Creature comforts: supercomputing temperature concerns

At SDSC, it's not just about keeping the servers happy; the new building has to consider the heating and cooling needs of 300 people

In 2005, the San Diego Supercomputing Center won a best-practices award for the design that will help to make its data-center expansion a model of energy efficiency. As rewarding as that distinction is, the project managers behind the building, now under construction, are focused equally on making sure it meets the needs of its occupants.

Slideshow: Take a closer look at SDSC's green data center

The new-data-center project, which began in 2003 and is slated to be completed next year, quickly turned into a challenge of just how energy efficient a building could be, says Gerry White, director of engineering services at the University of California at San Diego's (UCSD) design and construction office. The SDSC is situated at and affiliated with the UCSD.

"We've been pushing for energy conservation on campus for 15 years now, and we're doing it as we can," White says. "The opportunity presented itself to take a good, serious look at how to configure, develop and take care of this expansion [in an energy-efficient manner], and then to do this on every new building."

Construction at SDSC

The new building also must serve the purposes of the expanded data center and the 300 occupants it will house. While it may have been tempting to come up with a building plan that is just a design and engineering feat of energy efficiency, the project team also needed to consider the human element, because besides housing supercomputers and related IT equipment, the expansion will contain offices and classrooms. And that meant that ambient temperature had to be considered.

"There's no way to deny it, if you don't have [air-conditioning] in the building, you will save energy," says Craig Johnson, senior mechanical engineer, also in the UCSD's design and construction office. Even in San Diego's mild climate, just opening and closing the windows doesn't always work, he says.

"A lot of people think because we're in San Diego, you can open the windows and everything will be fine. Well, eight or nine months of the year that does work fine," but the heat and humidity during the summer and early fall require the building to be cooled, Johnson says. The team decided there would be cooling in the warm months and heat in the cool months, so that the occupants would have a "comfort band" that would adjust as the seasons change.

Combined with other architectural elements -- such as exterior shading devices that limit the effects of the sun on the building, and a concrete mass exterior that helps cool the building naturally -- the amount of air that needs to be moved through the building is still less than what a typical office building requires, Johnson says.

Based on computer models, the project leaders expect the new data center to be 43% more energy efficient than the state guidelines for new building construction. The team is taking steps to make sure the building not only meets its projections but also is comfortable, White says.

"We're installing 50 or 60 meters in the building to monitor how it performs, and if it's comfortable for the occupants," he says. "We have every intention of using the data from all of those meters to compare the actual building back to what the model said it would be."

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