One of the recent projects we worked on at Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects was not a wholly unusual one for us. We were tasked with evaluating data centers, improving their functionality, and “future proofing” them for longevity. With every new data center client, we ask ourselves what we have learned from past projects and how we can implement the latest industry advancements.
It was the subject matter that made this project unique and piqued our interest. This time, we weren’t evaluating the current technologies and mechanical systems; we were focusing on the user experience — a concept that’s been overlooked for far too long. And, to top it off, this research project would take us to six data centers on two continents.
Data centers are perceived as soulless, monolithic, tech-centric buildings. And, in many ways, they are. Their purpose is to preserve and distribute the enormous amount of data we generate and consume every minute. But, like all buildings, they require humans — to build, maintain, and operate them.
Examining them through the lenses of end users offered SNHA a fresh perspective on a growing field of renovation work and provided us with a better road map to build facilities of the future.
This was a necessary realignment for the company. Its initial mission critical facility opened in 2011 with a small workforce (4o workstations) to support the operations.
Over the past decade, that facility has ballooned into a network of worldwide data center campuses, each with five or more buildings and hundreds of employees/contractors. The office spaces and supporting program have grown over time to accommodate the larger workforce and create an inspiring company culture.
With the client and key consultants, we piloted the project with the three oldest U.S. campuses — one fully built out and two that seem to be ever-expanding — before moving on to three growing campuses in Europe. Our first step was to visit each campus, observe how the spaces were being used, formally meet with representatives from each department, and informally chat with as many employees and contingent workers as we could.
We discovered early on that our informal conversations — the lunch line chats with the culinary team, curious questions from the security officers, gossip in the bathroom — were invaluable. They provided critical context to the information gathered by the client’s early surveys.
During walks in the corridors, team members candidly talked about their favorite parts of the building — and their least favorite parts too.
These informal interactions often led to formal ones. For example, the head chef gave us a tour of the kitchen, the security team let us tag along on their rounds, and the janitorial staff showed us where they did paperwork and stowed their belongings. Each experience was eye-opening in its own right, and pointed to a larger truth:
Operations is driven by logistics, maintenance, and security. Those teams are the loudest, and rightfully so; they are critical to data center availability and uptime. But, the other teams provide operational support, and they are critical to company culture.
Perhaps most surprisingly, when we brought our findings back to the management group, teams started to fight for each other. That’s worth restating: They started fighting for each other, not with. The security lead advocated for company culture. The logistics manager, typically one of the loudest voices, sat back and made space for his colleagues to speak. The head of culinary advocated for her team, and then systematically listed the needs for all the others. Though these sites are part of a global corporation, their local groups are tight-knit. Our project simultaneously sought to standardize the company program while highlighting individual site characteristics.
After spending one year on this project and traveling more than 60,000 miles during that time, we discovered some useful takeaways for the client, the data center world, and workplaces at large.
- Participation offers a unique perspective — In civic architecture, community participation is a key, and often mandatory, component of the design process. Adapting lessons from community participation to workplace design by soliciting candid and casual feedback from all employees fosters a more human-centric workplace. As workspaces and jobs become more reliant on technology, the human element remains essential to the evolution of architecture. Technology requires human support systems, and we must be careful to not lose sight of that.
- Local preferences can become global insights — European jurisdictions require natural light and views for significantly more spaces than their North American counterparts. We took these best practices to inform retrofits and new designs on both sides of the ocean. Mother’s rooms in North America often sit empty (tech is still a male-dominated industry, after all). To better utilize these spaces, European jurisdictions employ first-aid rooms. By building flexibility into this program, we preserved its core function, while allowing it to best serve a site’s needs.
- Amenities matter — The company’s instinct to bring services and amenities up to the same level across all corporate offices and data centers was on point. Where one site may value a laundry service, another may envision an enlarged communal space. Perks, like these, are an important step in connecting the workforce to the company and the building. Without a connection, there is no company culture.
- Flexibility paves the way to the future — When the first data hall was constructed, the client didn’t envision the vast network of campuses that exist today and require constant renovation to accommodate growth. Our challenge is to design admin spaces that can grow with the campus and the company, accommodating new programs, changes in technology, workplace trends, and the unforeseen (think global pandemics). This means designing spaces with a built-in capacity to be easily repurposed, identifying spaces that can be renovated with minimal disruption, and even preserving precious campus space for new buildings. Building this flexibility into the campus program allows for future efficiency and empowers employees to build their own culture.
- Adjacency is critical to creating community — In data center campuses with multiple admin facilities, workers found ways to cluster together. They valued their daily informal interactions as much as we did. After years of designing for a distributed workforce, with each group tied to “their” data hall, we learned that for most, human adjacency is more important than operational adjacency. While a large, open office was viewed as a benefit, one of our original hypotheses was confirmed: An abundance of small conference rooms, breakout spaces, and focus areas were critical to provide respite from the crowd. With this discovery, we shifted our retrofit designs, clustering people and amenities together and working with the site teams to ease travel throughout the campus. This insight came just before COVID-19 swept the globe and turned open offices into dangerous environments. Incidental interactions have long been the goal of workplace designers. Our visits proved the value of witnessing the mundane or overhearing a side comment. As our work continues online, we find ourselves contemplating what role these highly valued communal spaces will play in the future of workplaces. Despite the ease with which we can all connect digitally, physical offices are hard to leave behind.
As the initial stages of this evaluation draw to a close, a wider reassessment of workplaces around the globe is taking place, brought on by the pandemic. Who actually to be on-site? And, what does a workplace culture become when there is no workplace?
If nothing else, our work on this project proved at least one thing: Understanding user experiences and seeking out unexpected learning opportunities that occur “off the record” can guide architectural solutions and create workplaces that are as human as they are high-tech.