For construction companies building data centers, speed is everything.
“End users aren’t looking to wait a year for a secure and reliable facility,” said Jason Walker, senior project manager for HITT Contracting. “So projects like Vantage’s … go from pad-ready to ribbon-cutting in just seven months.”
Walker is referring to a Vantage Data Center in Ashburn, Virginia, constructed by HITT. The two-story, more than 250,000 square-foot building, which is being built out now by subcontractors, will house massive amounts of data in servers on tall racks. Its sleek, modern glass exterior doesn’t scream “warehouse” like many other data centers in Ashburn, which is known as “data center alley” because of the acres and acres of massive data warehouses there.
Vantage gave Construction Dive a glimpse behind the scenes at its Ashburn campus, where it will build a total of five data centers on 42 acres. When finished, the buildings will host 142 megawatts of data storage.
At the first Vantage center, subcontractors are working on the interior while Vantage preps for new tenants. “That allows us to scale very quickly,” said Ryan Dorsett, the principal construction manager for Vantage, adding, it can still be a challenge to keep up with demand.
As Vantage continues to fill out the finished “shell,” it is gearing up for construction of the buildings by pre-ordering electrical items and mapping out the campus. When the need for more space arises, work will quickly begin on the next building.
Ron Vokoun, a project director for data center construction at Fluor Corp., said speed to market is the most unique thing about this construction segment. Fluor follows a similar model as the Vantage process, which is the norm for these projects. Vokoun said that building out about 25% of a data center’s interior and allowing the customer to say what it wants from the rest of the space helps with the massive demand.
Data center construction projects are reference in terms of data load in megawatts more often than they are in terms of square feet. For context, one megawatt can power 400 to 900 homes, so the total Vantage campus will have enormous capacity. Vokoun said the data centers Fluor builds average between 20 to 80 megawatts, though it has built bigger ones.
At Vantage’s Ashburn site, huge generator yards sit inside a large glass enclosure, while each massive server room is accompanied by another room full of cooling systems. In the loading dock where companies drop off their racks, there is a wall outlet every few feet. The same goes for the office space.
Walker said HITT installed 115 of miles of wire for Vantage’s first six megawatt phase. At that rate, the 142 megawatt campus will need about 2,700 miles of wiring.
In order to make all that wiring work possible, Dorsett said Vantage relied heavily on BIM technologies. In the generator yard, for example, countless interlocking wires going all over the two-story building meant Vantage needed to plan ahead. It created an accurate model and cut the time spent on site in half, with no errors, Dorsett said.
Vokoun said that, with the miles and miles of conduits and wires at Fluor’s data centers, modeling isn’t optional.
“An accurate model of that is critical before construction even starts,” Vokoun said.
Having skilled labor available for high-speed, high-demand construction seems to be the biggest issue plaguing data center construction. At times, Vokoun said, some Fluor projects rely on unionized workers who travel to faraway sites, so planning ahead to find and hire the right workforce is critical.
Ben Kaplan, senior vice president for Global Critical Facilities for Turner Construction, said building a data center team is the real challenge. “These buildings represent a tremendous opportunity for skilled labor,” he said. “What we’ll find is that in a time of contracting skilled contracting labor, we’re really struggling to find those highly skilled craft people.”
Walker referenced the nearly 3,000 miles of cables that will be placed at Vantage’s Ashburn campus. The demand for skilled electricians is high and will only continue to grow as Vantage builds out to its intended capacity of 142 megawatts.
But Ashburn’s location in Northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., means it's in a high-population area with more skilled labor.
With data centers now a vital part of the way data is stored and transmitted, this construction segment will continue growing.
”A few years ago data center construction was a bit of a niche, just because of the change in the way we use technology, [but] it’s really become critical infrastructure,” Kaplan said, noting data center construction has grown to represent $1.5 billion in annual business for Turner.
“I do see the data center market changing in the next two to five years,” Walker added. “Over the last five years, we have seen a major push for large-scale, greenfield data centers. As those facilities age, I see more of our business moving away from new facility builds back to equipment upgrades and end-of-life replacements.”