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Adaptive Reuse: DATA CENTERS AND THE FUTURE OF REAL ESTATE

7x24 Exchange 2021 Fall Magazine | Adaptive Reuse: Data Centers and the Future of Real Estate

By Rich Keagy, PE, LEED

The Google Data Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, features more than 115,000 square feet of space. (Image provided courtesy of Google)
The Google Data Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, features more than 115,000 square feet of space. (Image provided courtesy of Google)

Vacant office, retail and other commercial real estate properties are increasing in the wake of temporary and permanent business closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As once bustling facilities are shuttered and more people work from home, adaptive reuse opportunities are surfacing to meet the increasing demand for at least one type of property—data centers.

As business owners assess post pandemic needs, future occupancy rates fluctuate for their retail establishments, industrial sites and office spaces. Consider that office vacancy rates in the U.S. remained high, above 18%, in the first quarter of 2021, and vacancy rates for retail space also increased slightly during that time, according to the Associated Press. Citing Moody’s Analytics, the AP reported that vacancy rates for retail properties are expected to climb to 11% or 12%, due in part to last year’s near doubling of online retail purchases.

Data center developers must take into account power and water resources when evaluating sites. This aerial view shows the wind turbines near the Google Data Center in Eemshaven, Netherlands. (Image provided courtesy of Google)
Data center developers must take into account power and water resources when evaluating sites. This aerial view shows the wind turbines near the Google Data Center in Eemshaven, Netherlands. (Image provided courtesy of Google)

Those trends are coupled with an increasing business demand for high-speed computing and data cloud storage and the shift of many daily activities to an online environment. As the amount of data increases exponentially year-to-year, so too does the need for robust data centers that can securely manage many zettabytes of data, and investors are taking note. Market Watch reported in July 2021 that the data center construction market is expected to balloon from $18.6 billion in 2018 to $30 billion by 2024.

ADAPTIVE REUSE
The phrase “adaptive reuse” was coined to describe a plan to convert abandoned properties to boost the economy and prop up business activities in local communities. As the demand for data centers and mission-critical buildings explodes, developers are finding clever ways to adapt existing structures into data centers.

These colorful pipes are responsible for carrying water into and out of the Google Data Center in Dalles, Ore. The blue pipes supply cold water and the red pipes return the warm water back to the chiller. (Image provided courtesy of Google)
These colorful pipes are responsible for carrying water into and out of the Google Data Center in Dalles, Ore. The blue pipes supply cold water and the red pipes return the warm water back to the chiller.(Image provided courtesy of Google)

Adaptive reuse is prevalent in commercial and residential real estate as well as in the data center sector. Concepts surrounding adaptive reuse specifically related to data center spaces are driven by the market, in which geography plays a role relative to the end user and the desired scale of a proposed facility. What makes good candidate sites versus what doesn’t can be deciding factors for owners and investors considering adapting sites for reuse as data centers.

Data centers have become larger and more prevalent within different markets, and investors have targeted the most ideal locations in and around large urban areas where high-volume energy, water and communications infrastructure is readily available. The top U.S. markets for data center development include northern Virginia, parts of California, Atlanta, New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Phoenix, according to CBRE. Building additional data centers in those areas is complicated by limited power generation, connectivity and water availability.

This aerial image shows the solar field at the Google Data Center in St. Ghislain, Belgium. (Image provided courtesy of Google)
This aerial image shows the solar field at the Google Data Center in St. Ghislain, Belgium. (Image provided courtesy of Google)
UNDERSTANDING THE FOOTPRINT
The key to developing a data center through adaptive reuse is understanding the potential facility’s regional footprint. When looking to retrofit an office building or warehouse-type structure, owners must be flexible about design options. Warehouses tend to be more amenable to data center retrofits, while office buildings generally present space and security challenges. Ideal buildings to transform into data centers feature clear heights to help disperse the heat generated from computing hardware.

If developers can focus on expectations and understand what their IT kit is going to look like, they can take advantage of some well-located properties. A developer should be looking at a range of densities to cover a variety of customers. Facilities that feature densities of 100 kilowatts to 150 watts per square foot can still be effective at supporting large data, provided the flooring is structurally sufficient to support the equipment. Determining core technical requirements opens new potential sites and creates many possibilities in the adaptive reuse market.

Rich Keagy, PE, LEED is a Senior Associate and Practice Leader at Woolpert. He can be reached at Rich.Keagy@Woolpert.com.

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