Data centers consume approximately 1% of global electricity, so finding ways to mitigate their environmental impact is vital. PCL experts weigh in on reducing the carbon footprint of these buildings through retrofitting, as well as the importance of leveraging relationships and knowledge of the mission critical market to help clients find win-win solutions.   

Danny Horton, senior manager of Data Centers and Mission Critical at PCL Construction worked on a data center project that drew 32 megawatts near the city of Cheyenne, Wyoming, enough to power 32,000 homes for a year.

“We joked that we could use one of the center’s substations and power all of Cheyenne,” says Horton.

When you’re using power on that scale, the incentive to find efficiencies is just as big.

This consumption creates operating costs for data center owners and can also harm the environment. In response, data center owners look for creative ways to make their facilities more efficient to better protect the planet and PCL experts, like Horton, are passionate about finding those solutions. Often, this means opting to retrofit an existing building over new data center construction.

“In just the past couple of years, we have really seen an increase in clients choosing to retrofit entire data center buildings,” said Horton. “We anticipate more and more demand for retrofits due to benefits like time and money savings coupled with the reduction in carbon emissions.” 

Retrofits of mission-critical facilities fall into one of two categories, Horton explains. The first is expanding or renovating an existing data center. The second is converting another building into a data center. Both have substantial environmental benefits and cost efficiencies for clients.

The retrofit process is a desirable way to reduce construction impact on the environment. This reduces greenhouse emissions and increases the lifespan of the facility. 

“You’re not disturbing undeveloped land when upgrading an existing building, because you’re doing interior work,” Horton says. “That means there’s no carbon footprint from the concrete or earthwork as you’d have when constructing a new data center building, so it can reduce carbon emissions by up to 75%.” 

The advantages of retrofits don’t stop there.

“Permitting for retrofits often take less time to obtain than a full new construction project which expedites the speed to market,” said Horton. Retrofitting allows a client to build a project in often half the time it would take to build from the ground up. “We are seeing an average of 30%-time savings when clients choose to go the retrofit route – mainly due site development and utility savings. With an existing building, we don’t have to worry about relocating and constructing new utility lines, for example.”   

Christopher Tauscheck and Joe Kukulski, both project managers with PCL, have seen proof of this firsthand. The two worked closely on the expansion of a data center building for Flexential in Chaska, Minnesota.

The project added 25,000 square feet of server storage to an existing data center, as well as expanded the facility’s mechanical yard.

“If you were to build this from the ground up, it would take nine months,” says Kukulski. “We did it in five.” With the increasing demand for data centers, a facility’s time-to-market is crucial for mission critical clients.

With a building retrofit, opportunity is created for contractors to meet the targets for reduced emissions, embodied carbon and energy consumption, especially considering data centers account for almost 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions today. The industry is currently on track with plans to operate all hyperscale providers’ data centers with 100% renewable energy and achieve carbon neutral operations by 2050.

“While it will take a while to get to that point, we are seeing significant energy savings within data center retrofits today with upgrades to mechanical and electrical systems, and network optimization,” said Horton. He went on to explain that energy consumption can be reduced by up to 15% by eliminating redundant or inefficient server equipment. 

The Flexential project had a tight turnaround time – there was a new client moving in two and a half months after the design was scheduled to be completed. The project team had to work fast to meet the client’s needs which included an accelerated schedule and specific electrical and mechanical infrastructure such as electrical distribution, custom cooling requirements and connectivity.

“We had a very tight window to complete the project with many interim milestones,” says Tauscheck. “We took a partnership approach and together found solutions to help our client meet their goals.”

The client’s compressed timeline meant the PCL team had to draw on its subcontractor relationships and strategize how to best meet the ambitious deadline without compromising the final product.

“We worked closely with our mechanical and electrical subcontractors early in the process to develop viable solutions,” says Tauscheck. “It was critical to solidify a plan and ensure we were within budget.”

Building partnerships and having consistent, open and clear communication is a staple in construction.

“Communication is everything, especially on this type of project,” says Tauscheck. “We’re in a world now where the engineer might not be local and the client might not have a local presence. We understand that and develop a plan to make sure everything is communicated effortlessly to all project stakeholders.” Smooth project communication cannot happen without established relationships.

“We are a relationship company,” Horton says. “We don’t go in for just one project. We go in for long-term relationships.” Forging connections with an understanding of the necessary components and needs for existing and future projects is a top priority for PCL’s data center and mission critical team.

The need for data centers is only going to increase to support global digital consumption. In a digitally driven industry, speed to market, sustainable building solutions, personal connectivity and clear communication are drivers for successful projects. With decades of combined knowledge and experience, as well as nation-wide access to quality subcontractors and trade partners, the PCL team is ready to help clients identify optimal solutions for retrofit projects.