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Real Estate & Construction  July 28, 2011

NCAR supercomputer facility designed to last

CHEYENNE – The NCAR supercomputer soon to occupy 24 acres in the North Range Business Park, near the intersection of Interstates 80 and 25 in Cheyenne, is a source of pride across Wyoming. But when you stop to think about it, the building that will house the yet-to-be-delivered supercomputer is just as marvelous as what it will contain.

The architects tasked with designing the building were creating not just a “computer garage” but a structure that could keep up with technology that hasn’t even been invented yet.

And, because computers like this and the buildings that house them are not commissioned every day, they had to blaze their own trail in designing it. In addition, another challenge was that the project had to achieve, at minimum, LEED Gold certification.

Ariel Madlambayan is a designer with H+L Architecture of Denver, the firm that designed the NCAR building.

“I don’t think there has been a project like this done in the U.S. in recent time, with this kind of capacity or with the goals that were set for energy efficiency and flexibility,” he said.

For a system as sophisticated as NCAR’s, great attention had to be paid to the infrastructure of the site.

Powering up

The average supercomputer uses as much power as a medium-sized city. This supercomputer will use about half of that, or the equivalent of 20,000 households, Madlambayan explained.

“Data centers are one of the biggest offenders of energy waste,” added Katie Dabbs, PR and marketing manager for H +L Architecture. “(This project) is making other data centers re-evaluate what they’re doing.”

“If you look at the square footage of the building, the majority of it is related to mechanical, electrical and cooling,” Madlambayan said. “The actual habited space is 17,680 square feet. We’re looking at 53,266 square feet of actual computer floor, and the remaining 100,036 square feet are devoted to electrical and mechanical. That’s not typical of any other kind of facility than a data center.”

Just as key as the amount of power is the reliability of that power. A supercomputer can’t ever lose power. So, the facility has to have not one reliable power source, but two separate power feeds so that if one grid goes down, the other takes over. In addition, supercomputers also have battery backup and generators on site.

“We go way beyond what some of the biggest hospitals do,” Madlambayan said.

Keeping it cool

For example, supercomputers generate a lot of heat, but need to stay cool. Wyoming’s cool, dry climate gave the designers a leg up – supplemental cooling should only be needed for about 300 hours a year – but that was only the beginning.

Aside from climate control for the building, supercomputers have an internal cooling system as well.

Because the exact nature of the new computer has not yet been determined, and the nature of any future additions equally unknown, the designers had to provide the works for both air- and water-cooled equipment. Having both systems available will allow the building to support multiple generations of supercomputers.

One of the innovations that was offered for the facility, but turned down by Wyoming regulators, was using the water line supplying the city of Cheyenne as a means to remove heat produced by the facility. The city of Toronto uses a similar system, wasting excess heat into a nearby lake through a closed-loop system.

“It would have raised the temperature of the water by a degree and a half, and would have saved the city money because they wouldn’t have to heat to water as high,” Madlambayan said. “But that system wasn’t viewed as fully tested. The state didn’t feel comfortable with it.”

The LEED advantage

Although the original plan was to shoot for LEED Platinum, the designers are happy with achieving LEED Gold.

“The facility has a PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) of 1.1, and the minimum requirement for PUE is 1.3, so we beat it by 0.2. That’s pretty energy efficient for a facility like this,” Madlambayan said.

The design also makes significant use of day lighting, which is not only less expensive in the long run, but also could enhance employee morale. All inhabited spaces have a view to daylight or actual daylight within the space.

An attempt was made to source all construction materials from within 500 miles, so the stone was quarried in Lyons, Colo., and the precast concrete was trucked in from Denver. All the interior finishes use as many recycled and sustainable products as possible.

Keeping it around

The $70 million facility is expected to have a lifespan of at least 50 years. There is room for expansion of the administration area, so that in 10 to 15 years, when Phase I reaches capacity, a twin facility will be built on the west side. Ultimately, the building will resemble a butterfly, with a small body (the administration area) and larger wings (twin computer facilities) on either side.

Expansion in the administration area is not expected.

“It’s a pretty automated facility,” Madlambayan said. “Users can log in remotely. People who are there are there to just monitor the performance of supercomputers.”

Nonetheless, Madlambayan said the design team wanted to create a nice environment to work in.

“The building is obviously a very simple design,” he added. “Because it was partially federally funded, we wanted to have a design that was responsible with the budget from an aesthetics viewpoint. (The facility has) a definite front door that they’re happy with. There is a lot of visual openness, which reinforces their idea of being open and transparent with the community. That part was successful as well.”

Wyoming Business Report Editor MJ Clark lives in Lander.

CHEYENNE – The NCAR supercomputer soon to occupy 24 acres in the North Range Business Park, near the intersection of Interstates 80 and 25 in Cheyenne, is a source of pride across Wyoming. But when you stop to think about it, the building that will house the yet-to-be-delivered supercomputer is just as marvelous as what it will contain.

The architects tasked with designing the building were creating not just a “computer garage” but a structure that could keep up with technology that hasn’t even been invented yet.

And, because computers like this and the buildings that house them…

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