As more data centres are built to power the city-state’s digital transformation, the design of these high-tech boxes become ever more important.
What do “The Internet” and “The Cloud” look like to you? Even a Google search turns up nothing more than diagrams of seemingly invisible networks that connect the world’s computers, phones and devices. Well, stop looking up and start looking around, because the world wide web exists in plain sight across Singapore. Inside buildings known as “data centres” are the racks of computers that form part of the network which we increasingly depend on in our everyday lives.
They are alongside motorists as they travel down the Ayer-Rajah Expressway—between the flyovers at Buona Vista and Portsdown. One is a neighbour to residents living in the public housing blocks along Serangoon North Avenue 5. Another greets students across the road from Corporation Primary School. These data centres are where information is collected, stored, processed, distributed and accessed, and they are all part of a web of similar facilities connected around the world via fibre cable and satellite.
While data centres may sound like infrastructure that only engineers should care about, Jeffrey Stuart Allan of AWP Architects begs to differ. The architecture and design of such facilities is becoming ever more important as their numbers in Singapore increase. According to research firm Structure Research, the city-state is the top location for data centres in the Asia-Pacific today, with some 58 such facilities across the island. Several belong to multinational tech giants such Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook. As Singapore aspires to become a Smart Nation and develop a robust digital economy, its people will only find themselves living amongst more data centres in the future.
“At the moment, data centres are buildings above ground — and bloody big buildings!” exclaims Allan. He started designing them in the mid-1990s after moving from the United Kingdom to Singapore to practise architecture. “And it’s not like all these data centres are in Jurong Island… they are actually within our urban environment.”
Located within industrial estates, a typical data centre in Singapore averages between 20,000 to 30,000 square metres in Gross Floor Area and can go up to a height of a conventional 10-storey building, according to Allan. Like power stations, they are required to operate without ever failing because the world expects the internet to work 24/7. Thus, a data centre is designed to accommodate substantial mechanical, electrical and plumbing services, including electrical substations, chillers, backup generators and air-conditioning units. These are sometimes even duplicated in anticipation of a breakdown. In addition, data centres are designed with security features similar to a highly-secure military facility. From smooth façades to prevent climbers to walls that can withstand car crashes, such heavy fortifications are necessary to prevent any potential disruptions.
All these technical requirements point to why data centres typically look like towers of equipment, often with windowless façades and dull colour palettes. But this is also often by choice, reveals Allan. Many owners do not want their buildings to stand out because of security reasons, but there are others who choose to be more expressive. For instance, AWP designed a shiny white-and-silver data centre for Credit Suisse that also faces a public housing estate. Allan worked closely with engineers to create its distinctive chessboard-like façade, which actually consists of sun shading fins strategically placed to help the building maximise its cooling efficiency.
“The symbiosis between the architecture, engineering and technology can drive the aesthetic (of a data centre),” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a box.”
The need to maximise the cooling efficiency of this data centre led AWP Architects to create this distinctive façade using sun shading fins. The result is a pleasing form that also functions.
LESS SPACE, LESS ENERGY
Beyond ensuring a data centre seamlessly weaves into a landscape, architecture and design are also crucial in ensuring such facilities are highly efficient. In regions where land is not a constraint, data centres can be single-storey buildings spread out over vast tracts of land, says Wong Wai Meng, the chief executive officer of Keppel Data Centres which owns such facilities in countries such as Australia, Germany, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Compact cities such as Singapore, however, cannot afford such a luxury. This is why data centres are high-rise facilities, but even this has limits currently.
“One of the factors limiting them from going ever higher or bigger here is the weight of data centre power and cooling infrastructure vis-à-vis the structural load of the building. As data centres go higher, they would also correspondingly require more cooling infrastructure to support the increased number of servers,” explains Wong.
Design plays a crucial role in managing this constraint says Allan. To demonstrate this, he picks up an A4-size paper. “Let’s say this is an American data centre footprint. What you have to do here, to get the same amount of computer space in a building…” He folds the paper in half. Then does it again, again and again. “So, it probably looks like that.” Within Singapore’s limited plots of land, architects have to figure out how to create a high-rise data centre that still makes sense commercially. Many such facilities in Singapore are co-located, which means they offer spaces to host the computers and servers of different businesses. Think of them as office buildings, except each one has computing hardware instead of employees. Like any landlord of a commercial property, owners of co-located data centres want to maximise the rentable space and architects play a role in optimising the use of land and increasing value.
“At a national level, this (also) means that the required data centre capacity for a country can be accommodated on a dramatically smaller footprint, releasing more land for alternative use or amenities,” explains Allan.
Energy efficiency is also another vital criterion in the design of data centres because they guzzle up huge amounts of power to run their thousands of computer server racks. This also generates a huge amount of heat, which in a tropical and humid environment like Singapore, then requires substantial cooling via air-conditioners or water. According to a 2012 National Environment Agency report, cooling systems take up anything from between 15 to 40 per cent of a data centre’s overall energy consumption. The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has also found that the daily electrical consumption of a typical 20MW data centre in Singapore is equivalent to about 60,000 households living in a public housing estate. In 2015, data centres accounted for nine percent of Singapore’s total electricity demand and as the sector grows, this is projected to reach 12 percent by 2020.
This has led IMDA to work with Keppel Data Centre and Huawei to study how a “high-rise green data centre” could achieve greater efficiency in space and energy requirements. While this is still on-going, Keppel Data Centres offered a glimpse of how else they are tackling this issue. As part of the Keppel Group, Wong and his team have tapped into offshore and marine division’s expertise of transporting and storing Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to see how cold energy released from it can be used to cool data centres. Another example is exploring designing floating structures to house data centres. This not only frees up the use of land, it also taps into the sea as a natural heat sink for cooling.
“This way, not only can we potentially save energy, but also cut down on fresh water consumption as piped water is conventionally used in data centre evaporative cooling towers,” explains Wong. “We need to look beyond the data centre industry itself, to think outside of the literal data centre box and uncover new innovations.”
NOT FOR HUMANS, BUT FOR HUMANITY
Until these radical ideas take off, Allan says architects must continue innovating on the close relationship between the form and function of a data centre. This is what he particularly enjoys about designing such industrial science buildings. “If the function is just residential or commercial, it is quite liberal how you can interpret it,” says the architect, who has also designed apartments and offices. Unlike these building types, he says the technical requirements of a data centre cannot be easily ignored and are often paramount in the design. “It’s more difficult to get to the same level of aesthetic appreciation and standard with industrial science buildings. I find it more challenging and I quite like the fact that you have to understand the nuts and bolts to sell it.”
Although data centres house more equipment than people, Allan adds that such buildings still require the attention of architects who have traditionally looked at built environments for humans. “Humanity has become increasingly reliant on buildings and facilities of pure utility and technology,” he says. “What is an appropriate architecture for technology? What are the key functional drivers?”
“Despite data centres being a new technical typology, these are still questions to be asked and answered by an architect.”
Originally published in By Design: SINGAPORE