic from wireless and mobile devices will exceed wired devices by 2016, and video will reach 69% of global consumer Internet traffic by 2017.


2012 Data Center Revenue ($)
1 Corgan $27,534,191
2 Gensler $23,330,000
3 HDR Architecture $16,295,000
4 Integrated Design Group $14,598,910
5 PageSoutherlandPage $14,450,000
6 Reynolds, Smith and Hills $4,360,000
7 Callison $3,973,699
8 Little $3,655,590
9 RTKL Associates $3,634,000
10 EwingCole $3,000,000


2012 Data Center Revenue ($)
1 Fluor $235,678,900
2 Syska Hennessy Group $36,735,434
3 Jacobs Engineering Group $36,700,000
4 H&A Architects & Engineers $35,427,599
5 URS Corp. $26,229,049
6 Environmental Systems Design $10,575,892
7 Parsons Brinckerhoff $10,300,000
8 H.F. Lenz $7,357,000
9 Science Applications International Corp. $6,760,598
10 AKF Group $6,602,000


2012 Data Center Revenue ($)
1 DPR Construction $895,882,459
2 Balfour Beatty $753,194,214
3 Holder Construction $710,000,000
4 Turner Corporation, The $501,750,000
5 Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., The $490,093,045
6 Mortenson Construction $307,360,000
7 Structure Tone $285,725,000
8 Skanska USA $236,396,858
9 Gilbane $130,362,000
10 Carlson Design Construct $128,000,000

Giants 300 coverage of Data Centers brought to you by System Sensor

What does this mean in terms of construction spending growth? If the Data Center Dynamics annual census of the industry is any indication, the data center construction market will remain one of the fastest-growing sectors in the country. According to DCD Intelligence’s most recent survey of nearly 3,800 data center owner/operators and 1,600 vendors, data center facility investment was up 23% on the Coasts and 50% in the central U.S. in 2011-12.

“Calculating the size of the data center market is challenging,” says Deering, “but no matter how you look at it, there’s no doubt that the data center market stands on its own as a distinct and meaningful sector.”

Achieving a lower cost of computing

Shrinking IT budgets and rising operational costs have led data center operators and corporate clients to scrutinize project budgets. As a result, AEC firms are being tasked with finding solutions for lowering the overall cost of computing and operating and maintaining the facilities. 

This, in turn, is driving innovation in data center design, including the use of advanced cooling schemes, energy-efficient IT equipment, and higher-density environments. Advanced technologies like KyotoCooling, which utilizes heat wheels to reduce the cooling load on the building’s HVAC system, are becoming more common in U.S. data center projects. In addition, a growing number of data center operators are choosing to build new facilities in northern climates to take advantage of the cooler outdoor air temperatures.  

Advancements in server technology, combined with a recent change to ASHRAE’s TC 9.9 Datacom guidelines, means that Building Teams can deliver facilities that operate at higher internal temperatures, greatly reducing cooling costs.   

“The top end of the allowable range now is 80.6°F, up from 76°F previously,” says Ronald Vokoun, DBIA, LEED AP BD+C, Mission Critical Market Leader – Western Region with JE Dunn Construction. “Generally speaking, for every 1.8°F that you raise the temperature in your data center, you save 2-4% of your total energy bill. That’s a pretty high and immediate ROI.”

Rising costs are forcing many companies to outsource their data hosting through co-location and cloud services. This trend is leading to the construction of more mega-data center facilities, like CyrusOne’s new Chandler, Ariz., complex, which will eventually house more than 

1 million sf of data center space. By 2015, just 2% of the world’s data centers will contain 60% of the floor space, up from 52% in 2010, according to a report from Gartner Inc. 

“We will continue to see the concentration of data center floor space into a small community of dominant global players,” says HDR’s Deering.

Retrofits: A growth market

An emerging market for AEC firms is data center retrofits. The first wave of data centers—built during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s—are woefully outdated and are prime for retrofitting. Even the facilities built years later are behind the technology curve, and operators will be looking to upgrade their servers and infrastructure to meet the computing demands of today’s market.      

“Many companies are looking at the ‘capex’ versus ‘opex’ dollars and realizing that they can strike a meaningful balance between the two by simply updating, retrofitting, or renovating their existing facilities,” says Jerry Sumrell, PE, Vice President, Mission Critical with RS&H. “This presents new challenges to the design industry, as we will be devoting more time to working in live data center environments with all of the associated risks that come with it. It’s akin to performing open-heart surgery—you have to keep the facility running 24/7 while adding new equipment, decommissioning existing equipment, and transferring power/cooling from one piece of equipment to another.”

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