Developer’s Diary: Working Productively With Safety Inspectors

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Chris Curtis is the co-founder and SVP of Development for Compass Datacenters. We are publishing a series of posts from Chris that will take you inside the byzantine world of data center development, shedding a pro’s light on the many aspects of the development process. See Day 4 for previous installment.

CHRIS CURTIS
Compass

In my last diary entry about our data center development project in the Southeastern United States, I talked about how to successfully navigate approvals with the local planning commission, which sets aesthetic guidelines for architecture within city limits. That was challenging, but it is nothing compared to the next step in the process: working out engineering and code compliance specifics with the Permitting and Inspection Commission (PIC).

Before I get too far into this part of the process, let me explain that PICs are just a little. . .different. Working with them is a completely opposite experience than getting approval from the planning commission, whose mission in life is to make sure you’re not about to build some unsightly monstrosity within the city limits. In contrast to planning commissions, which are focused on aesthetics, PICs are comprised of trained professionals who are focused on preserving life and property. If a planning commission makes a mistake the worst they’ll hear is, “How did that butt-ugly building get built here?” but the stakes are much higher for PICs, who would be at the center of the storm if a building they approved collapsed on someone’s pet Shih Tzu. Big difference.

Because no municipality wants to be responsible for the demise of a yappy lap dog named Mr. Poo, folks who are trained in things like construction and electrical design hold all the positions on PICs. This commission also has a secret weapon. Codes. Not namby-pamby guidelines that you can take as suggestions, but hard-and-fast “you will do this” codes. The average PIC wields these as often as your mother does guilt, with a potential fine added to your shame.

Endless Loop

Sometimes your data center site needs and the city’s codes and regulations just seem to keep passing each in an endless, surreal loop. What seems perfectly logical to you seems perfectly illogical to them. And what seems perfectly logical to them often seems counter-productive to anyone who runs data centers. This can lead to a lot of circular conversations with PICs, particularly if your project is located in a municipality that hasn’t had a lot of local data center projects in the past.

It’s important for both sides to remember that you speak different languages and come from different worlds. In their world, buildings are full of people who are working, living or playing, and safety is goal #1, #2 and #3 on their priority list. In our world, data center buildings are full of machines and uptime is #1-50 on our priority list. I’m exaggerating, of course. People safety is just as important, but my point is that we live in a world with machine-centric facilities and that is completely foreign to folks who are typically reviewing plans for homes, motels, office buildings and restaurants.

Different World View

In the case of our project, the initial comments provided by the PIC came from the fire department and they were a little more extensive than having to add a hydrant out front so local dog walkers had a place for their pets to stake out their turf.

The first issue was how we were going to bring the water for the fire suppression system into the facility. Initially, we found ourselves at loggerheads. However, since we were asking for their permission to build the data center we obviously found ourselves in a negotiating position that can be politely described as disadvantaged. Fortunately, through the creative efforts of our engineers we were able to develop a solution that satisfied the PIC while adhering to standard data center requirements. Desperation is a powerful muse. I think Shakespeare said that, or the bartender at a Hilton I stayed at once. Either way I think we can all agree on the profundity of the statement.

The second issue we needed to address was the operation of the doors within the site. In the event of a power failure, data center customers want to “seal off” the raised floor by having its access doors automatically lock allowing no one to enter the computing sanctuary. This is called “fail secure.” The fire department prefers a mode referred to as “fail safe” that ensures that all doors remain open. Once again a clear difference of performance standards had arisen since data center users want the facility to continue to operate no matter what, and the fire department prefers that its occupants not turn into charcoal briquettes – no matter what.

Resolving this situation necessitated that we prove to the commission that the possibility of a power failure was as likely as Oprah fitting into a pair of skinny jeans. To do so required us to provide extensive documentation on our 2N architecture, our generator operation and the amount of back-up fuel we planned to keep on site supplemented with just the right amount of groveling. Their subsequent agreement proves once again that development is as much art as science.

Next Week: I face the commission for approval to build

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