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Retrofitting Commercial Buildings For Data Centers: How And When It Makes Sense

With the unique power, network, and cooling requirements of modern data centers, a purpose-built facility delivers the greatest efficiencies, reliability, and room for expansion (especially modular data center builds). However, retrofitting an existing commercial building can still result in a highly efficient and effective data center environment, and it can also save budget and time to deployment.

The question, then, is when does it make sense to retrofit an existing building? Followed by how to tackle the retrofit itself. Naturally, many of the considerations for data center site selection apply when considering existing buildings for a retrofit. What is the likelihood of natural disasters? What infrastructure is already in place? Are the connectivity and power requirements met? Only once you’ve thought about these primary concerns can you turn towards changing the physical building to fit white space (more on that in a moment).

An attractive building might sit only yards from a fiber trunk, so building out that fiber circuit keeps costs low. Or it might already have dark fiber running to the building. There could be generators already on site. Perhaps there are other factors to make the site attractive, like the underground bunkers that have been converted to data centers due to their security and consistently low temperatures. A very low-priced building could be enough to convince you to take the retrofit plunge, too.

Clearly the facility must have enough area for your planned white space and supporting infrastructure. Will your chillers or cooling equipment be outside or inside the building? What about generators? If there isn’t space on the lot, could you put equipment on the roof? Is there room for a NOC and disaster recovery or other tenant office space?

 Retrofitting for Data Center Use – Construction Time

Once you’ve found a building that has enough room and can relatively easily be built out to support power and network requirements, you must begin to plan the construction itself. HVAC and power routing are likely to be two of the biggest costs at hand as they require specialty contractors and are critical to data center functionality. You may need to install additional or different transformers on the site. Ductwork might need to be rerouted according to new room layouts. It is relatively easy to chop up open space with new walls or by tearing down old ones, but making sure redundant power gets to the data center floor is trickier. The clear space between floor and ceiling must also support systems (HVAC, power, and raised floors).

Zoning and permits come into play here as well. Although construction permits might be easier to come by for a retrofit project, outdoor zoning rules could limit what equipment is placed outside. Rezoning can take 6 months or longer, cancelling the faster time to market afforded by a retrofit vs. a new build.

Raised floors are another consideration. Modern data center designs may not require a raised floor, so if the building only has slab floors in it, you can save up to $200,000 per 5,000 square feet of data center space. Be certain the roof and floor will support the weight of equipment that will be installed.

Is the site secure enough? Are the fire suppression systems suitable for data center use, with preaction and early detection? You may need to increase building security measures with fencing, CCTV systems, or hardening against earthquakes, floods, or other disasters.

Ultimately, one very attractive site may lose out to an initially less appealing location due to a combination of the above factors. Developers should rank these aspects by their importance and then apply that scale to sites accordingly. This will help find immediate deal breakers and save the time and expense of bringing in expert evaluators on sites that are a poor fit.