They Don’t Build’em Like They Used To

2011 was a good year for me and my wife.  We bought an old home that was likely built in 1915.  We don’t know that for certain, but the records for the original deed and plans were lost in a fire in Dallas in 1930, so all homes in our neighborhood are listed as having been built in 1930, when the earliest remaining records are dated.  We did this because the home is made of old growth pine, old and strong, and as they say it has ‘good bones’ and charm to boot.

I happen to come from a family of builders in the city of McComb, Mississippi.  They built homes and commercial buildings that were contemporaries of my house.  My father still marvels at their perfection, noting that not a crack exists in the foundations that they poured and that the bricks were instructive for any mason living today.  These things are true because they didn’t have the benefits of construction science or building codes as we know them today.  Everything was tremendously over-built to compensate for this lack of knowledge.  To build a building like that today would cost a fortune.

Nowadays, things are built to suit, with as much economy as possible.  This is not to say that buildings are ‘cheap’, but rather that they more closely reflect a near perfect pairing of need and use with the built form.  For example, there is no need to provide a structure that would bear three times the load proposed in the occupancy of the building. The majority of the data center work I have done in the last few years has been in existing facilities, ranging in age from 60+ years to 20+.  Many people see a building that has space and proximity to critical infrastructure and the appropriate setbacks and security measures, and think that it might be suited to a data center occupancy.

I am happy to say that there isn’t a (non-condemnable) structure that can’t accommodate this use.  But this gets into an architectural topic that was vogue in the late 80’s and early 90’s: conversion of program.  The program has quietly become more crucial as buildings have become more efficient for a given purpose.  The ideas passed back in the day were that program and occupancy were largely just social assignments to buildings that could be swapped out in compelling and interesting ways (Like how a McDonalds could be converted into a house, all the essential elements were there, right?).  What this project type has taught me is that this is often easier said than done.  This to me is a axiomatic moment, it is an exhange of economy for flexibility.  Because the building is no longer over built, it may not immediately be suitable for a given occupancy without some work first.  If we spent our time designing and building for a multitude of programs, then a building’s cost would rapidly rise.

So what does all this mean for data centers in existing buildings?  Nothing more than that there are challenges with such a demanding project type.  Most facilities don’t have built-in infrastructure, or structural capacity to fully accommodate the program.  These things can be added.  And then there is an ‘X’ factor that is unique to each building.  I always tell my superiors that something ‘funky’ will come up during the process, and without fail it happens; I have yet to pick up a pattern to the chaos.  These facilities just require a kind of patience and flexibility, because they will challenge even the most meticulous plans.  But I can’t really put into words the satisfaction I feel after a successful data center is inserted into an existing building.


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