Data centers are the anonymous architecture of the internet. Scattered around the world, often on the outskirts of towns and inside workaday warehouses, these physical buildings are packed with servers that store and deliver the internet’s seemingly infinite bounty of emails, viral videos, and news websites.
They’re also massive energy pits. Globally, these data centers account for 1% of all electricity usage. In total they use about 300 terrawatt hours of electricity yearly, which is more than the annual energy used by all but 11 countries in the world. And with fossil fuels still making up the majority of the world’s energy supply, the essential elements of the internet are taking a heavy toll on the environment.
A new Google- and Microsoft-backed design effort aims to counteract some of those impacts by dramatically rethinking the shape, size, and energy sources of the world’s data centers. A book featuring the designs has just been released, and it offers some intriguing and tangible strategies for reducing the internet’s significant environmental impact.
Last year, Google teamed up with an interdisciplinary group of students from the University of Washington, the University of Arizona, and the University of Pennsylvania to design more sustainable data centers. The yearlong exploration, supported with funding from Google and expert input from Microsoft, resulted in proposed data centers that use 100% renewable energy.
“It’s a really complex problem,” says architect Julie Kriegh, who led the design studio at the University of Washington along with Hyun Woo “Chris” Lee, a professor in construction management. “We thought of it as a moon shot. So it had to be something where the rules didn’t really apply anymore.”
The designs developed by the student teams of undergraduate and graduate students offer a radical departure from the exurban warehouse structures that most data centers resemble. One team developed a creekside data center with hexagonal facade panels that double as carbon dioxide-sequestering algae bioreactors. Another uses passive cooling techniques in the building’s roof design to counter the heat emitted from the whirring servers within. Another is half buried underground with a looping geothermal system to naturally regulate the temperatures within.
These new material and design approaches are a far cry from the typical data center building. “Data centers are often constructed out of concrete, steel, and roof and wall enclosure panels. That’s a pretty limited palette that uses many high embodied carbon materials,” Kriegh says. Based on feedback from Google and Microsoft, the students opted for unconventional building materials like cross-laminated timber and rammed earth.
The student teams also reconsidered data center locations, diverging from the typical model of the vast warehouse outside the city. Some were designed to be integrated directly into dense city centers, or even slotted into disused spaces like old factories. Parts of some of these data centers would become public spaces, turning an essential modern infrastructure into much-needed urban green space or community rooms. One project reimagines the data center as an elliptical tower in downtown Seattle, with rings of stacked servers inside that can be maintained by flying drones. Wrapping around the server rings, the building’s facade is a spiral walking path that leads to a roof garden and solar-panel array. Another uses air channels carved into the building as both a cooling technique and a public pathway.
“Over the course of the study we worked with Google and Microsoft to demonstrate that a data center could be user-friendly and beneficial for the communities in which they were located, and that we needed to think about our land in different ways,” Kriegh says. “Our work is really to say there’s another way of doing this.”
The internet as we know it would not be possible without data centers. These designs suggest that an increasingly essential infrastructure doesn’t have to be shunted into the hinterlands or left alone to burn electricity and fossil fuels at will. Instead, data centers have the potential to take new forms and do more than just serve up emails and Zoom meetings. “You’ll still have the data center that will be in the middle of nowhere that’s massive and industrial looking,” Lee says. But there’s also room for other types of architectural solutions. “It may be a long shot,” he says, “but it’s coming.”