Sustainable Design Reaches a Highmark

Sept. 8, 2006
Commitment, coordination, and communication key to data center’s success

By Chelsea Houy

Is it practical for a new data center, with its demanding energy, security, and reliability needs, to be built with the goal of LEED certification?

Professionals at Highmark, one of the nation’s largest health insurance providers, took the question to Baltimore architectural firm RTKL in 2003. Highmark wanted RTKL to evaluate LEED issues for a new data center to be built in the Dauphin County town of West Hanover Township, PA.

Highmark’s initial driver for building the 11-acre data center was to replace the aging infrastructure of the company’s then-current data center located in Camp Hill, southwest of West Hanover Township. However, world events and changes in the marketplace would up the stakes for Highmark.

The World Trade Center attack of 9/11 and widespread security outages in 2003 illustrated the need for increased security and reliability. Competition in the industry would also require the company to demonstrate its technological prowess in the marketplace. And, following the Pennsylvania state government’s requirement that all government buildings be LEED-certified, Highmark wanted to show a good faith effort to follow suit, even though its buildings would not be required to comply.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) represents the efforts of a coalition including the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to establish a nationwide standard for constructing “green” buildings. LEED certification requires compliance with a minimum number of criteria affecting many aspects of a project, from site selection to the recycled content of building materials. There are four levels of certification: Minimum, or LEED, certification requires 26 points; Silver, 33; Gold, 39; and Platinum, 52.

Doug McCoach realized that a sustainable strategy for Highmark would, first and foremost, have to align with Highmark’s business objectives; LEED certification would be the icing on the cake. McCoach, NCARB, LEED, is an RTKL vice president. “A sustainable design strategy would enhance the reliability of the building, it would enhance the operational efficiency of the building, and it would enhance the productivity of the employees within the building,” McCoach says. Highmark chose to go with LEED certification for the new facility.

Soon after, the core design team - RTKL, CS Technology, Holder Construction Co., Anderson Consulting, and the Highmark team - assembled for its first meetings. Having this integrated team together from the beginning was crucial for such an integrated facility.

Because nearly 60 percent of LEED credits can be obtained in the design stage, this meant that sustainable strategies couldn’t be an afterthought; they had to be part of the very fiber of the project. The communication and cooperation between professionals and their commitment to LEED would streamline processes from conception through completion.

The masterful integration of sustainable technology is evidenced in what building occupants can and cannot see.

Taking It to the Next Level
From experience, RTKL professionals knew that data centers had a standard design: a one-story layout on a flat site. This economical design allows for expansion and flexibility. Highmark’s site was a steeply sloped hill, which challenged McCoach to confront his assumptions about data centers. “The hill really forced us to think about how to make it more compact, and a tidier, more cleanly organized data center, as a building type.”

The shape of the building and its orientation on the site were pivotal decisions because they involved many facets, such as security, movement of materials, the installation of a rainwater collection system, and cost control. As the team designed the layout, they were always looking for ways to reduce the footprint and find economies in the design, says McCoach.

One process that was crucial to keeping the footprint to a minimum was growth modeling. Bill Angle, principal with New York-based CS Technology Inc. (CST) and IT consultant on the project, worked with Highmark to create solutions to future growth scenarios. “Right-sizing” as Angle terms it, through growth modeling, creates efficiencies through reducing wasted space. “What we’re doing is what a normal architect would do as it relates to “people space” - when they sit down and they talk about people groups - we simply do it for technology instead.”

This process also ensured that any additional expansion would not interrupt Highmark’s daily operations. For instance, the building needed two chillers to accommodate current cooling needs. However, Highmark knew that an additional chiller would have to be added as the data center expanded. Through right-sizing, space to accommodate the additional chiller was added to the building plans ahead of time.

As a result of these exercises, a final document was produced that showed how large the facility needed to be to accommodate present and future technology needs. This document was then provided to the architect and engineer at the initial schematic level of the design phase.

The result: an 87,000-square-foot, two-story facility with an additional 12,000 square feet available for expansion. All mechanical and electrical infrastructure for the facility is on the first story, while office areas for the data center’s 50 employees, as well as the extensive computing infrastructure - mainframe computers, and hundreds of UNIX and Windows servers - are on the second story.

In a typical one-story layout, chilled water is routed through pipes located beneath the raised floor area that houses the computers. To reduce the threat of water coming into contact with Highmark’s equipment, chilled water was distributed through piping located in the ceiling of the first level of the data center. This design also made these pipes more accessible for maintenance.

Electrical systems are in closer proximity to the equipment they serve than in a typical data center: Therefore, the electricity doesn’t have to travel as far to reach the equipment and it operates more efficiently. In a single-floor layout the electrical infrastructure is farther away from the equipment, resulting in a voltage drop, according to McCoach. By placing the conduit directly below the equipment, RTKL reduced power loss and the amount of electrical conduit.

Tech Flex
Another “green” strategy involved the placement of offices for Highmark’s employees. RTKL placed the offices on two sides of the facility. The windows in the offices allow views of the surrounding landscape while providing daylight, reducing the need for artificial lighting.

The low-E coated glass used in the offices also reduces the amount of heat transmitted into the building, creating a comfortable working space while allowing clear light transmittance.

When artificial lighting is needed, suspended pendant uplighting, ideal for the high ceilings in the office areas, reduces glare and the number of fixtures in the space. CO2 sensors modulate the amount of outside air that is brought into the office areas. In addition, a Siemens APOGEE building automation system monitors HVAC and electrical systems throughout the facility.

An underfloor air distribution system (UFAD) with a platform from Tate Access Floors serves the office spaces. Currently, about 15 to 20 percent of all new commercial office space employs a UFAD, according to Stephen Spinazzola. A UFAD counts toward one point for LEED because of its ventilation effectiveness, adds Spinazzola, PE, director of engineering and a vice president at RTKL. He was an engineer on the project.

A UFAD works in raised flooring to move air through an air plenum to supply air to the “people space.” This allows for higher ceilings and zone control. The access flooring has floor boxes where the air comes out, and each of the boxes opens and closes in response to a thermostat to maintain space temperature.

Keeping It Cool
Data centers require an exorbitant amount of water to cool; a majority of that water is used to cool the mainframe computers. If there is a utility failure, backup systems must be in place.

RTKL requires 50,000 gallons of reserve in case of a utility failure. However, once RTKL professionals realized they could capture rainwater, they designed a rainwater collection system that could collect 100,000 gallons of water. Water is collected from the roof; the system then filters and treats the water and stores it in an underground cistern. The cistern, located underneath the building’s loading dock, resembles a large plastic egg crate with plastic rings.

This water collection system reduces the amount of water needed from the local utility while also serving as backup in case of a utility failure. A gray water system for flushing toilets also draws from this reserve.

Another innovative application of technology in the data center is High Delta Temperature Cooling, or HDTC. The Highmark data center was the first wide-scale application of this technology, according to McCoach.

Spinazzola birthed the cooling approach 4 or 5 years ago. Much of the energy consumed by data centers results from cooling systems keeping the servers cool and Spinazzola wanted to find a way to use air-conditioning more efficiently, thereby reducing the number of units needed, in turn reducing energy consumption, recalls McCoach.

One important component to HDTC is the cabinet that houses the computer equipment. Highmark chose Wrightline’s Tower of Cool. Spinazzola customized the cabinet for the HDTC and RTKL later patented the design.

HDTC supplies cold air at the base of the cabinets, then collects hot air through the ceiling that is routed back into cooling units. “So, instead of dumping the hot air into the room and mixing it with the room air, you don’t let it do that,” explains Spinazzola. The cabinets accept the cooled air via fans inside the cabinet unit, and those same fans exhaust the hot air generated by the servers.

The system then returns the air to the cooling unit at a higher temperature, chills the air more, and supplies it at a lower temperature. According to Spinazzola, reducing the air-conditioning units by 50 percent requires a 40-degree temperature difference between the air supplied and the returned air.

In Highmark’s case, the air temperature difference was about 30 degrees, which resulted in 25-percent reduction in the number of air-conditioning units. “The building is less expensive initially, because you have fewer pieces of equipment, and then over time it’s dramatically less expensive because you have fewer of these energy-consuming components,” adds McCoach.

Security as a “Site Response”
Highmark processes more than 500,000 claims and responds to 33,000 customer inquiries daily. To protect customer information, a comprehensive security strategy was outlined in the early design stages. It integrates with a variety of building systems - power, electrical, construction systems, wall systems, enclosure systems, and site - to create a “site response,” says McCoach.

Highmark uses a variety of hardware and software technologies to guard and protect its data. These technologies restrict access to data, monitor and defeat attempts at inappropriate access, and log and record activities to provide a record for enforcement and prevention.

To control building access by section, a lobby area and vendor meeting rooms are located away from sensitive areas. A tour aisle provides another level of security by routing the public through a predetermined path that allows them to view the computer infrastructure, yet prevents disruptions to operations and protects customer information.

But visitors must pass through several security checks before entering the building. A gate and intercom stop them before they enter the parking area. After parking, an 8-foot security fence with an unmanned gatehouse, which includes CCTV and an intercom system, allows visitors to speak to the security professional inside. A 100-foot standoff between the parking lot and the building protects the building against potential blasts. Guests are escorted into the building by a Highmark employee and then through a “mantrap,” which takes biometric readings.

Here the tour aisle experience begins.

Upon entering a waiting area, visitors are given an overview of the facility through a multimedia experience that includes rear-projection and wireless communication devices. Next, guests are escorted to the tour aisle, a walkway that slopes upward. The aisle provides views of the data center and network operations center (NOC).

As they exit the tour aisle, a Lexan-covered floor opening gives visitors a peek of the variety of systems under the data center floor, such as chilled water piping, data distribution cabling, and power cabling. As the tour winds down, visitors pass by one of the two telecommunications distribution rooms, where fiber-optic cables are distributed.

Making the Grade
The building was completed in May 2005. It was not only completed on time and on budget, but also received dual certifications: Silver LEED certification from the USGBC and Tier-3 Certification from the Uptime Institute, which establishes guidelines and criteria for reliability and downtime. Tier-1 facilities are least reliable and Tier-4 most reliable. (At press time, the Highmark Data Center was the only facility in the world to be dual-certified.)

Achieving such success took a total effort. “The right people were at the table, they had the authority to make decisions, they had allocated the right amount of money, and they had a challenging but realistic timeframe, and a vision of what they wanted in terms of technology and the expression of the building,” says McCoach. RTKL honored the entire project team as part of the firm’s annual Legacy Awards.

For those who want to pursue LEED for their designs, Mark Wood, director of data center infrastructure at Highmark, offers advice: “Do your homework upfront, and either commit to doing it right or don’t do it at all.” Just as important, according to Wood, is that once you commit to LEED, stay the course.

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