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« parts & labor: building a green data center »

Winter/Spring 2007
by Nathan

Lately there has been a lot of buzz in green building, and we wondered whether or not one might consider the same products applied towards a technology scenario.

To put it plainly: toxic building materials are a bad deal. In addition to the impact imposed upon the installer, choice in building materials should be made considering the enduring affect the end-result will have on anyone who comes into contact with the structure during its lifetime.

Our goal with this project is to try and build a "greener" network operation center.

not a typical data center

One should note that our goal in this project is not to build a typical large-scale data center. For example, our initial implementation does not include a raised floor system, or feature rails along the ceiling.

This is a small server room, utilizing available space on a slab foundation which was previously used for storage. The end-result provides a reasonable environment for servers and other network devices in rackmount enclosures.

By sharing our experience, we hope to inspire others in their own green construction projects - even if unconventional compared with the entrenched methods of the marketplace.

what did we achieve?

The human health implications of going green are clear. There are many good reasons for one to only want low or no-toxic substances in their living and working environment.

But what about a server farm? After all, except for a few moments each day and the odd hour or two work session, the room is typically not inhabited by anyone.

There are a number of factors to consider, but here are a few which were key to our decision making process:

costs related to the manufacture of a product- the resources required, whether or not the required resources are sustainably acquired, the ecological impact.
costs related to transporting the product- the ecological impact of fuel and management of process.
human health
costs related to individuals- do the workers who manufacture the product receive fair labor opportunities, are they able to live in health and happiness?
costs related to community impact- does the nature of this product impose a larger cost in the end, are their long-term health and psychological affects?

parts list

In essence, we are building an air-conditioned utility room. The required parts and materials are quite common:

key green building references

Planning a project of this nature would have required a longer time investment if not for all of the effort performed before us by some great folks both locally and around the web.

We found ourselves continually returning to the Green Builder Sustainable Sources Directory to investigate what options are available when planning the construction project. Although some of the listed sources are out-of-date, the text itself is quite valuable.

In Austin we are lucky to have an entire team of folks whose job is to think green. The Austin Green Building Program conducts all sorts of nifty programs and educational workshops.

Thanks to our local eco-supply house EcoWise, we were able to source some of the more progressive products like recycled cotton insulation and less toxic paint right here in town. How cool is that?

considerations: sourcing the parts

sustainably-produced lumber

Wall studs were needed to frame the room, and we did not want them to come from an old-growth forest.

We were unable to locate our first choice (FSC-certified lumber) in time for the project, but after consulting advisors at the City of Austin's Green Builder program we went with the next best option, from a sustainability perspective.

By locating the closest source of a fast-growing soft wood like Yellow Pine which is produced in Texas, we reduce the costs associated with transportation from suppliers who operate much further away.

fsc trim board

We were able to find trim board and FSC-certified wood shims at the local Home Depot. You have to search a bit, and the logo is quite small — but FSC-certified wood can be found if you look hard enough.

recycled wall board

We wanted to isolate our server environment from its neighbors as much as possible, both in terms of acoutics and thermal behavior. The key properties which we were interested were the wallboard's fire-rating, its ability to be sealed effectively with paint (less dust), and reasonably economical and well-suited to the environment where our room is located.

In the end it seemed there is not currently a reasonable replacement for drywall for basic construction scenarios. One can source recycled gypsum board from most suppliers, though as a by-product of coal industry we have mixed feeling about it.

What about all the drywall which finds its way to the dump when homes and offices are remodeled? Could we not recycle this stuff instead and drop the coal process altogether?

If anyone has any thoughts on this aspect of the project, we'd love to hear from you.

recycled cotton-denim insulation

This is one of my favorites: the processing of cotton denim into fabric for clothing results in leftover waste. The leftover bits & pieces of cotton fibers is then recyled into high quality home insulation.

Not only is this stuff non-toxic and friendly to touch unlike its fiberglass cousin, but it is superior in its effectiveness in absorbing acoustical noise. Nifty, huh?

After researching the differences, and also learning about the nasty toxicity represented in fiberglass insulation, using only recycled cotton insulation for our project was a no-brainer.

As this stuff is manufactured here in Texas, we also are able to remove much of transportation costs. InsulCot is well worth checking out, and one of the more innovative products we discovered during our initial foray into green building.

non-static all-natural linoleum tile

We were looking for a less-toxic alternative to vinyl linoleum tile, and were lucky enough to find adequate supply in town to suit our needs. The tile we used is Marmoleum manufactured by Forbo.

Our project did not require a large number of tiles, and we located a few boxes from a local supplier who had some extras from a prior job. Brand new - makes perfect sense, from a sustainability perspective, with no further travel expense.

The color? Green (what else?).

observations: what did we learn for next time?

sourcing FSC-certified lumber

Although it is possible to order a large volume for new construction, we found it difficult to locate a local supplier with stock for small project needs.

Given a reasonable lead-time, the kind folks over at Austin Lumber (512-476-5534) say they will go out of their way to try and find FSC-certified lumber for any size project. We'll definitely try to go through them next time.

so far, so good...

Otherwise and so far, our building operation appears a success! As we move forward in our operation we expect to discover further areas for refinement. Look for additional updates from us over time as we further imrove the efficacy of our Green-NOC.

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