The NY5 data center in Secaucus, New York, was designed by Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects.
Bilyana Dimitrova The NY5 data center in Secaucus, New York, was designed by Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects.

Architects have always placed their own signatures on the spaces where the future happens, from the glass skyscrapers that symbolized midcentury corporate dominance to the tech campuses and urban office spaces that have defined the pioneering industries of the 21st century.

Today, one typology at the center of scientific and technological progress, the data center, tends to get dismissed—seen more as a functional facility filled with cords, servers, and empty space than one shaped by architects.

“The traditional way of doing architecture may look at them as bland, boring boxes, and that does a huge disservice to the building typology,” says Chheng Lim, Assoc. AIA, an associate at Chicago-based Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects who specializes in data-center design. “There’s something stoic about these projects. The repetitive elements and façade components really have a certain presence on the landscape.”

In addition to the complex balance of technology, sustainability, and modularity that often shapes data centers today, the sheer scale and scope of these campuses and massive vertical skyscrapers offers designers a chance to reshape the landscape and occupy a true presence on the horizon. One of Lim’s recent designs, the award-winning Fort Worth Data Center administration building, boasts an undulating, patterned façade that recalls the shape of archaic IBM punch cards.

As our digital lives and data needs expand, data centers have become fixtures on the landscape, with roughly 2,670 in the United States alone—often the size of multiple football fields. With the increasing need for more data storage and so-called hyperscale sites used by computing giants, these structures will only become more prevalent, powerful, and important, as will the role of the data-center architect. James Simon, AIA, an architect, associate, and critical facilities leader at Gensler who started in this field in 2000, has seen the industry double in size every other year for the last five years.

Typically consisting of administrative buildings surrounded by data halls that utilize the latest technology to sustainably cool racks upon racks of servers, these buildings “no longer have anything in common with traditional architecture other than the fact that they have a roof and walls and can withstand wind loads,” Simon says. Instead, ensuring the orderly operation of machines that store terabytes of key information and remaining incognito or at least unnoticed for clients become the driving factors; it’s a delicate balance of presentation and secrecy.

But anonymity doesn’t need to be boring, says Lim; within the confines of computing technology and budgets, there’s room for architectural playfulness. The architecture sector figuring out how to bring more rigorous and creative approaches to these projects has heard the call and continues to grow well beyond a niche; this year, Lim organized a presentation at AIA’s Conference on Architecture 2022, the first time the organization has so addressed this emerging building typology. She says graduates of top-tier architecture and engineering schools are increasingly entering the workforce seeking to work on these buildings, whereas talent was very hard to find years ago.

The proliferation of these structures has also brought more scrutiny, and higher expectations, from local governments, says Michael Welch, vice president of procurement and design at Dallas–based Aligned Data Centers. There’s been a sea change, with cities and towns shifting from simply wanting more data centers to bring in tax revenue from unused land to caring about how they look and impact the landscape, with zoning and design standards following suit. The standards are being raised, he says, and there’s a lot more nuance expected of new designs.

Today’s massive data centers were shaped by both technology and, to a lesser extent, terrorism, according to Gensler’s Simon. Beginning in the early 2000s, the dot-com boom, followed by the growth in mobile computing, social media, and e-commerce, created a need for more data storage, while 9/11 inspired many organizations, including the Department of the Treasury, to advocate for remote data storage away from corporate headquarters in remote areas to guarantee better data security.

Currently, data-center design and construction lean heavily toward function over form; Lim estimates that 80% of construction costs go toward engineering services and tech, with the remaining 20% for the structure and design. But even within those constraints, architects and landscape architects have license to be more creative; Simon pointed to his firm’s IBM data center in Barrie, Ontario, filled with sloping berms and plantings that blended with the landscape and created a sense of ambiguity over the site’s true purpose.

Lim labels the design challenge of data centers as a case of “human by proxy,” a reflection of the symbolism and representation of these spaces. On the surface, it’s easy to talk about these structures as removed pieces of equipment; hotel rooms exist for guests and malls are laid out with shoppers in mind, so these sites could simply be reduced to rest homes for servers. But Lim argues that, in addition to the fact that people do work in these cavernous structures, these data storage sites are part of us: They contain our memories, communications, and work, and are part of our collective human soul. As such, they deserve more elevated design. Lim looks specifically at materials and the landscape, focusing on touches and façades that, like the punch-card pattern at Fort Worth, reflect site context and the history of the company and surrounding landscape.

What makes these projects so challenging is the balance of technological progress with the aesthetic vision; architects constantly feel like they’re in a tech race as new server design and cooling strategies unfold at an almost exponential rate. Every building has its own site, business, and client constraints, but architects always find themselves playing the role of ringleader, says Simon, trying to balance all these different metrics and performance requirements.

“A key aspect of good design is making a building that’s flexible, that can accommodate varying needs of different customers in the future, which means keeping up and understanding a rapidly shifting tech landscape,” he says. “They have to be adaptable, they have to have a visual presence, they have to have something that allows them to coexist with the neighbors that are around them, but then do all these industrial processes on the inside.”

Industry players can’t change construction and supply-chain delays, but they can look ahead and stay abreast of technological shifts. Welch focuses on bi-directional feedback with clients, especially the so-called hyperscalers like Amazon and Meta, plotting out where they want to be in one, or five, years and beginning to research and plan as targets and tech move.

Sustainability will increasingly play a huge role, in both designing for renewable power and incorporating cooling tech, especially new fluid and water-based systems, to keep data centers humming; recent studies suggest 1% of the globe’s energy—more than used by many small countries—is eaten up by data-center operations. Simon believes eventually, engineers will figure out how to recycle heat and turn that waste energy back into electricity; regardless of how the industry arrives at its goal, net-zero performance has become a major benchmark.

These increasing constraints on the industry will invite even more creative solutions from architects and designers. Simon says that as more data centers go online, especially in more crowded and urban areas, the reality of urban development, including planning and zoning issues, will become more prevalent.

And while pictures of endless boxy buildings in rural sites seem to suggest an endless horizon, Lim says rapid growth has meant the available space for these facilities is shrinking, suggesting land constraints and the need to go vertical. This rapid evolution suggests these so-called boxes will be anything but bland.

“These buildings can feel incognito,” says Lim. “But when we start paying attention to site history and community history, it creates opportunities for design that isn’t so foreign to a landscape.”