I recently came across a collection of thoughts to consider when upgrading or repurposing a building or site for a data center.  In many ways, it resembled an edition of the CRS-Sirrine site planning guidelines (of course I am dating myself with that reference, as that Texas-based firm divested itself in 1994 when it was acquired by HOK).  In any case, those guidelines consisted of many good things to think about when kicking the tires on an existing piece of real estate.

In school — and throughout our careers — we have been taught this same list of questions to ask of a site, to the point that they are now indelibly ingrained into our minds.  Our inquiries over the years led us to pore over existing zoning requirements and permissible uses to requirements for acoustic and visual separation from adjacent noncompatible uses.  Delving deeper, we were taught to inquire whether there was a slope to the site — one significant enough that locating a large quantity of ground-mounted equipment enclosures might have proven a cumbersome endeavor.  Were there designated wetlands or floodplains that needed protection or, at least, some consideration?  Was there an archaeological history to the site or any existing structures of historic value?  And the list goes on.

In this essay, I’ll depart from the traditional Kevin Lynch way of thinking and offer a different approach.  Many of the above guidelines focus on tangible items — things that are readily defined or understood and that have a precedent elsewhere in the built environment.  Land use attorneys, in deliberating an issue, usually have dozens of prior cases that establish legal precedent, which, in turn, points toward a resolution.  But what do we ask of a site when we are faced with designing something that has never before been designed and that has no precedent?  What would CSI's Gil Grissom do?

The celebrated CBS crime scene drama aired from 2000 to 2015 and featured the Grissom character, a forensic entomologist turned crime scene investigator known for thinking outside of the box.  He was as much of an inventor as he was an investigator, and while the crime scenes portrayed were all admittedly fictitious, no two scenes were ever alike during the 15-year run of the series.  There was no innovation from episode to episode.  Each episode — and, subsequently, each problem-solving exercise that Grissom led — was a built-from-scratch invention.  In many ways, this mirrors where we are headed in 2020.

Going to The Edge

In 2017, during the Architectural Record Innovation Conference held at the Mission Bay Campus of the University of California San Francisco, Thom Mayne shared a monologue that has never left me. 

“Has it ever been done before?” Mayne asked. “No, you say?   Good!  That’s why you hired me!” 

After allowing that to sink in for a few seconds, he then produced a graph that plotted “time” along the x-axis and “occurrence” along the y-axis.  Moving along the time axis from left to right, the use of the word “innovation” increased, while, at the same time, “invention” decreased. 

What defines first-mover thinking?  Is it innovation, or is it invention?  Ponder that for a moment while we return to the above question.  When faced with the constraints of an existing context, how do we design something that has no precedent? We invent.

The January 2020 issue of Fortune carries the headline, “20 Ideas That Will Shape the 2020s.”  Most of the disruptive theories or ideas mentioned in that issue, while talked about in various discussion groups and forums, have yet to be realized or deployed at scale.  Beth Ford, CEO of Land O’Lakes, wrote about one such idea.  Connectivity, via the digital realm, becomes ubiquitous.  Or does it?  Ford points to the inequities that result when connectivity is not inclusive.  What happens when the farmer in Jerome, Ohio, who depends on next-gen agricultural technologies to operate a profitable and sustainable business, does not have easy access to the connectivity required to employ those technologies?  Ponder that for a moment.

Let’s segue now beyond that rural agrarian context to our urban and suburban environments to explore a paradigm referred to as “the edge.”  From a simplistic viewpoint, the edge is a complex interrelated network of servers, routers, and switches, all connected via endless miles of fiberoptic cabling.   The edge proffers ubiquity.  Our driverless cars of the near future depend on it.  Smart devices that power our whole-house environments rely on it.  Machines that communicate with each other and, in some cases, exclude humans from that interaction cannot exist without it.  And yet the edge does not yet completely exist.  To deliver the connectivity sought after by our smartphones, IoT devices, and driverless cars, and at speeds that are less than one-tenth of the blink of an eye, we have yet to design and construct the facilities that will deliver it .  Unlike the massive data centers (known as hyperscale facilities) deployed at a super-regional magnitude, edge facilities will be deployed at a much smaller scale and will reside within our communities and townships. 

Up until now, most data facilities were designed and constructed so that they were out of sight and out of mind, well away from where we sleep at night.  The bulk of those, however, were developed during the pre-edge era.  But the “always-on” connectivity demanded by the world of 2020 requires that facilities be embedded into our communities, located just down the street or on the next block.  By June, 24 billion internet devices will exist.  That requires an abundance of facilities to collect, process, shunt, and store the data created and transferred by those devices, and these facilities are needed soon.  The granular mobility promised by the technology of our new decade will require nothing less.  How, then, do we design the facilities required to keep up with blistering rate of deployment of the edge? 

The Answer: We Invent

Invention requires consensus for successful execution.  Without consensus, things do not move forward.  In the context of our profession, consensus comes in the form of dialogue with the planning and zoning authorities and the constituencies that are served by, or will be served by, edge facilities.  I’ll venture to guess that the planning authority that has jurisdiction over the small towns of the U.S. have yet to see an edge data center, let alone have someone sit down with them and explain the function of this type of facility.  I would also guess that their respective zoning ordinances don't yet include data facilities in their lists of permissible uses. 

NIMBY is an acronym that, for those of us who have advocated for a project in a public forum, has special meaning: Not in my backyard. But think Again!  The edge may, very well, soon exist in or near the backyards of the NIMBY supporters.  Our job is to invent the aesthetic that permits these facilities to be received with open arms, whether along Madison Avenue across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or within the Quinault Nation on the Washington coastline.

Challenges are abundant.  The speed by which the edge is already deploying lessens the available time within which to develop facilities.  Consequently, we invent new ways to incorporate modular technologies to achieve scale at speed.  We invent new ways of repurposing existing facilities, where infrastructure may already exist to a certain extent.  Doing so saves both time and resources.  We invent ways by which a shopping mall is transformed into a mixed-use data facility.  Admittedly, this invariably introduces uses and substances into existing building environments that may or may not be permissible.  Again, our job is to teach and work with building authorities through transparency and advocation.  We seek inclusivity.  Where no precedent exists, we invent one.  And instead of regurgitating an existing precedent that may or may not have worked, we create something new.   

In our new decade, we will invent new ways by which human beings coexist with the rapidly advancing technology of our built environment.  On July 25, HKS-designed SoFi Stadium near Los Angeles will open to the public (unless the effects of COVID-19 postpose it).  The first event within this magnificent venue, a performance by Taylor Swift, will likely sell out long before July.  Thousands of attendees are expected, and a large portion of those will be streaming video, posting selfies to various social media sites, and viewing the posts of others who are there.  The amount of data created, processed, and uploaded will be staggering.  The prospect of crashing the local wireless network because it wasn't able to handle the anticipated level of data traffic was unacceptable to the stadium's ownership group.  Would it be possible, then, to build a facility that would support and maintain that network at the scale and with the speed necessary to have it operational by the time TSwift takes the stage?

To date, that is something that has never been done — at least not at that scale or speed.  But HKS broke ground in January … welcome to 2020.