At the height of the Cold War, members of Congress had a place to go in the event of a nuclear holocaust: A 112,000-square-foot bunker beneath a lavish resort in West Virginia, some 250 miles from the nation’s capital. The top-secret $86-million bunker at the Greenbrier Resort included a medical clinic, communications and cryptographic equipment, decontamination showers, a 30-year supply of food, and a television studio replete with fake backdrops of D.C. for studio broadcasts.

Fortunately, the facility was never required, and in 2009, part of it was converted into a data-storage facility that is now leased by major publicly traded companies. While this reuse example is extra­ordinary, more and more high-security data centers are cropping up in repurposed environments. Other examples include the AT&T Long Lines buildings constructed in key U.S. cities during the Cold War. Windowless and monolithic, these relay stations spooled miles of telephone lines within a thick concrete (and oftentimes granite or marble) envelope intended to preserve our telephonic infrastructure in the event of a nuclear attack.

Since 9/11, national security has become central to everyday life, as every air traveler knows. Another post-9/11 development in everyday life is our increased reliance on digital communication, digital files, and the Internet in general. Consequently, whether they’re newly constructed or in repurposed buildings, data centers enjoy a level of security and sophistication that many of their predecessors never did, boasting the capacity to power alarm, cooling, and mechanical systems 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without fail.

Yet, in an era of full disclosure about building performance, data centers are challenged to balance operational security with sustainability. There’s no escaping the fact that these facilities consume massive amounts of power, with many designed to use between 20 and 30 megawatts of electricity on an annual basis—enough electricity to power between 20,000 and 30,000 homes.

If striking a balance between security and sustainability is a pressing challenge, it’s not impossible, according to Robert Morris, FAIA, president and CEO of Dallas-based Corgan Associates, an architecture firm that specializes in data-center design. “The very fact that the technology is consolidating in a single place creates a high energy-consumption number at that place,” he says, “but … [that] creates efficiencies that would not otherwise exist if the same technology was distributed across dozens or hundreds of smaller installations.”

Striking a balance in the future will be about “connecting the local source energy—renewable-energy sources such as small hydro or geothermal—close to the data-center project, and designing a building that generates more energy than it consumes for heating, cooling, daylighting, and the passive building systems that enhance data security,” says Bill Worthen, AIA, president of Urban Fabrick Design in San Francisco and sustainability expert.

And Morris points out that the new generation of data centers today sees a 25 to 30 percent increase in their power-consumption efficiency over their 20-year-old predecessors, saving millions of dollars a year.

Over the last several decades, the need both to process and store data has grown exponentially with advances in technology. In the 1980s, data centers used to require enormous and expensive mainframe computers, with systems that required a great deal of oversight and maintenance. But over the last 15 or 20 years, the emergence of relatively small and inexpensive servers has eliminated the need for mainframes, accommodating a rapidly increasing need to house more data without needing more space. At the same time, computers began to need to communicate remotely with others more often, generating a boom in demand for data-center space that, thanks to new voice technology, coincided with a diminishing need for space by telephone companies.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the location of fiber-optic cable networks was a significant driver for data center design. The weight of fiber-optic cable trunks coupled with conventional copper lines invited reuse of sturdy, industrial buildings for data centers. The buildings were generally secure, with heavy floor-loading capacity, strong wall systems, and no windows. They were also on reliable grids and enjoyed good power and cooling capacity.

Eventually, though, data centers began migrating out of the more-urban corporate office settings and telephone central offices to more remote locations. Some of the reasons for this are that they would be more discreet and farther from city centers, traffic, and people; there would be more land for larger sizes, greater security, and the ability to expand; fiber-optic cable had become available in the ground; and fewer personnel were required to operate them.

Morris reports that new construction, which is “hiding in plain sight, often in large light-industrial or low-rise office developments,” is more commonly used to house data centers than older buildings.

But that may be changing.

“Urban infrastructure facilities, including data centers, sewage treatment, and parking garages, still need to be connected to their communities—not big concrete or sculpted stone bunkers like many of the urban data-center buildings from the 1950s through ’70s were built,” Worthen says. “But repurposing buildings for data centers may not always be a natural fit either. It very much depends on each specific existing building, its current condition, and the creativity of the design team to find cost-effective, integrated design solutions.”D

emand for different types of facilities for a broadening pool of users is driving activity in the renovation of existing buildings, usually warehouses and old manufacturing plants. And when they have the right footprint, structure, envelope, site, and utility qualities, existing abandoned buildings often offer advantages in lower construction costs, faster construction schedules, and leveraging local economic development group support for a project that puts an abandoned building back into service.

“Ultimately,” Morris points out, “the Internet [itself] is the optimal security, with two or more data centers simultaneously exchanging information, and others able to carry on the business of the enterprise if one fails.”

By Ben Ikenson