Consistently ranked as a premier builder of mission critical facilities, DPR Construction provides diligent, hands-on management—from site selection and analysis to single point-of-failure identification to construction, startup and commissioning.
Virtual design and construction (VDC) software might not seem like an equivalent to a smartphone translation app, but don’t tell that to DPR Construction’s Peter Schneider. Schneider and his colleagues are wrapping up work on a 10mW data center project near Zurich, Switzerland.
“Most of our trade partners speak Portuguese and Italian, most of the project management on this project speaks German or English,” Schneider said, “but everyone speaks VDC. Having a 4-D model of the project means everyone is looking at the same thing, no matter what language they speak.”
In fact, leveraging technology tools has yielded several benefits for the team on this 194,000-sq.ft. (18,000-sq.-m) facility for a global technology firm.
“In the data center sector, time-to-market is important,” Schneider said. “Often, the customer wants work to start before design is completed. VDC tools helps us get to a constructable design that can be built in a more efficient manner.”
For the Zurich project, VDC also enabled a more efficient sequencing of the building envelope, mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP) elements and the structural steel needed to support that equipment.
“There was a challenge of getting a trade partner to perform his work within a certain time frame,” said Alex Hood, a DPR superintendent. “VDC visualizations helped the entire team buy into a sequenced approach that got each trade started as work areas were ready for them. It was a significant schedule savings and, again, VDC was the language that got everyone aligned.”
Two other tech tools have worked together to verify as-built conditions: laser scanning and StructionSite.
On this project, for example, more than 1,800 pictures of ongoing progress have been uploaded to the StructionSite platform in real time, a significant efficiency compared to old methods of file-by-file uploading. And, in 2020, there are added benefits.
“It really helped us with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Schneider said. “People could have a look at progress while not being able to travel to the site.”
Between StructionSite and laser scanning, the team was also able to check as-built conditions and identify if there were any issues with elements such as MEP penetrations and more. Another way it helped is to have an idea where the openings for MEP equipment in as-built conditions were vs. plan.
“Anyone who has ever put together certain pieces of furniture knows how visualizations make all the difference,” said Schneider. “VDC served that role on this project, creating alignment among every project partner that language alone couldn’t have.”
According to CBRE’s North American Data Center Report, United States data center inventory increased by record levels in 2019, up by 22% from 2018. In the rush to build and get new facilities online, owners typically take a speed-to-market approach to construction that leads to incomplete designs, cost overruns and schedule delays. As the old saying goes, “You can have it fast, good or cheap. But not all three.” But an alternative design and delivery model breaks that paradigm, promising to deliver higher quality projects on time and on budget.
Current State of the Industry
The traditional design-bid-build approach to building data centers seems to prove this pessimistic outlook. Despite the focus on speed, most construction projects come in late and over budget. Consider the following statistics:
Nearly three out of four construction projects are delivered late. In 2012, according to the global management consulting firm, Kearney, 75% of projects saw their schedules slip. A 10-month project took 12months on average. In 2016, Lean Construction Institute (LCI) reported that number improved only slightly to 73%.
Cost overruns are common. In 2012, Kearney also reported that 63% of construction projects were over budget—some by nearly 20%. According to LCI, that number increased to 70% by 2016.
What factors lead to these startling deficiencies? Competing market sectors and widespread labor shortages across the U.S. contribute to the shortcomings, along with rising material costs. But these factors only tell part of the story.
Contract terms and hard bidding approaches also play significant roles in projects finishing late and over budget due to significant overtime and/or fees to expedite equipment. The traditional design-bid-build delivery model creates a costly adversarial relationship between the owner and its contractors, and between the vendors.
Traditionally, an owner conceives a project and hires a design firm to plan and design it. When this process is well underway, the owner solicits hard bids from general contractors and, much later, from the major trades. This approach to first costs leads to aggressive fee bidding followed by jobsite tensions and eliminates the owner’s ability to leverage the team’s field expertise, past experience and current best practices.
In the field, trades focus on their own work, rather than respecting and coordinating with the other trades. A lack of cooperation can lead to more Requests for Information (RFIs) which, in turn, can cause delays. Change orders become commonplace as vendors seek to increase profitability. Frequent design changes also lead to project delays and additional change orders. Furthermore, ambiguous scopes and incomplete documents increase the risk for vendors, who are asked to proceed “at risk” to maintain the schedule.
Ultimately, the owners are dissatisfied because they experience schedule and cost overruns. The schedule delays can affect Level 4 / 5 commissioning. A facility's actual Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) compared to expected design performance may suffer. In short, the traditional design model is fraught with problems.
Target Value Design (TVD) provides an ever-forward solution that resolves these issues and promotes innovation to best serve the owner and all the stakeholders.
What is Target Value Design?
TVD is a collaborative, innovative, team-based project management approach—applied throughout a project from the very first step of project planning and conceptual design through final project turnover—that ensures a successful outcome for all parties. It is a lean construction tool that incorporates cost as a factor in design, allows owners to make real time business decisions, minimizes waste and creates greater value. It also alters the construction timeline by bringing all the major parties on board early. TVD enables the project team to design and deliver a high-quality project on time and on budget.
One important difference between the traditional design-bid-build and TVD models is that in TVD, everyone is hired at the beginning of the project. The GC and trades are brought on board from the start, along with the designers. The traditionally separate design team and build team work together collaboratively and transparently, and they design to a cost rather than estimate costs based on a design. Everything else is predicated on this unified team starting together on Day 1.
Project teams and responsibilities
The contract and bidding process differs considerably from the design-bid-build model. In TVD, all parties work together to determine realistic Conditions of Satisfaction. The owner’s responsibility begins with selecting trusted partners who have proven their reliability and commitment to work collaboratively. Next, the owner remains actively engaged, making timely decisions and standing by them, and empowers the teams while encouraging collaboration and innovation.
TVD works by putting together cross-functional teams or clusters comprising designers, builders and owner’s representatives. The teams needed may vary by project. Each team makes systematic decisions based on meaningful information and documents their reasoning before reporting to the management team. The management team, composed of representatives from each team, coordinates details, ensures a unified process and resolves any conflicts.
All stakeholders are accountable to each other and to the project goals. The teams work together to reach agreement and the design cannot move forward without everyone’s input and agreement at each stage. The team frequently revisits previous decisions to identify and resolve any issues before they can show up in the field.
To facilitate cooperation, it’s imperative that the key team leaders assigned to the job are on the job full time, with no responsibilities to other projects. The team members’ time commitment changes throughout the process, as the project moves from design to construction. Traditionally, construction staff works onsite and the designers and owner visit weekly. TVD requires everyone working on the project to be 100% focused on the project at hand, working out of a shared coworking environment called the “Big Room.” The Big Room eliminates the need for productivity-sapping calls and emails and contributes to TVD’s success with delivering projects on time by increasing efficiency.
Success depends on a well-organized team with a defined decision-making procedure. Getting the teams together early and investing time and money upfront enhances organization and helps to form cohesive relationships. Strong relationships built on mutual trust eliminate many of the problems found in the traditional design-bid-build process and lead to successful outcomes.
In the traditional model, the GC receives a design, then gives an estimate of the cost to build it. TVD reverses that by establishing the budget first, then designing to meet that budget. An agreed upon Basis of Design is the first step to a successful project. Without agreement, the team will be less productive during the design process.
TVD is one of the most effective tools for cost control strategy. The owner’s priorities, such as initial cost, total cost of ownership and user experience, inform design decisions, means and methods, project sequencing, and cost priorities. All parties work together to maximize value in a quantifiable way. Once the target project cost is set and the basis of design is locked, the cost cannot be exceeded. Only the owner can choose to increase the project budget and may do so to include a detail that it views as important, or to change the scope.
The Cardinal Rule of TVD is that teams cannot exceed their budget.
Each team has a budget they cannot exceed. Cost estimating and budgeting are continually updated, and every decision made is measured against the cost target. Teams work collaboratively to design to their specific targets, while considering other factors, such as constructability and sustainability. They reduce costs through innovation and smart decisions then take their plan to the management team, who signs off on the overall design, methods, and budget. If one team cannot meet their budget, they must borrow from someone else's budget to keep the overall budget on track.
The mechanical team has a $20 Million budget. They make drawings and run numbers based on satisfying the project conditions. If that number is over $20 Million, they must reduce it. This requires a lot of work, value management ideas and innovation. If they are still over $20 Million, another team must give up the difference from their budget to keep the overall project costs consistent.
TVD changes the cashflow by requiring a greater upfront capital investment. While traditional design-bid-build projects see a higher cashflow later in the project cycle, TVD realizes the following offsetting benefits:
It alleviates potential cost inflation and provides a guaranteed capital outlay by eliminating vendor-originated change orders and other hidden costs.
Upfront labor is cheaper than rework, change orders and loss of productivity in the field.
It eliminates surprises which can create disruptions, increasing costs and delaying the schedule.
TVD strives to create the best possible design and greatest value for an owner’s budget.
Applying TVD to Mission Critical Projects
Mission critical data centers rely on cutting-edge technology. Why then do we build them using an old-fashioned design and delivery system that has had problems since the last century? TVD provides a logical alternative for the mission critical industry as it results in projects done right, on time and on budget.
After selecting its trusted partners, including the architect, GC, engineers and major trades, the data center owner participates in developing team clusters based on current market conditions, past projects, specific project benchmarks and scope. Each team contributes its expertise to determining project costs. Then the management team, including the owner, sets a realistic overall budget based on input from the clusters. Everyone buys into the success of the whole project, not just their portion.
Mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) scopes typically account for 80% of a data center’s total construction costs and drive the operating costs during the facility’s life. Unfortunately, they are often the first scopes targeted for reduction in the early project stages, often without the crucial guidance of an MEP professional. Hiring a GC with in-house MEP professionals early in the process can forestall potential issues.
TVD challenges the teams with larger budgets to be innovative and to reduce costs without changing the scope or program. It requires thinking creatively and showing up with a prefabrication mindset.
Prefabrication is a cost-effective means of acquiring standardized or repeatable building components. In a data center, this may include hot aisle/cold aisle containment systems, electrical room skids and HVAC cooling skids. Manufacturers assemble and interconnect the pieces offsite, then deliver the whole assembly to the jobsite for installation as a single piece. This increases efficiency by reducing the engineering required and it can reduce the number of connections made in the field by 80 to 90%.
Other benefits include:
Improved quality. The factory environment eliminates weather and other onsite hazards, providing a clean setting that enhances worker focus.
Decreased labor costs. Labor costs less in a factory setting than on a job site. People can work faster, and work can be done in areas with lower wages.
Increased safety. A safety incident can shut down the entire job, delaying completion. The safer, controlled environment of a factory reduces the risk of injury and the associated schedule slippage.
Faster build times. Prefabricated components are manufactured in parallel with work done in the field, leading to earlier project completion.
Prefabrication speeds up construction. By embracing it as an essential component of TVD, it enables the project team to deliver a high-quality mission critical project on time and on budget.
In conclusion, TVD provides an alternative to the problem-riddled design-bid-build model for data center construction projects. It is a collaborative, innovative, team-based project management approach that relies on transparency, owner engagement and mutual respect to get the job done. By altering the schedule so all stakeholders join the team at the beginning, designing to meet a realistic budget and removing the barrier of a scattered, unfocused team, high quality projects finish on-time and on-budget.
TVD’s real “secret sauce” can be found in the team approach it fosters. Everyone shares the risk and the responsibility. With TVD, you can have fast, good and cheap.
As much as the word “disruption” gets thrown around by thought leaders, we know this: customers don’t like surprises. Surprises in the course of a major construction project create disruptions that can ripple through a project and an entire customer organization. Surprises in the field can be costly and can affect project schedule.
Even while striving to deliver more predictable outcomes, surprises emerge in the field from time to time. Just as safety incidents can be mitigated through the proper steps taken prior to and during work, DPR believes many costly surprises in the field can be prevented.
By spending a little upfront, projects can often avoid spending more due to unforeseen issues. Too often, those costs look easy to cut in early project stages, leaving little recourse when something unexpected arises.
“Throughout the lifecycle of any project, there are a lot of unknowns,” said Rishard Bitbaba, DPR’s large project corporate service leader. “You wouldn’t want a doctor performing surgery without first looking at scans, using tools to evaluate the best approach and using data from similar situations to inform next steps. Contractors and their project partners have a similar set of tools to get rid of the unknowns before a shovel hits the ground.”
Four specific things can help get projects off to the right start.
Sometimes on projects, what you see isn’t what you get—but it can be easy to take existing conditions for granted.
“It’s inevitable that existing buildings, over years of operations, have made a variety of modifications and upgrades, large and small, to systems that may not be fully captured in operations manuals and the original drawings,” says Hannu Lindberg, DPR’s Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) leader. “But for all project types, at various stages, reality capture can be a great example of spending a little now to save more down the line.”
Reality capture methods like laser scanning of existing conditions involves time, labor and some equipment cost, but by setting the basis for the larger digital model – helping support preconstruction activities ranging from procurement to how the work will be phased – it has larger benefits. While many project teams see the utility of doing this before a project begins, that is often left until the end when it’s almost too late to adjust for the discrepancies. Doing so misses the real value.
“The main reason to keep scanning is to ensure quality and catch errors in the field,” Lindberg says. “If you spent the money to coordinate the building, you should ensure you’re following the coordinated design. And, when you crunch the numbers, the cost of upfront labor is far cheaper than rework, change orders and loss of productivity in the field.”
Consider scanning and as-built verification together on a given project. Weekly scans of work put in place for a period of four months could run $46,000 – exactly the kind of money that looks easy to trim on a line-item basis. What if each scan found 10 minor issues that could be quickly addressed before they became $80,000 in major rework costs over the same time period?
Similarly, it might seem like spending $22,000 annually for a drone to capture aerial progress photos for site mapping is unnecessary. The same task with five field crew members and equipment could end up costing upwards of $52,000.
“These things add up,” Lindberg says. “For things like scanning and aerial progress mapping, before work commences, it might seem like trimming $68,000 upfront is cost savings and a better short-term trade off. But, if that results in spending more than $130,000 later in avoidable rework… I’m not sure anyone wants to have to explain that to their supervisor…or owner, for that matter.”
Reality capture can also prevent surprise costs and increase ROI through better overall productivity, quality control, and by reducing waste (in both materials and processes).
Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) scopes typically account for 25% to 40% of a project’s total construction costs and drive the operating costs during the facility’s life. Since MEP systems have a significant impact on project budgets, they are often the first scopes that teams look to reduce in the early stages, often without the guidance of a MEP professional.
“Too often MEP systems are taken for granted in early stages of a project,” says Joe Dillingham, one of DPR’s leading MEP coordinators. “We’ve seen assumptions about these systems during design and buyout that lead to costly redesign and rework during construction.”
Bringing MEP professionals into these early stages reduces project teams’ reliance on assumptions when making decisions that affect construction all the way through facility operation.
Often, project teams do not bring on MEP professionals until the commissioning phase, when addressing issues hampering a system’s performance adds cost that could have been avoided with more oversight from the beginning. Even during this late stage, MEP professionals frequently save expenses from hitting clients’ bottom lines.
Blair Calhoun, another MEP professional at DPR, recalls a time when a warehouse manager called him to voice safety concerns with a recently commissioned tenant improvement. Her staff had difficulty navigating almost a 1/4 of the space because it lacked adequate lighting. After some investigation, Calhoun discovered the owner’s recently departed PM had opted to save upfront costs by not replacing the preexisting lights and the project's coffers were tapped. Calhoun asked the electrical subcontractor who previously submitted a proposal to replace the outdated existing lights with contemporary, high-efficiency ones for an estimate of the energy saved with the new lights. The team ended up showing the warehouse manager that the $22,000 change order would be paid for in less than three years from the savings on monthly electric bills, a true win-win.
Recently, DPR’s MEP and data groups began analyzing nearly 40,000 “Requests-For-Information” (RFIs) related to MEP trades from over 1,700 projects. Fundamentally, an RFI indicates an unwanted break in the flow of required and accurate data. The disruptions in data flow often lead to lost production time and pose threats to the quality and predictability of project outcomes. The groups are planning a rigorous analysis to find insights to shine a light on issues affecting MEP upfront costs that ultimately lead to lower total costs for clients.
Things like a truly engaged owner, project partners co-located in a “Big Room” and more were among the nine key indicators DPR identified for executing successful healthcare projects. Another is having the right team who exhibits the Lean principle of “Respect the Individual.” The traditional, more siloed approach to project delivery, where a contractor comes into the process after design is finalized and many key decisions have been made, though, puts the teambuilding starting blocks farther back. In doing so, things like design management fall by the wayside and there isn’t proper time to organize both the design and building team members.
“On a large project – half a billion dollars, say – success depends on organizing a large team up front and how they will make decisions,” said DPR’s Chris Dierks, one of the company’s Lean leaders and a project executive. “The larger a project, the larger potential issues could be if they’re not tackled early on. So, we always recommend getting the teams together early and spending some time and money upfront to not only properly organize as one team but also to focus on developing relationships to head off anything down the road. Strong relationships directly tie to strong trust.”
You can’t implement a successful Design Management process without this sort of team. High-level discussions that combine the customer’s goals, the designer’s vision and the contractor’s knowledge of what is constructible can only benefit from high levels of trust. What’s more, one of the most effective tools for cost control strategy is Target Value Delivery (TVD) and how projects organize and manage the design and preconstruction efforts. The value can be initial cost, total cost of ownership and user experience, which then informs design decisions, means and methods, project sequencing, and cost priorities with accountability to all parties to maximize value in a quantifiable way.
“TVD presents unique challenges over the course of a long project planning effort including ambiguity about timing of decisions, and a tendency to revisit previous decisions when the value is not clear and quantifiable,” Dierks said. “It’s really shifting costs. It’s heavier upfront, but the payoff, ‘the value,’ comes from implementing the right strategies and processes to identify and bring resolution to arising issues so they never materialize in the field.”
The departure from “typical” project startup costs can be a barrier and overcoming it takes an honest appraisal of the stakes in the field.
“I get it. If you’re a customer, you hear ‘teambuilding event’ or ‘building a Big Room’ and you think, ‘sounds like a lot to spend upfront for … what, exactly?’” Dierks said. “It takes seeing how it unlocks the full toolbox of Lean concepts and processes to make the entire project more efficient. [Efficiency] meaning where trust is so high that everyone is aligned and wrinkles are ironed out quickly, with quality in mind, to deliver that cost certainty, again ‘the value,’ ultimately desired by the customer.”
The root of all of these, however, is the long-standing ways construction has been procured and the traditional relationships among project partners. To take advantage, a perspective change is required on all parts.
“Our industry has been called ‘slow to change’ when we’re actually seeing more tools and technologies that can change project outcomes in positive ways,” Bitbaba said. “What has been slow to change is the traditional model of construction so we can properly leverage these new tools.”
Behavior change may not have a dollar cost, but there is certainly a mental cost. No one likes change, but more than enough projects using alternative delivery setups – ranging from design-build to more robust integrated project delivery agreements – to show the way.
“Too often, the new ways of working are being assumed to just work under the traditional, more siloed ways of working,” Bitbaba said. “Owners have to have a mind shift to where they seek to be more engaged early and not be afraid to get into the details, rather than questioning some of the details.”
Bitbaba recalls times when customers wondered why so many superintendents’ hours were needed in preconstruction phases or that terms like TVD were just something a contractor would do.
“The engagement makes the difference,” Bitbaba said. “It’s easy to look at worker hours or assume it will all go to plan, but when a contractor submits the RFI that a wall in a design wasn’t included in project budget, are you going to wish you had considered more engagement upfront? Likely so.”
Which is why Bitbaba likens the entire process of “knowing the unknowns.” Essentially, when all project partners are aligned and working together, using all available tools from VDC to field expertise to working in new ways, it allows projects and the people that make them happen to be more nimble when outside forces are thrust upon us.
“We can’t control the rain,” Bitbaba says. “Let’s work together early on in projects to control the things we can so the only surprises are if the weather forecast is wrong.”
Pressures customers face are changing as their industries evolve. At the same time, construction is employing new technology and delivery methods to address these challenges, all while delivering value for customers.
In that context, some of DPR Construction's core market experts tried to answer this key question for the year ahead: “What’s one thing that will change customer outcomes in 2020?”
"Putting data back in data center construction. Customer-specific data analytics, business improvement metrics and collaborative platforms will improve project delivery for our customers, bringing them online faster, no matter where they’re deploying new facilities." - John Arcello
"VDC and Prefabrication. Robust VDC programs will let us show tenants and developers spaces sooner, provide synchronized visual schedules so they can see visual plans as we build and help enable virtual quality control programs. VDC and will also enable quality prefabrication that helps guarantee schedule, addressing a key pressure for customers throughout the sector, from offices to hospitality facilities." - Andrea Weisheimer
"Optimizing construction as healthcare providers face reduced operating margins. Reimbursement rates are decreasing and as a result healthcare systems are forced to operate at razor thin operating margins. At the same time, spending on technology is almost equal to normal capital expenditures. Through early design collaboration, lean delivery and prefabrication, we can increase efficiency, maximize value and make sure providers are getting the most ROI both in construction and facility operations." - Hamilton Espinosa
"Collaborative design/build delivery with a focus on design management. With public money/fixed budgets adding pressures to institutions more than ever, owners require cost and schedule certainty. Through the DPR design academy and the use of programmatic estimating and Modelogix, we will show how design management can ensure certainty when all of the moving parts of a project work together." - Tracy de Leuw
"Driving down the cost of cleanrooms in new ways. There are practical modular solutions that address both functional requirements inside of the room along with structural support requirements outside of it. Additionally, design management, minimizing air changes per square foot of manufacturing area and exploring less expensive – yet durable/cleanable – surface materials will provide new ways of delivering these spaces." - Scott Strom
Data center development has surged in the Atlanta metro area in recent years, fueled by rich connectivity options, reasonable power costs, low natural disaster risk, easy access to tech talent, and a state tax break passed by Georgia legislators in 2018 designed to spur growth in the data center market.
Long recognized as a financial technology hub (Atlanta is a clearinghouse for some 70% of all electronic payments worldwide and home to 16 Fortune 500 companies), the city has garnered recognition in recent years as the 7th largest wholesale data center market in the United States according to CBRE, with 132.5 MW of inventory. Forbes named Atlanta one of the top five up-and-coming “tech meccas” in 2017. And in a nod to the region’s growing data center market, Bisnow held its Data Center Investment Conference & Expo in Atlanta the past two years, while CAPRE held its fourth annual Data Center and Cloud Infrastructure Summit in Atlanta this August. CBRE Research recently ranked Atlanta fifth in the U.S. for the region’s 14.5 MW currently under construction and sixth in the nation for its 40% growth in inventory since 2015 (North American Data Center Report H1 2019).
The leading names in data center ownership are expanding their presence in the Atlanta market – enabling the region to hold its own against other leading powerhouse data center markets throughout the U.S.
DPR Construction, a leading builder of data centers and advanced technology facilities, has found itself in the midst of this boom.
DPR recently completed two major data center projects for clients in the burgeoning Atlanta region; a signature data center project in Midtown Atlanta for leading enterprise-class data center provider Databank and a 70,000-sq.-ft. data center facility for Flexential on their Alpharetta campus. The projects showcase how DPR was able to leverage its technical expertise and its national data center experience to support customers’ needs for highly technical, mission critical projects in the Southeastern U.S.
Databank Expands to Atlanta Market
The three-story, 110,000-sq.-ft. data center and adjoining 645,000-sq.-ft., 21-story mixed use office complex are the latest addition to the Georgia Institute of Technology’s “Tech Square.” The project is Databank’s first data center in Atlanta, representing the company’s expansion into its ninth U.S. market.
Databank is leasing 30% of the data center facility to Georgia Tech for its high-performance, research computing needs. The ATL1 facility will also house part of the Southern Crossroads network node which provides high-speed, high bandwidth connectivity to research and education sites throughout the region and across the nation.
Georgia Tech’s fleet of super computers operate at five-times the density of traditional computer racks and produce heat loads that would overwhelm traditional, air-cooled data centers. Working with DPR, DataBank and Georgia Tech opted to address those unusual heat loads with rack-mounted heat exchanges that allow Georgia Tech to significantly reduce the energy required to manage that heat.
DPR completed the initial 3.2-megawatt buildout on time and under budget. The space is now being operated by Georgia Tech for university support and research activities and by DataBank as part of its Atlanta service offering for companies seeking colocation, cloud or hybrid cloud solutions.
Additionally, DPR was selected as the general contractor for both the Coda Tower project (built for Portman Holdings) and Databank’s ATL1 data center project, employing two separate project teams that worked simultaneously on site. The Databank project team overcame an array of logistical, technical, and project management hurdles to complete the facility in February of 2019, just 11 months after construction began. The complexity of the conjoined development was further compounded by an extremely tight development schedule, mid-project design changes, equipment issues, ongoing weather factors, and finally, a construction moratorium enforced by the City of Atlanta to minimize any impact to the Super Bowl festivities.
“Our relationships with the subcontractors and vendors helped us cut short some of the long delivery equipment times so we could still meet our substantial completion date,” commented DPR project executive Vikesh Handratta. “Everyone stepped up to help find solutions whenever we faced a challenge on this project.”
Handratta said that clear, open communication, a highly collaborative and committed project team and DPR’s ability to leverage its national data center knowledge base were all critical factors in the project’s success. “Everybody had one end goal in mind: let’s be successful as a team,” he said.
Success on the project required the team to innovate solutions to myriad challenges that came up. Among them:
Groundbreaking on the Databank project was dependent on Coda tower’s completion of five levels of parking below the plaza level, which is the ground floor for the data center. Although the plaza level had some challenges in delivering as originally planned, the team came up with a strategy to mitigate that delay and still complete the data center on schedule.
Constructing the project in the middle of busy midtown Atlanta created some logistical challenges which required DPR to hyper coordinate activities with subs and suppliers and the city of Atlanta on all project deliveries and equipment installation activities that impacted traffic.
Transporting the chillers inside the building through the Coda tower loading dock proved to be a challenge that required careful preplanning and coordination ahead of time with the trucking and equipment vendors.
Tapping DPR’s National Data Center Expertise
DPR leveraged its national data center expertise to assist with commissioning, bringing in a highly experienced MEP coordinator from the West Coast to work alongside DPR’s Atlanta-based team.
“As a national data center builder, we were able to easily bring in someone who was extremely knowledgeable about all stages of data center commissioning to work hand-in-hand with our project-based commissioning agent, which was really helpful,” Handratta concluded. “Leveraging the power of our nationwide knowledge base and the depth of DPR’s expertise as a technical builder helped us deliver a first-rate data center project for Databank.”
Facility for Flexential
That same approach was also key to DPR’s success on the new 70,000-sq.-ft. Flexential data center facility in the northern Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, completed this April. The project followed another recent data center project that DPR completed for Flexential in the Pacific Northwest, boosting the company’s national colocation footprint to more than 3.1 million square feet.
Constructed on the site of a former parking lot, the new facility ties into an existing two-story data center on Flexential’s Alpharetta campus. It contains 3 megawatts of UPS power, two 2.5 megawatt generators, two 500-ton air cooled chillers and 4 switchgear lineups.
DPR broke ground on the project in July 2018 and successfully completed it on schedule just nine months later. The team contended with one of the region’s wettest seasons on record, facing 30 rain days and more than 59 inches of rain during construction.
“It was substantially more rain than anticipated, but we were able to fast track a few scopes of work and still finish the project within the timeframe we originally told the owner,” said DPR project manager Robby Wright. “That was a big accomplishment.”
The project was the first to employ Flexential’s newest data center design. DPR relied on its extensive bank of data center knowledge and previous work to overcome various hurdles and even shared lessons learned with a competitor Nashville who built Flexential’s second project with that same design in Nashville.
Wright said DPR’s consistency across its data center work processes was a key success factor on the Alpharetta data center project. Similar to the Databank project, the Flexential project team also brought in a national MEP expert to help guide the project through commissioning. “DPR has many resources across the country and we definitely appreciate leveraging those as much as possible to benefit our customers,” he added.
Picture this scenario: an up-and-coming data center developer is looking to expand its portfolio in the Silicon Valley data center hub of Santa Clara. The company initially casts a wide net looking for the right property on which to build its new ground-up colocation facility – only to discover that undeveloped or greenfield land is a scarce commodity in this densely developed, high tech mecca.
The developer launches a new search, this time for an existing building it could retrofit and convert to data center use. In short order it finds a candidate that seems to fit the bill: an older industrial office building that has been sitting vacant for a few years. It is priced to sell. The building’s footprint is workable, the structure is intact, and both buyer and seller are motivated. Add some extra power and cabling equipment, the developer reasons, and this dusty old office space will easily transform into a profitable data center facility. An added bonus: it’ll be up and running much quicker than building a brand-new facility, enabling the developer to move in tenants, start collecting rent and begin making a return on investment that much sooner.
The developer hires a general contractor who specializes in commercial building construction but who recently jumped into the booming data center market and now has a couple of data center projects under its belt. An architect is also brought on board, and together they devise a plan to retrofit the facility. It may not be perfect, but they assure the developer they can make it work – and that the planned retrofit will save the company time and money in the long run.
The purchase is made, and the first shovel hits the ground.
As construction gets underway, the project team quickly realizes the building’s structural capacity doesn’t support the volume of heavy equipment – including racks of servers, chillers and air handling units – that this modern data center requires. In addition, there isn’t enough land around the building’s perimeter to locate the backup generators outside. They’ll need to be installed on the building’s rooftop instead – but it turns out the roof also isn’t designed to support that amount of weight.
It’s starting to look like a complete gut and reconstruct will be required.
And then there’s the matter of the available power onsite. The contractor assumed that since this is a reuse of an existing building, power supply wouldn’t be a major issue. Now they find out it could literally take months to work with the utility company to bulk up the site’s power infrastructure in order to meet the data center’s needs. The anticipated time and cost advantages of this property are quickly evaporating, and the developer is starting to think it has made a big mistake.
The Right Approach: Steps to Success
This fictional scenario may be a bit of an oversimplification and, certainly, it represents a worst-case situation, but it’s not an entirely unrealistic depiction of what can happen when an owner doesn’t properly evaluate or conduct complete due diligence on a property that they plan to convert into a data center facility. How should this process have been approached instead? Let’s examine the steps that owners and their teams should follow to ensure their data center retrofit projects are successful.
The very first step the owner and the design and construction team should take is to clearly define what constitutes success for them on their data center project. Is speed to market most important, or do cost savings or energy efficiency take precedence? Is landing a specific tenant or providing service in a specific area the overriding concern? A building repurpose project may or may not end up being less costly than a ground-up project; depending on the circumstances, it may even cost more. The former “hidden gems” of available building flips in places like Silicon Valley, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Loudoun County and other major data hubs are becoming fewer and farther between. Even in “edge” markets, the number of existing buildings that can be turnkey solutions for data halls are rare.
It is equally important for the owner to set early, realistic expectations of what it expects to achieve on the project and to carefully assess how easily and cost effectively a particular building could be retrofitted to new use. The time to do the homework and thoroughly evaluate candidates for a prospective retrofit/conversion is before the property is purchased, not after. Proper vetting is critical.
And that vetting process applies to selection of the design and construction team as well. While the aforementioned developer was on the right path engaging the contractor and architect prior to purchasing the property, the selected contractor that lacked historical knowledge or expertise specifically relating to the rapidly evolving data center market. As a result, the contractor didn’t anticipate some of the hidden pitfalls and “gotchas” that might have been caught by a more seasoned team. The overly optimistic “we’ll make it work” approach did not serve the owner well in this case either or help the owner to make a fully informed decision about the costs and challenges of retrofitting this property.
Bottom line? Bring a contractor and/or designer on board early in the process. Choose firms with extensive experience in data center construction, including both ground-up and retrofit projects. Ideally, they will have a decade or more worth of data center projects in their portfolio and be ranked among the Engineering News-Record’s top 5 or 10 data center contractors. A qualified general contractor or designer can skillfully guide the owner through the process of assessing prospective retrofit candidates based on a set of clear-cut criteria – and will help the owner make the best decisions.
An Objective Eye: Key Evaluation Criteria
Once the owner has selected the team and they’ve jointly scouted for and identified a few potential retrofit candidates, it’s time to objectively weigh the options. This step means taking an in-depth look at what’s “under the hood” of a given building and considering how well it meets the project goals. Think of it like bringing along a qualified mechanic to inspect the used car you’re considering buying. It may cost more up-front paying for the mechanic’s time but could well save you from making a costly decision in the long run.
There are at least 8 major criteria that should be carefully assessed on every data center candidate. They include:
Roof Structural Capacity. Data centers require roofs with a high structural capacity since equipment and heavy systems are often hung from or attached to the roof. Depending on the building’s former use, the roof may not be up to the task and could be a big-ticket upgrade. For data centers, a roof rating of over 35 lbs./sq. ft. is best; 25-20 lbs./sq. ft. is good; and less than 15 lbs./sq. ft. falls squarely in the “bad” category.
Floor Capacity. The racks and computer equipment that go into data centers demand a high floor capacity, something you typically won’t find when converting from an office building, call-center, multi-story structure or the like. Retrofitting this infrastructure is costly and may require tearing down and starting from scratch. For a rule of thumb, a building with a floor capacity of over 250 lbs./ft. is best; 125-200 lbs./ft. is good; and 125 lbs./ft. lands in the “bad” category.
Structural Code. There have been three major building code revisions in the last 10 years or so, including in 2010, 2013 and 2016. This means selecting a building constructed prior to 2010 may require extensive structural changes to bring it up to current standards. Buildings constructed between 2010 and 2013 are evaluated as “good” and require more minor changes, while the “best” rating in this category are buildings designed to the latest uniform building code standards of 2016.
Structural System. Hand-in-hand with evaluating a building’s structural code is its type of structural system. Post-tensioned or truss systems, found in buildings constructed during the 1980s and 1990s, are poor candidates for cost-effective retrofits, requiring extensive reinforcing and rebuilding. Moment frame buildings are better, while steel frame structures using buckling restraining brace frames (BRBs) are ideal candidates in high seismic zones like California. In addition, know the Importance Factor assigned to a given structure, as it will indicate how much structural redesign will be required to bring the new data center up to the necessary performance standards.
Mechanical & Electrical Equipment and Infrastructure. Two other key evaluation criteria are the age and condition of the existing building’s MEP equipment and its MEP infrastructure. Owners should understand that a former office building’s MEP system typically will not approach what is needed for data center usage and thus will likely require complete replacement. However, conversion of a former semiconductor facility or similar technical facilities may not require such extensive changes, depending on the age of the system. The rule of thumb: mechanical/electrical systems 15 years old or older score poorly in this category; 10-15 years old may be considered good depending on the type of facility it was; and less than five years old falls into the good category.
Watt Density. The power density per square foot of the existing building is another key measurement. The trend is to put the highest load in the smallest space. Current density trends favor more than 150 watt/sq. ft. as the best performance criteria, while 100-150 watt/sq. ft. is considered “good,” and less than 100 watts/sq. ft. is bad and will require major upgrades.
Raised Access Floor. Raised access floors are part of most modern data centers. If the building is an older one, even if it has raised access floors, they are considered obsolete. That’s because modern rolling load capacity of the cabinets require raised access floors to be at least 36 inches high with a 3000-lb. load capacity. Replacement of raised access flooring is a big-ticket item that can run between $40-$50 per square foot on the West Coast, and $20-$25 per sq. ft. on the East Coast.
Bringing it All Together for a Successful Outcome
Armed with realistic expectations, understanding what constitutes success in meeting their project goals, assisted by a well-qualified team, and having thoroughly vetted and attained hard data on what each potential building candidate offers, the data center developer is now ready to make a well-informed decision. The savvy owner and project team also knows that since data center demands are constantly evolving, building flexibility into their project whether new or a retrofit is another essential consideration.
Technically and logistically demanding, the design and development of data centers will always present challenges as well as bottom-line opportunities for the owner. A smart approach goes a long way toward setting your next data center project up for success.
Digital Realty (DLR), a real estate investment trust and leading global data center provider, recently opened its latest ground-up data center in Ashburn, Virginia. With the concrete tilt-up panels set in place for the 230,000-sq.-ft. building this summer, DLR’s first deployment of the “mega scale” prototype data center came online in only eight months—from ground breaking to IST/Occupancy.
Built to host a single customer, the project required a unique approach. DLR worked collaboratively with the customer and project team as the design evolved and adjusted needs accordingly. The confidential end user requirements incorporated a high-density rack layout, optimizing the dollar value of each rack. With power and cooling accounting for 80 percent of the data center operating costs, customers are trending towards this high-density layout which reduces the distance in cable runs and networks, minimizing the cooling and space footprint, resulting in increased efficiency. Every two years, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles, and the high-density layout offers more flexibility for these future needs.
DPR incorporated lessons learned from past buildouts through installing all future steel supports to eliminate re-work at the roof and through resequencing future equipment rigging to minimize the number of temporary roll-up doors. Now complete, Phase 1 includes a six-megawatt (MW) data hall. Once fully occupied, the building will have six separate data halls, built-out over the next two to three years, hosting 36MW of critical power.
More than 50 guests, including the customer, design partners, subcontractors, craftspeople and DPR employees celebrated the achievement, as well as the hard work and dedication put forth by all involved with the project. “We can’t thank all of you enough for your efforts to bring this one home,” Dan Kingman, Director of Construction for DLR, told the team. “This was an incredibly impressive performance by the DPR team. This was one of the most challenging and important projects Digital Realty has ever completed, and you more than delivered. Looking forward to continuing to build great things with you.”
In Ashburn, Virginia, Digital Realty’s (DLR) latest data center is rising from the ground up with tilt-up wall panels. Scheduled for completion in December 2018, the 230,000-sq.-ft. hyperscale data center is leveraging the cost and time savings of using tilt-up construction, a method in which large slabs of concrete are poured directly at the jobsite, then raised into position to form the building’s exterior walls.
Speed-to-market is a critical factor for DLR, as the need for data centers designed to deliver services and content to support the world’s largest cloud platforms continues to grow. With its customer’s needs in mind, the team chose tilt-up panels to eliminate the traditional limits of the size of panels that could be transported to the site. Since larger panels were poured onsite, less panels were needed to complete the structure, further speeding up the process. The tilt-up panels also allowed for early scope release of certain trades, specifically the plumbing and structural steel subcontractors, who installed plumbing risers and steel connections before the tilt-up panels were lifted, saving time down the road.
After pouring concrete walls around the building’s perimeter, the team began lifting the walls into place this summer. The process takes approximately 45 minutes per two-story panel, with the team installing between eight to ten panels per day. It will take 105 panels and 2,000 cubic yards of concrete to complete the perimeter of the data center.
Once complete, the data center will also include the build-out of a 6MW data center hall and will ultimately host 36MW of power.
Energy efficiency is a challenge for many mission critical, energy-intensive data centers, but top pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck and Company’s new Tier III data center facility in Kenilworth, New Jersey has achieved just that. The facility recently received coveted ENERGY STAR certification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Delivered by the integrated design-build team of Merck, DPR, Gensler and CCG, the data center has been commissioned to satisfy Merck’s stringent design criteria and performance-based certification process to earn ENERGY STAR designation. This is the first ENERGY STAR certified data center for Merck.
Designed and built in just eight months, the integrated team delivered the facility a full month ahead of schedule. The project scope included conversion of a one-story, steel-framed manufacturing building into a new state-of-the-art energy efficient data center. The 42,000-sq.-ft. facility includes two data halls and administrative support space. Major components include a chilled water cooling system utilizing prefabricated chiller plants and computer room air handler units in each data hall, and an electrical system comprising two power train systems in an N+1 redundancy configuration. Each of those systems consists of switchgear with dedicated standby generators and four uninterruptable power supply modules.
DPR’s Brett Korn pointed out that the data center’s ENERGY STAR designation translates into real operational savings for Merck, estimated at around 5 percent of the facility’s typical operating budget. Achieving ENERGY STAR status also highlights the responsibility global market leaders like Merck place on reducing carbon footprint and lowering operating costs through environmentally responsible development.
Korn added, “ENERGY STAR certification shows that a company is looking to reduce costs and to operate the facility in the most efficient way possible, even while focused on creating highly reliable infrastructure. In data centers, you’re putting in redundant equipment which can impact energy efficiency. By installing highly energy efficient data processing equipment that allows the facility to operate at higher temperatures, Merck achieved maximum efficiencies and lowered its operating costs. Monitoring and documenting the equipment’s performance for a full year afterwards was key and takes time and patience.”
Engaging a design-build team with the level of technical construction expertise and data center experience that Merck, DPR, CCG and Gensler possess was also crucial to the project’s success. The project team focused on achieving energy efficiency goals from the onset. The team meticulously tracked and adhered to performance milestones to help the facility achieve both ENERGY STAR status and LEED Silver certification from the US Green Building Council.
At the end of the day, Korn pointed out that multiple factors contributed to driving the project forward to successful completion and to helping it attain ENERGY STAR status, including:
a knowledgeable motivated client committed to achieving specific energy-related savings goals and willing to take a different path in the design, construction, operation and monitoring of their data center facility;
a highly experienced project team that pursued targeted energy-related goals from day one, understanding if any system deviated from pre-established guidelines, it could not negatively impact the energy consumption of the facility;
the appointment of specific individuals on the project team responsible for actively tracking and monitoring the design criteria, systems, and performance indicators to ensure milestones were met; and
the team’s willingness to innovate by employing lean construction and extensive levels of prefabrication (estimated at 25 percent of the facility).
This data center project has allowed Merck to meet its business objectives in the region while building a solid foundation for future work and forging a lasting bond between DPR and Merck. “Merck’s mission is ‘Inventing for Life’ by improving the quality of life for the world,” shared Michael J. Abbatiello, who oversaw creation of Merck’s design criteria document which outlines the required technical specifications used for bidding, detail designing, commissioning and operating the facility. “Not only do energy efficient facilities reduce operating costs, but they also represent the environmental benefits that align with our mission.”
The Merck project was DPR’s first major new customer for its New Jersey office, which initially opened in 2008 and has doubled in size, serving customers throughout the state.
ENERGY STAR certification requires that energy consumption data be continuously tracked and professionally verified using an online reporting tool via EPA, hitting specific benchmarks. Recertification is required annually. For more specifics, go to www.energystar.gov/ENERGYSTARS.
At the Hana Financial Group Data Center in Cheongna International City, South Korea, a DPR team participated in a traditional Korean gosa ceremony, marking new beginnings, hope and good luck.
The first building in South Korea to be built through preconstruction and a GMP contract, the seven-story, 325,000-sq.-ft. data center and 18-story, 342,000-sq.-ft. administration building will rival both domestic and international facilities, and is a significant milestone for DPR’s Korea practice.
The Hana Financial Group Data Center is the first building in South Korea to be built through preconstruction and a GMP contract. (Rendering courtesy: Samwoo Architects & Engineers)
Providing guidance and leveraging our network in a construction management role, the DPR team helped Hana Bank choose an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) system, the first one that has ever been installed globally. The diesel-driven rotary UPS in an isolated parallel (IP) configuration is backed up by batteries and makes sure the data center’s servers are always running with no glitches or loss of power. With expertise in the mission critical market, DPR helped the client and design team select this system, balancing the owner’s business requirements with optimizing the combination of redundancy, resilience, maintainability and cost.
The data center project has overcome challenges including troublesome soil condition as well as a local labor force that is unfamiliar with the mechanical and electrical systems used by global data centers. Led by Sangwoo Cho, who grew up in Korea, the in-country DPR team has remained continuously flexible to adapt to and integrate with the local culture, language and way of approaching situations. It’s a compromise of both sides adjusting to each other and finding a balance of what they are willing to change, while holding on to their respective values.
A rotary Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) system at the data center is just one way DPR has helped balance the owner’s business requirements with optimizing redundancy, resilience, maintainability and cost. (Photo courtesy: Grace Yoon)
“We understand how the locals do things here, and we have learned how to implement new techniques and strategies that can succeed within the current system in Korea. We are integrating into the local market,” said Hock Yap, DPR’s team leader on the Hana Data Center project.
DPR entered the Korean market in 2011, and has since collaborated with several large Korean general contractors, construction management firms and owners on the advancement and adoption of new technologies and ways to manage and deliver projects, including the Hana Financial Group campus, Gyeongsang National University Hospital and Parnas Tower.
The team participates in a traditional Korean gosa ceremony, marking new beginnings, hope and good luck. (Photo courtesy: Gerry Brown)
“In a sense, we are a breath of fresh air in Korea because we do things so progressively, with a focus on innovative technology. Whether it’s installing the first ever UPS system, collaborating on preconstruction, or introducing a new type of contract, sometimes our clients are in disbelief that we can actually do these things, but our achievements are real and can be backed up with data, facts and case studies,” said Yap.
Yap was one of the DPR team members who participated in the gosa ceremony, placing a symbolic envelope of money into the mouth of a pig’s head, as well as a dried pollock fish on the first server rack installed. Embracing the culture of Korea, the team is looking forward to building great things with hope and good fortune for decades to come.
The DPR team looks forward to building great things in Korea for decades to come. From left to right: George Pfeffer, Eric Lamb, Atul Khanzode, Sangwoo Cho, Gerry Brown, Grace Yoon, Hock Yap, DJ Yun, David Ibarra (Photo courtesy: Hock Yap)