With an increasing demand for faster data center deployment and facility flexibility, containerized data centers are a great option for those who need service now with the added benefit of maximum expandability later. But a critical first step in the decision to go the route of a container solution is to be sure that your architect and engineers have an understanding of the local building codes and have an early conversation with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).

Because of the recent developments in container based technology many code officials have yet come to a consistent opinion on the classification of these types of enclosures. Current code had been vague on data center use and the containerized evolution has moved well beyond what most codes cover. So the interpretation of the code by the AHJ is critical in filling his gap and the question that we’ve heard asked is this: Is this a piece of equipment or is this a building that is occupied by people who operate the equipment?

The issue with assigning ‘occupancy’ to containerized equipment is that it then requires that the unit be fire rated and have fire protection. This complicates what many believe to be a simple solution to data center deployment. This issue has surfaced on a couple of our projects and we found that the code reviewers had different views on the interpretation: Is it a building or is it a piece of equipment similar to an air handling unit? On one project in particular we took the issue to the International Code Council to get an interpretation. Fortunately for our company, Michael McNamara, RA, NCARB of M+W Group sits on the board of the council and was able to submit and vote on the following question:

Q: A pre?engineered equipment container is designed forthe specific purpose to protect information technology equipment and its support equipment such as electrical service and distribution equipment, and HVAC systems from exposure to the weather and secure it from vandalism. The typical construction uses a standard ISO shipping container or similar metal outer enclosure. The space is not intended to be occupied for any reason other than maintenance and service of the equipment housed within the container. Access is through hinged access panels. The PAC is built in accordance with UL 2755 Modular Data Centers which covers pre-engineered cabinets or containers that houses information technology equipment and its support equipment.

Is the container considered a building and required to comply with the provisions of the International Building Code?

The goal behind this question was to gain an official interpretation by the ICC and with the interpretation it would give us an authority we could reference when negotiating with local code officials. Unfortunately for our team, the ICC board had a tied vote on the interpretation.

In order to not slow down the process of your data center deployment, a clear interpretation of the local code by the code official early in the design process is essential. We recommend getting a clear interpretation of whether the container is called a “Building” or “Equipment,” the construction type requirement, and any fire protection requirements before construction documents or procurement proceeds.