Data centers have experienced a dramatic increase in demand as a result of accelerated digital transformation during the pandemic. While remote work, video calls, and other data-intensive practices were steadily increasing prior to the 2020 health crisis, COVID-19 kicked things into overdrive. At the same time, the impending global environmental catastrophe has everyone reevaluating their carbon footprints, water usage, and other consumption habits. Data centers have massive resource requirements, making them prime targets for improvements in sustainability. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to build a more sustainable — or even carbon-neutral — data center.

For starters, the environmental impact of new construction must be considered when evaluating sustainable data centers. Low-carbon approaches can result in 13% less carbon when building a new data center as compared to traditional methods. But, the real environmental impact happens when you don’t build a new data center at all and, instead, reuse an existing facility. It’s estimated that this can save 78% of the carbon emissions of building a new facility.

Of course, there isn’t always the option to reuse or upgrade existing facilities. However, there are still sustainable approaches to data center construction that you can employ, including green and low-carbon materials, modular building approaches, and the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator.

Building Sustainably

Approximately 40% of yearly global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to the construction industry. In order to reduce that number, it’s important to consider something called “embodied carbon.” Embodied carbon measures the sum of all greenhouse gases from all phases of construction — including sources, manufacturing, transportation, and installation. Reduce the amount of embodied carbon in a construction project, and you reduce your overall impact on the environment.

That's exactly what’s happening with the industry-wide move to green and low-carbon materials. The Global Cement and Concrete Association, for example, has laid out plans to reach a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Innovate UK and the Ministry of Justice are also working together to develop 40% lower-carbon precast concrete. This is good news for environmentally conscious builders, as concrete is one of the major materials used in data center construction. Alternative low-carbon options should also be considered. Some builders are finding success with carbon-neutral organic “mushroom bricks,” and although such promising innovations are still a far way off from mainstream acceptance, they prove there are options out there for eco-minded builders. Plus, as with any product, demand for innovative solutions will help drive supply.

Modular Building

One of the most promising trends in data center construction right now is modular design. Rather than building a data center all at once, it is constructed in modular increments that allow for it to be ready sooner and expandable to meet scaling needs. It also allows for non-weather dependent production, as it is in a factory environment. Compared to traditional construction methods, modular data centers allow for lower production costs, shorter timelines, and more customization options. The timing of implementation however plays a large part in the success of scheduled savings.

Some modular approaches use prefabricated buildings, while other options focus on components like electrical lineups, which can further improve sustainability. Prefabricated construction reduces material waste, and it allows for unused or decommissioned sections of one facility to be repurposed elsewhere. Any time you can cut down on the amount of new construction taking place, you’re making a big reduction to your overall environmental impact. To take this to the next level, choose eco-friendly transportation methods, like electric trucks or those powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Calculating Embodied Carbon

Technological advances are key to more sustainable building practices. One of the most important tools when building a new data center is the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, which allows you to determine the amount of embodied carbon in your project and to easily discover more carbon-friendly alternatives. This is exactly the sort of resource builders can use to improve their sustainability without inflating their budget.

Essentially, builders need to treat embodied carbon as another resource to manage. Calculating ways to minimize carbon in new construction projects will help reduce the overall environmental impact the construction industry has on greenhouse gas emissions. Breakthrough materials, like carbon-neutral concrete, are certainly vital to creating a more sustainable industry, but so are the data-driven projects like this calculator.

Ongoing Strategies

While building a data center is a carbon-intensive process, running one can be even more so. Data centers require huge sums of energy to operate, and it’s estimated that the operational carbon impact of a data center can be more than twice the embodied carbon impact of its construction. That’s why it’s essential to build a new data center with sustainability in mind. That includes planning for wind turbines, solar panels or other renewable resources for power, good insulation to minimize the power spent on cooling the facility, and so on. One of the most important components of a data center is its backup generators, as they can be a literal lifeline during severe weather events and other disasters. Switching to natural gas-powered generators instead of diesel can have a noticeable effect on lowering carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions, improving efficiency and sustainability without sacrificing reliability.

Building a more sustainable data center is, clearly, a complicated and involved process. But the important thing to know is there are a number of options in place to help you meet these goals. Plus, there is a growing demand for new buildings to meet sustainability standards and certifications, so it’s likely that becoming an expert in this type of construction will pay dividends down the road. Builders who are serious about sustainability will look at their projects holistically, from sourcing materials to ongoing operating costs, in order to cultivate a competitive advantage while fighting the climate crisis.