Data Centres Downtown
New data centres in Toronto and Montreal have architectural exteriors that fit in with their bustling, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods. But inside the buildings are windowless spaces built to protect banks of machines.
From the May 2015 print issue, page 20.
With its sleek façade, the recently completed building at 45 Parliament Street and Front Street East in downtown Toronto might suggest stylish loft living. This is a formidable part of its appeal — and ultimately of its approval — within the bustling urban landscape.
The vibrant five-storey structure just steps from the historic Distillery District draws the eye, while cleverly concealing the industrious machines tightly secured within its walls.
Residing within the polished exterior is a bulky essential for modern living: data processing. In the more than 240,000 sq.ft., 16-MW development, approximately 106,500 sq.ft. of white space is dedicated to servers.
It’s clear this is not your average data centre. “Normally data centres are utilitarian,” explains Kevin Johnston, vice president of data centre solutions at Urbacon, the developer and designer of the project. “They are designed to service the needs of the IT equipment inside, and aesthetics is really completely optional and normally not a focus for suburban industrial sites.”
But this downtown design-build project for lead tenant Equinix defies traditional data-facility design. In this prime, pedestrian-friendly locale, the challenge was deciding how to develop a facility that looks inviting on the outside, but actually isn’t.
Set against black metal is a blend of smooth and ribbed terracotta porcelain panels that form the patterned exterior. Look closely and the sparseness of windows — aside from the glass tenant offices at the base and the stunning reflective glazed cube at the southwest corner — reveals the building’s true identity.
Inside are floor slabs designed to hold between 250 lbs. and 500 lbs. per square foot; six 2500-kW diesel engine generators; redundant fibre optic points of entrance, fibre vaults and a heavy duty freight elevator that allows equipment to be replaced without using cranes or helicopters. With stringent security measures in place, including CCTV, motion detection, hand geometry readers, and card readers, the reality is: data centres are built to welcome machines, not people.
“Security is paramount,” Johnston stresses.
“This means no windows in the data area at all, only one entrance, and the loading dock has to be specially designed to address the security of the building,” he says. “We also put a great deal of thought into redirecting rainwater away from the data hall because of risk to the IT equipment. These are major elements that affect the design of the building.”
It’s no accident that 45 Parliament is a quick jaunt to the Financial District and TorIX, the major Canadian Internet hub at 151 Front Street West. This proximity affords a strategic competitive edge, allowing essential information to travel to businesses faster.
“We have the Toronto Stock Exchange, we have all the banks, the trading houses — these companies rely on data centre space and proximity to those markets is critical to the success of their business,” says Johnston. Network latency is important in the trading business, where microseconds can make a difference to transactions.”
To succeed in a dense metropolis, the team had to find ways to attenuate the noise produced by the massive electrical and mechanical equipment, which includes diesel generators, chillers, and cooling towers.
“The audible noise created by the equipment can exceed acceptable limits,” explains Tien-Khanh Ngo, director of engineering at Urbacon. “The material used for the building envelope must be carefully selected for noise reduction, as must the location and type of equipment used to avoid radiation of noise to the adjacent buildings.”
In contrast to converting existing spaces, a benefit of constructing a new facility in the design-build model is flexibility. It allows space to be mapped out in advance, the construction of proper ceiling heights, and the installation of heavy-duty flooring.
“Existing office buildings are not strong enough to support heavy equipment installed on the floors or roofs,” explains Ngo. For instance, the Parliament Street property has a foundation strength equivalent to a 24-storey structure.
“(With older buildings) Reinforced floors and roofs are possible but will add significant costs that can make projects no longer viable in some situations,” says Ngo.
Also, ceilings of less than 14.5 feet slab-to-slab, more typical of office towers, are not suitable for medium and high-density data centres. With cooling being the largest controllable cost, extra ceiling height provides the opportunity to incorporate more efficient technologies, such as free cooling and air-side economies.
Montreal’s 544 rue de l’Inspecteur
Montreal will also soon be welcoming a contemporary new data centre building in its downtown.
Billed as Montreal’s “only true stand alone, purpose built data centre,” the 10-storey, 16-MW building is at 544 rue de l’Inspecteur in Griffintown. It is a partnership between Fonds immobilier de solidarité FTQ and Urbacon, and is slated for occupancy at the end of this year.
The slick 234,000-sq.ft. tower will be clad in reinforced concrete panels in varying shades of black and grey inspired by a “piano roll,” an early form of data input. Being carefully integrated into the tower is a four-floor former industrial heritage building that boasts a grand stone façade on the east wall. The preservation of the original building honours Montreal’s industrial history while serving as an entrance to a lobby and renovated office space.
As in Toronto, this “ground up” project conveniently neighbours the financial area and is destined to bring an elegant presence to the maturing streetscape.
“It’s critical that we find ways to build data centres in urban settings that don’t offend,” says Johnston. “Between the aesthetics of both of these buildings and the purpose-built nature, there is nothing else like this in Canada.”
Both buildings feature 16 ft.6 in. ceilings, while the Montreal site will provide floor loading of up to 200 lbs. per square foot, an industrial-grade freight elevator, underground fuel storage, redundant fibre optic points of entrance, and green initiatives.
“Taking advantage of Montreal’s cool climate, the data centre will have a mechanical ‘power usage effectiveness’ target under 1.1 and deliver exceptional performance across the entire range of rack densities,” Johnston explains. cce
Urbacon is a project manager and construction company with over 25 years experience in constructing and developing data facilities.